Living a Dortmunderian life, I’ve struggled to get back to my Dortmunderian blogging. It’s not that I have nothing to write about, I just struggle for the time and concentration to get the work done. So many distractions from what was once my most pleasurable distraction from the quotidian exigencies of daily existence (I mentioned my life was Dortmunderian, did I not?)
It used to be very hard to watch Barney Miller in syndication With the advent of old people cable channels selling dubious life insurance policies, reverse mortgages, and of course pillows made by crazy men, what’s left of us Boomers can revisit all kinds of blurry childhood memories–but because I live in Gotham itself, I can actually watch my favorite sitcom cops on WPIX. (WPIX still exists! I passed their midtown offices just the other day!) The picture quality is a little better, and the commercials a mite less depressing.
For a while there, Herself (also a fan) and myself were binge-watching; lately it’s more hit or miss. But some weeks back, I recorded an ep I had no past recollection of, and at some point I realized I was in the presence of a subtextual Westlake homage.
The Brother is just a run-of-the-mill ep where various oddball personages descend upon the 12th to perplex the good officers with their varied quirks and conundrums, always with Barney in the background, dispensing wry homespun wisdom like a Solomon come to judgment, but without threatening to bisect any babies. (I presume that would be illegal now.)
Only one of the plot threads need concern us–Brother Thomas Kelvin, a stern-faced older man dressed in clerical garb files a missing person report with Wojciehowicz (I shamefully admit I copy/pasted the name from Wikipedia). A novitiate has gone missing from their hotel, just before they were going to catch a train upstate.
The good brother (Not a priest! Don’t call him Father! He hates that!) hails from a monastery in the Adirondacks–the order of St. Dismas. He is not asked to to explain who St. Dismas is, which I suppose is reasonable enough, since it doesn’t in any way impact the case–except wouldn’t Dietrich tell everyone anyway?
You’d expect a brief hagiography lecture from the 12th’s resident know-it-all, but Dietrich is sadly distracted in this episode by learning to his deep distress (I can’t offhand think of an ep where he looked sad for such a protracted period) that he can’t credibly pose as a woman to entrap would-be muggers. Just shortly before this, he was happily asking a befuddled Barney which silk scarf would go better with his new ensemble. Scarlet or wheat?
(And there’s a subplot involving Inspector Luger feeling lonely and bending Barney’s ear about it, but that’s basically every ep, right?)
Turns out, finding himself amidst the infamous fleshpots of Gotham, the young man experienced a sort of secondary vocation, centered around getting laid prior to renouncing worldly pleasures. He had encountered one of the many good-natured and appealingly blowsy young courtesans that one finds in many a Barney Miller episode (and so rarely in real life, which as we all know is greatly overrated).
They were just about to commence with the deflowering when the authorities rudely interrupted. The working girl even imputes she might not have charged for her services, which is really twisting the knife. Wojo, ever sympathetic to the mating urge, slyly arranges for the novitiate to proceed with his initiation, while Brother Kelvin and the others head north. We never learn which vocation won out in the end, but he had a nice vacation either way.
Decent enough outing, for the late run of this show. They had lost a few too many key cast members by this point. (I like Levitt, who doesn’t, but his height insecurity and desire to ditch the uniform for plainclothes were no substitute for Fish’s endless kvetching, or Nick’s horrible coffee.)
Leaving that completely irrelevant fan-bitching aside–what makes me so sure this is a Westlake homage? Good Behavior, which prominently mentions the penitent of the two crucified thieves, was published in 1985. This episode was aired in October of 1979. How do we know Westlake wasn’t homaging Barney? Seems a fair bet he watched when he had the time.
Ah, but that was the second instance of Westlake namechecking the light-fingered saint. The first was in Brothers Keepers, published in 1975, and reviewed by the Times in May of that year. Meaning that the TV scribes had at least three years to get around to it, and get just a teensy bit light-fingered themselves. (Not that the storylines match up terribly well, and if they had, no doubt the legal department would have insisted on a different saint).
And as you all should know, Brothers Keepers involves a young Catholic brother who himself takes a sexy sabbatical with a beautiful young woman, though she’s not a pro, and they’re in Puerto Rico, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as a dispensation. I’ll check with my confessor later.
But more to the point, one of the denizens of the equally fictive Crispinite order in that novel used to be a criminal himself, briefly belonged to an order of felonious monks (Westlake hated giving up that jazz-based pun that was going to be his title, but found he respected his monks too much to make them into crooks, even of the comic variety). They chose St. Dismas as their patron, and according to Brother Silas, this monastery was nothing more than a heinous hideout created by ex-cons to go on being the same irreformable reprobates they were before.
So there is my case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury–but being an honest prosecutor (I’m sure there must be some), I must mention one piece of evidence that might argue for an alternate explanation. There is in fact a Church of St. Dismas in upstate New York, if not a monastery. And if you’d believe it, it’s in none other than the picturesque hamlet of Dannemora. Westlake country par excellence. And the setting of yet another of his Nephew books, that was published in 1974. (But seriously, whoever named that church had a Westlakeian sense of humor, so I think my case still holds water).
One more observation I must relate, though–see, the writers had to find a way to justify the 12th going to look for the missing monk trainee. He hasn’t been gone anywhere near 48 hours. Brother Kelvin, determined to get his inductee back, insists he may have been abducted by deprogrammers, anti-cultists–there were some suspicious characters hanging out in the hotel lobby. Wojo says “But you’re the Catholic Church.” Kelvin says that to some people they’re just the nuts on the hill. The parents may have objected to their son’s vocation. It’s enough to keep the story moving. If you don’t think about it too much–never a good idea, even if you’re watching the best sitcom ever, which Barney Miller very nearly is.
But you know how Westlake was–always scavenging ideas he felt hadn’t been given a good enough shake. Suppose somebody had a sincere vocation, joined a religious order–maybe a convent this time–and suppose her father was a rich bastard who objected to this, had her kidnapped, hired a deprogrammer specializing in cultists to talk her out of it? And as it turns out, the Brothers of St. Dismas, while not committed to a strict vow of silence, minimize vocal communication as much as possible when at the monastery (this perhaps explains why Brother Kelvin never stops gabbing for most of the episode, but has little aptitude for pleasant conversation). Probably they write notes instead.
It’s just a thought. I still have them, sometimes. I have some more, about a mystery writer I just recently discovered, who has openly confessed his debt to Westlake–most specifically, to Richard Stark. He’s published three crime novels thus far. I’ve read them all. Also something with a ridiculous number of swords in it. We won’t dwell on that one much.
There see? I can still write. If you want to call it that. Let me limber up a bit more, and maybe I can get up to speed again. In the meantime, you can easily watch The Brother on Video Dailymotion, if you want to form your own opinion of its provenance. But man, if you thought the old people cable channel ads were depressing………
(Disclaimer: Turns out disclaimers aren’t legally required, and who would ever believe I could come up with characters this good? Not for nothing, but I’ve yet to shoehorn a single Mary Sue into this thing. If I ever did, her name would be Mary Fred, and that’s been done.)
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot;
Or garden tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights, explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.
From Essay on Man, Epistle I, by Alexander Pope.
MUCH AS DORTMUNDER HAD ALWAYS AND WOULD ALWAYS LOVE NEW YORK, his devotion was not of the sightless kind. He knew very well the bellicose burg he had chosen as his lifelong abode must test the constancy of her myriad suitors, by periodically attempting to kill them. If you can’t put up with the odd attempt on your life, her reasoning ran, maybe city life isn’t for you. For Dortmunder there was only the one city, so he learned to duck early and often.
Multifarous are Manhattan’s murderous methods, and it was a chore keeping up with them all. Dortmunder read the papers, knew there was some new kind of flu bug or whatever going around, but since the primary means of avoiding it was staying far as you could from the madding crowd (which he did as a matter of course) he figured it wouldn’t be a problem.
He did note with professional interest the normalization of wearing masks in public, but was skeptical of their efficacy. Cops could probably still recognize you from just the top of your face. He was looking for something with more coverage. And then something found him.
Sitting at the dinner table one evening, looking down with satisfaction at a steaming portion of May’s famed tuna casserole, he leaned down to savor a prefatory whiff–and whiffed again. The anticipated aroma was not detected. He forked some into his mouth–not only had the salt lost its flavor, but all the other ingredients as well. Come to think of it, he wasn’t hungry, though he’d skipped lunch to knock over a jewelry store (conveniently closed for the duration).
He asked May if she’d left anything out of the casserole–tuna, perhaps–she gave him a narrow look. Out came the thermometer (oral, thankfully). Into her eyes came something he didn’t often see there. And upon him dawned the realization he’d ducked one time too few.
Dortmunder’s profession had its perks, but health insurance didn’t number among them. No doctors, no hospitals. May vetoed any notion of his finding another place to stay. Not like she could go work at the supermarket now, anyway. She did lay in a large supply of necessities, prior to announcing her leave of absence–even paid for some of them. They had shared everything else, after all. He tried to object, but was already too weak to put up much of a fight.
Her symptoms, when they came, were mild. Dortmunder’s, predictably, were not.
The thing he most objected to was breathing, something you tend to take for granted, until you realize you shouldn’t have done that. Not since that wretched reservoir in Putkin’s Corners had he felt so in danger of going down for the last time, but this time he was drowning on dry land, which was somehow worse, though not so muddy.
Just as May told Dortmunder she was going to call 911 whether he liked it or not, in waltzed Kelp, his arms loaded with boodle from a medical supplies warehouse, including this boxy gizmo. (Kelp and his goddam gizmos). He said it was a Nebulatizer, Nebu-louser, something like that. (It was all pretty nebulous for Dortmunder by that point).
Kelp showed May how to hook it up, told her to stay out of the bedroom when it was on, so she wouldn’t be further beladen with bug. Dortmunder just had to wear this mask thing (bit late now, wouldn’t you say?) and respire. Oxygenation got easier. Kelp’s gizmo had worked. Just one more thing for Dortmunder to feel sore about. But he had pills for that.
In one moment of near-delirium, the Nebu-louser droning away in the background, he thought he saw God again, bald and bespectacled, leaning over him with a look of what might have been concern, but was probably more like annoyance. “Sorry, John. No early parole for you. You still have time to serve.” Well didn’t that just figure?
Finally well enough to watch TV in the living room, he saw President Fairbanks, telling the entire planet this was no big deal, minor hiccup, definitely not his fault (no one had asked him if it was). Just go about your business, it’ll all be fine, if you catch it spread it around, herd insanity. You can wear a mask if you like, but they’re so out of fashion. He spoke as if he was literally The Boss of Everybody, and had caught them all lallygagging at the water cooler–back to work, layabouts! Then he went golfing.
Dortmunder was good with getting back to work. Sooner the better. He began to feel stronger. Unresolved vengeance issues had that effect on him.
So he started making calls. On the landline. Touchingly archaic as that might be. (He’d have used a payphone, but forget that now–if they weren’t already gone, the powers that be would have probably ripped them up to avoid further spread). A meet at the OJ was clearly called for, but as Rollo dolefully informed him, that wasn’t an option for the near future.
Then Kelp proposed this video chat thingy, which Dortmunder begged Kelp not to tell him about, but Kelp went blithely on regardless, until Dortmunder conceded the point, just to stop the explication. Equipment was installed, by Kelp, at no charge naturally (if Dortmunder had only realized Kelp would have paid him for the sheer delight of bringing the cyber domain into Dortmunder’s, at long last–ah, what a tangled web we weave….).
An (appropriately) illegal connection to some unfortunate neighbor’s WiFi was devised with Wally Knurr’s assistance. They assured Dortmunder that measures had been taken to prevent their private communications from becoming public. Dortmunder didn’t believe one word of it, but if this was the only way to move the Fairbanks Agenda forward, he was willing to pretend he did.
So when the meet began, he was there, however grudgingly, a laptop atop his lap (if you’re not supposed to put them there, why are they called that?), and he had witnessed the distracted proceedings with the firm and unastonished conviction that this was even worse than all the previous communications advances Kelp had stubbornly insisted on informing him of. He endeavored to say this, only to find himself unable to join in the audiovisual melee, until something Wally did loosed the digital logjam, and now it was his turn to expound at some length.
“What are any of you talking about? How are we ever going to get the the point of anything, if you keep dancing around it? Stan is jacking a car, Tiny is making everyone wear a mask, Herman is leading another revolution, Wally is still waiting for Myrtle, and that’s all dandy, but Quid lucrum istic mihi est, you know? The issue at hand is how do we take down Fairbanks while making bank? We did it before, we can do it again. Am I right?”
A long embarasssed silence.
Kelp spoke in the low humble tones he used when Dortmunder required placating. “John, we were just waiting on you. It’s a new thing, this video-meet, we needed some practice anyway. And we always used to socialize a bit at the OJ before getting down to business.”
“Okay, so the greet part of the meet is now concluded. Unless there’s somebody else who hasn’t gotten to tell us what he did on his vacation?” Dortmunder knew he’d regret those words the moment they left his mouth, but it being impossible to recall them, he waited fatalistically, and not long.
“Um, guys, it’s me. Victor.” Said Victor. Kelp’s Nephew. Who worked for the FBI. Hard to be confused about that, since they could all see him clearly on their screens. Based on the official-looking photograph of President Fairbanks visible on the wall behind him, he was sitting at his desk, at the Bureau, as he spoke. Either that or he was a fan.
“Why is there a Fed at our meet?” Rumbled Tiny, who reached up to make sure his mask was still on tight.
“Victor, I said I’d fill you in later.” Mumbled Kelp, who was starting to see the flaws in this mode of communication.
“You said what!?” Exclaimed Herman, who remembered Victor very well and not fondly from a previous job that had not gone well, but Victor hadn’t been an active-duty cop at the time.
“Victor, you know, I was only kidding about this car being stolen.” Explained Murch, now parked at Maximilian’s Used Cars, conveniently near the city line, not that it mattered if this was going to be a Federal rap. Maybe as long as he didn’t drive it over a state line?
“You’re Victor? I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’ve heard great things!” Enthused Wally Knurr, who knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.
“Victor, it’s fine. You can join in. Why the hell not?” Philosophized Dortmunder, who wondered idly to himself what else could go wrong, but didn’t ask that question out loud, because you really do need to learn from your mistakes.
“I shouldn’t be here, I know, but–”
“How are you here?” Inquired Kelp, with a befuddled look. “I didn’t give you the number to call.”
“You gave me your PMI, Uncle Andy–for that one-on-one conference we had the other day. You mentioned what time you were holding it. Not hard at all–it’s just that I needed to reach you right away, and….”
(As Victor went on, Dortmunder thought nostalgically of the days he would have been stupid enough to ask what ‘PMI’ stood for. Pure Mad Idiocy?)
“Listen, you guys don’t have to worry.” Reassured Victor, with a worried look on his face. “The Bureau isn’t going to find out about any of this. That’s really what I needed you to know. My office is terminating its involvement. Budget cuts. And there’s too few people left here who can be trusted to keep quiet.”
“And this is why you’re talking to us from your office?” Interjected somebody. (It doesn’t matter who, since they were all thinking it).
“I’m supposed to be on desk duty today. I don’t have good enough internet at home, anyhow.” Excused Victor, threadbarely.
“Victor, I’d be happy to help you out with that.” Volunteered Wally, always eager to make a new connection, both digital and personal.
“Hey, would you?” Importuned Victor, whose nerdishness was of a different order than Wally’s. “I keep meaning to upgrade my personal equipment, it’s just that I was never very good at that kind of—”
“ENOUGH!!!!!” Concluded Dortmunder. “We are here to discuss a job. Victor, are you in or out? You can do it off the books if you like.
Victor wrestled with his conscience, but that was never a lengthy match–early filler, well before the Main Event, which would presumably involve The Undertaker. “Sure, I’d love to. I can take a leave of absence. There have been hints about that from upstairs, anyway.”
“Good to have you aboard. Now if there’s nothing else, we can–what’s that?”
Looking down at the laptop screen, Dortmunder had suddenly discerned what appeared to be text messages (Kelp had also insisted on telling him about those) flashing across the bottom of it. Disconcertingly, it appeared to be a free-ranging discussion of their discussion, with numerous asides. A sort of virtual peanut gallery. Perhaps with actual peanuts. Maybe a few beers. The style of discourse seemed oddly familar…….
Dortmundweiser is giving ’em hell!
That ain’t his name, it’s Dortmiller.
I thought it was Coorsmunder?
I hear he had Covid-19.
How did we miss the other 18, is what I want to know.
I think it was in beta before now.
Is there a VHS version?
What do they have against Fairbanks? He made America great again!
Grate again, maybe.
I don’t see how he can be President. Isn’t he from Alaska?
You’re thinking of Gnomes. Gnomes are from Alaska. That’s why they always wear those hats.
Alaska is America, moron!
You have to drive across Canada to reach it. That means you need a passport to get there. Therefore, not America. QDE!
What’s QDE mean?
Quite Definitely Explained. It’s Latin.
No lousy Brazilian can tell me what’s America or not!
Don’t Brazilians speak Brazilese?
Only at home. So the children don’t forget their mother tongue.
Nobody got an earful from my ma ever forgot her tongue, I’m tellin’ ya.
This isn’t happening, Dortmunder thought to himself. I’m still delirious, hooked up to the Nebu-louser, and maybe they put the wrong meds in this time. Or May really did send me to the hospital, and I’m being ventilated. Or I’m dead, and this is Hell. That would explain why God showed up.
Unable to persuade himself of these happier alternatives, Dortmunder was forced to conclude that these were in fact the OJ Bar and Grill regulars. Watching their meet. Online. Commenting on it. Possibly tweeting about it. Yes, he knew about that now as well. Damn Kelp anyway. Not that this explained anything. The OJ was closed. That’s why they were doing this, right? There had to be some reason.
“Rollo? Are you here? Everybody else is. Olly olly oxen free.” Dortmunder waited patiently, and in a sconce, the balding bluejawed bartender himself appeared on everyone’s screen, wearing an apologetic look under his face mask (which had the letters ‘OJ’ stenciled upon it, along with the image of a brimming beer mug. If you care.)
“The other bourbon shared his PMI thing with me too. I figured I’d be the bug on the wall. Gets boring here.”
“Imagine my surprise,” Dortmunder said drily. “Did he ask you to cater the event?”
(Kelp was being very quiet now.)
“Nah, just wanted to gab. Said he missed the place. I forgot to tell him we’re doing takeout now. Anyway, some of the guys were picking up eats when we were chatting, I guess one of them recognized him, took a pic of the PMI thing with his phone from where I wrote it down, shared it with the others. They’ve stayed in touch, you know–online–keep the home fires burning and all. Thing is, they were always curious what you guys were doing in the back room. They used to talk about eavesdropping, but they were too scared of the Vodka and Red Wine.”
“If they think they’re scared now–” Tiny didn’t finish his thought. The text messages had abruptly ceased appearing. One could imagine the regulars now discussing the price of a one way ticket to Brazil. And how hard could it be to learn Latin? It’s a lingua franca.
“Yeah, it’s working out better than I thought. Nobody can go to the bar, so everybody wants to order from the bar. Next best thing to being there. Worked it out with Otto in Florida. You wouldn’t believe what we get away with charging, it’s–”
“So people are allowed inside now.” Dortmunder persisted.
“We talked about curbside pick-up, but some of the regulars kept saying that meant they had to be standing out in the street, and the others said they didn’t feel like buying a car, so–”
“So you can let us use the back room now.” Dortmunder stated.
“I’m not sure that’s legal.” Rollo objected.
“So when has this been an issue?” Dortmunder riposted.
“I know, but–” Rollo wavered.
“So no food. No drinks. We’ll mask. And distance.” Dortmunder insisted. More distance the better, he was thinking, but you can’t do a job like this without a string, more’s the pity.
“Yeah, okay.” Rollo relented. “We close 7pm now. Come in around then, and I’ll pretend your orders are delayed until everybody else is gone. What day do you want to do it?”
“Why don’t we discuss that over the phone?” Dortmunder switched off the laptop, placed it in a nearby wastebasket, and went to heat up some tuna casserole.
(Disclaimer–I really thought I was done with this travesty, but seems like it’s not done with me yet. Or at least something isn’t. All these august personages belong to the Westlake Estate, wherever it be, yet somehow they belong to all humankind, a most ingenious paradox indeed. Perhaps this will shake me from my torpor. Or deeper into it. One way to find out…..come on and Zoom Zoom Zoom a Zoom…..)
IN A DARKENED ROOM, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK, a digital screen flickered to life–emblazoned upon it was the narrow-nosed visage of Andrew Kelp, looking even more pleased with himself than usual. He spoke as though he addressed the multitude, having just supplied it with loaves and fishes, presumably not half-baked or raw.
“Hey guys! Can you all see me? It’s time we started the meet. Since we’ve never done this before, I’m gonna call the roll, make sure we’re up to speed. Remember to keep your mikes turned off until it’s your turn to speak. John? You there?”
Nothing happened. Kelp waited as long as courtesy required, then changed tack–“Okay, John will be with us soon, I’m sure. Stan?”
As though invoked through arcane incantations, there appeared the cheerful face of Stan Murch. His hands were gripping a steering wheel, and his eyes were switching back and forth, as if his attention was divided. A light hum that could be interpreted as a running engine was audible in the background. Kelp, his face taking up half of the now-split screen, asked the logical follow-up.
“Stan, are you driving now?”
“Just nicked this brand-new Enorma with superfast connectivity and a high-def display. I’m on the way to Max’s. If I get there before the meeting’s over, I can idle in the parking lot before going in. I may watch an online movie release before I hand over the keys. This screen is huge! I think there’s a popcorn machine in here somewhere.”
Now returned to full screen status, with a dubious expression, Andy tried to regain control of the online colloquy. “Stan, I don’t know as you should be working the same time you’re attending our meet. We have important planning to do here, right John?”
The screen buzzed and fizzled a moment, as if someone was trying to contribute something, but hadn’t quite figured out how, what, or possibly why. Then silence once more.
“John, we’ll come back to you in a jiff. Maybe ask May to help you out there. So Stan, I respect your enterprise and all, but I think you should chime in once you’re parked somewhere. You wouldn’t want to have an accident and the cops show up. They are not in a good mood lately. By the way–does it have MD plates?”
“Yep! Vanity plate says “I Doctor” so opthalmologist, I guess–I see what you mean, Andy–super comfortable. I may steal one of these every time we have a meeting.”
“I’m happy you found a nice score, but I still think…..”
“I can multi-task here, no problem at all–better than a home office. And you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get around now. Nobody on the roads! Every creampuff in the city just sitting there waiting for me! This eye doc won’t notice his ride is gone for weeks, and I can make it across town faster than you could walk to the corner store and back. I won’t even tell you what route I’m taking, because it doesn’t matter anymore! Clear sailing everywhere! It’s The Golden Age of New York Driving. I’m blessed to have lived to see it.”
Stan’s eyes grew misty, contemplating the limitless vistas of near-empty asphalt ahead, like a movie cowpoke surveying the open prairie from his trusty cayuse, while yodeling softly to himself. Fenced in no longer under starry skies above.
“Great, but just to be safe, turn off your mike until you’re parked, and focus on the road. You are present, let’s move on. Tiny?”
The monitor flickered once more, and a head roughly the size and shape of a now-defunct rock formation that once served as a pretext for tourism in New Hampshire, loomed across it, albeit incompletely. Only Cinerama could have encompassed both the face and the ominous black mask covering much of it. Zorro crossed with Pantagruel, only without a trace of rakish good humor.
A voice sounding much like the ill-fated rockslide that put an end to the Old Man (Not to worry, New Hampshire, you still have autumn foliage and maple syrup–although those are under siege as well) rumbled through, muffled somewhat by the mask. “Why am I seeing your nude face, Kelp? Do I have to chastise you as well?”
“Tiny, you don’t mask at a video chat. That’s the point of a video chat. Nobody catches anything from anybody. That’s why I went to the trouble of setting this up.” Kelp looked more hurt than intimidated, though he was both.
Even behind the dark mask, Tiny’s darkening scowl was made manifest.
“You think I’m scared of your germs, Kelp? They wouldn’t last two minutes in here. It’s a matter of principle. If I have to wear one, so does everyone else. It’s just good manners. I’m out walking yesterday, Upper West, this guy goes right past me, inches away, mask hanging down around his neck, gabbing away on his phone, his droplets spewing all over.” Tiny’s voice dropped dramatically–“You want to guess where that phone is now, Kelp?”
“I get it, Tiny.” Andy’s tone was notably meeker, but he still had a rebuttal. “Obviously he should have been wearing it out there on the street, but we’re not on–”
“Oh that reminds me, this other guy, at the OJ, who was ahead of me to pick-up takeout–”
“–The OJ is doing takeout?–”
“Are you interrupting me now, Kelp? Like I was saying, he was there ahead of me, chatting up this broad ahead of him, and he had no mask on at all, not even around his skinny neck. I asked him, very courteous-like, to please get it out, and he says he forgot it, big deal, what business was it of mine anyhow, we should let the virus run free, survival of the fittest, and then we’ll all have horde inanity, something like that.”
“I have a hard time imagining anyone saying that to you, Tiny.”
“He was caught up in the dame, who I will say was cute, even behind her mask, so he didn’t look back to see whom he was talking back to.”
“You get the picture.” Tiny allowed a pregnant pause, before continuing. “So the long short of it is, I found a way to solve his problem. You’ve heard of the wedgie, right? Regular and atomic?”
“That’s right,” Tiny concluded, with grim satisfaction. “Even though he didn’t think he had a mask, he did anyway. Lucky for him he wasn’t going commando. The skirt looked relieved he’d stopped chatting her up. Pretty sure I saw her wink at me.”
Kelp had been fumbling around for something, and all of a sudden there was a camo-patterned mask on his face–the type with valves on it. Made him look like something out of an old war movie, with gas, barbed-wire, trenches, etc.
The masked marauder was not propitiated. “You know those valve things only protect you, right Kelp? I think that may be ruder than not wearing one at all…..”
“I did not know that, Tiny. This was a freebie from MyUncle, after I dropped off some flatscreens there. I’ll get one without valves. ASAP. As soon as the meet is over. We good?”
A noncommittal grunt being his only response, Andy felt at liberty to unmask and proceed. “Herman? How’s tricks?”
There then appeared the suave sentient silhoutte of Herman X (he had brought back the ‘X’ due to popular demand), their lockman on the job they were perhaps someday going to get around to discussing. “Yo, Andy. Been a while.”
“You look good, Herman. We appreciate you coming in on this–it kind of links up to your other thing, anyway.”
“Oh, you might say that, Andy.” In what might be considered an implicit pun, Herman had dropped into an exaggerated Amos&Andy drawl only he could have gotten away with at the present time. “Massa Fairbanks and me, we just don’t see eye to eye, sho-nuff.” (He smiled in a way that would have made the erstwhile progenitors of Amos&Andy look for the nearest available exit, hoping their feet would not fail them now.)
“How’s all that going, anyway? You’re with that BLT gang, or whatever?”
“Close enough. Like the song says, Everything Old is New Again. I came out of retirement to give these kids the benefit of experience. And trust me, they need it. Oh, they have some good ideas, don’t get me wrong. Great spirit, can’t fault them for that. They just need to learn how to know how to tell the good ideas from the stupidass ones.”
“Oh yeah? How so?” Noting the failure of their string leader to materialize thus far, Andy figured he’d stall for time. Anyway, he always liked hearing what Herman had to say.
“Just to name one particular–this ‘Karen’ thing–it’s getting out of hand. Karen this, Karen that–it started as a way to tell off snooty white chicks–don’t ask me why they couldn’t pick a man’s name, since that’s where most of the really bad shit comes from–and now basically anybody on the fence about this or that plan of action– say there’s some folks questioning the wisdom of pulling down statues of the half-dozen or so white people from the 19th century who weren’t racist–as a protest against racism–Karens!”
“That does sound a bit random…..”
“It’s become a catch-all, and the thing about catch-alls is that they get repurposed. They like it as a way of shutting folks up, so they can go on doing what they like–like some bored brother is setting off M-80’s in the middle of the night because why not, some Dominican nurse yells from the fourth floor she has to work tomorrow–in a ward full of sick people–Karen!”
“But if it’s about privilege why would he call her…”
“Translation–“My life sucks, so I don’t have to care about your problems.” Works pretty much the same way as all the shit folks call us, though I suppose agenuine Karen wouldn’t use that word–just think it. While calling the cops on her cell. Cops don’t need to call anyone names to get their points across.”
“Why did they pick ‘Karen’?” Kelp was fascinated. There was a growing danger of him forgetting what they were virtually gathered to discuss, which the renewed buzzing and fizzling from the screen might have been trying to get across to him, but he ignored it in favor of becoming still more woke.
“The etymology is obscure, which is pretty much always the way. The basic idea is sound–make whitey finally feel what it’s like to have an effective slur directed at him. One with teeth, since ‘honky’ never worked. Not over-specific, like ‘guinea,’ ‘kike’, ‘taig’–at this point, we’re all so assimilated, melanin content is all anyone sees, unless you’ve got some kind of religious garb on.
“And that would mainly be the people you don’t want to piss off.”
“You got it. We need something relating to content of character, but still strictly for the ofays. However, since ‘Karen’ is really more about hating on women, the execution is half-assed, all the more since misogynists like using it as well–possible that’s where it started, which would be ironic. Well, we’ve had so much less practice than you with this shit. We’ll catch up. My question is, why not try ‘Fairbanks’? Unisex, and that sure has teeth now. Nobody wants to be a goddam Fairbanks. Except him, naturally.”
Deeply moved by Herman sharing all this with him, Kelp felt an expression of professional solidarity was called for. “The cops have been pretty tough on you guys lately.”
Herman’s shrug was eloquent. “Sure. They’re cops.”
There being nothing to say to that, Andy opted to move on in the queue. Dortmunder had still not made his entrance. Time to call in tech support.
“Wally? We can’t seem to get John. Could you maybe look into that?”
As a djinn from a bottle emerged the plump bearded countenance of Wally Knurr, whose informal position within the gang was roughly homonymous with his surname.
“Already on it, Andy! I think there’s a problem with the…” (technobabble ensued, which Kelp pretended to follow–interested as he invariably was in gadgets of all kinds, he never worried overmuch about terminology).
“Great, Wally! I’m sure you’ll have John up to speed in no time. There were bound to be a few hiccups the first time, right John? (Buzzing. Fizzling. It didn’t sound happy, but then, how could it?)
Kelp made a valiant attempt at condolence, not normally his strong suit. “Wally, how’s Myrtle doing? I heard about her mom…..”
“Still pretty sad, Andy, thanks for asking. I proposed marriage, and somehow that didn’t cheer her up, but I got a hug, anyway.” Wally looked pensive a moment, then went back to pecking at his laptop. A sconce later–“There! That ought to do it. John, could you try again?”
The display changed once more, and this time it was indeed the saturnine sad sack visage all had been awaiting. Andy Kelp cried out, in unparalleled delight, “John! At last! Welcome to the Digital Age!”
John Dortmunder gazed upon all virtually assembled, with a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and incredulity. “What is any of this crap supposed to accomplish?”
A question he was not alone in asking, but the answers to these and other questions would have to wait a while longer.
It was just a bit over three years ago I informed you all that my blog stats, so helpfully supplied by WordPress (how could I ever have considered Blogger?) indicated that I’d gotten hits from a hundred different countries, each represented by its own flag. I am here today to inform you the flag count is now 165. I think. I don’t feel like recounting.
Okay, in many cases we’re not talking countries so much as regions. Dependencies, semi-autonomous domains, remote and nebulously affiliated territories (the kind you might light out for, maybe).
Often islands. Really tiny islands, the kind Gilligan & Co. might find a tad confining, however entertaining the guest stars might be. Like for example, Anguilla. Be pretty bad if I couldn’t get Anguilla, since Westlake wrote one of the very few books in all history about it, but thing is, there’s not even 15,000 people living there, and they have lives, you know. The odds of anyone with a life ever learning of this blog’s (or any blog’s) existence–not great. But I’ve had 23 visits from Anguilla. An independent-minded dependency of the UK, which is mindful of Anguilla in much the same way a dog is mindful of a flea, but fleas don’t build good boats like Anguilla does. (And it better keep building them.)
Guernsey. After which I would assume the cow is named. A self-governing crown dependency, one of the Channel Islands, though what they are channeling I could not possibly say. Two visits from them, two from Jersey, and what is it with the Channel Islands and cows? Four from the Isle of Man, which makes do with a tail-less cat.
Do you sell Seychelles by the seashore? I’ve had 35 visits from that now-independent member of the Commonwealth and various other international groupings, the inner workings of which most of us are a bit vague about. That’s a lot of islands all bunched together, and very well they’re doing at present, but sea levels are rising, as the Dutch will tell you. (513 visits from the Netherlands, which currently administers another sometimes-visitor here, Curacao.)
Two visits from the Cayman Islands, from whence our rescue mutt came, and to whence what ought to be our tax revenue goes. A sort of import-export arrangement, you might say. But the dog worked out great.
(This is Burren. She is a very good girl. Remember the name, it figures into the scheme me and J.C. Taylor cooked up over some bourbon.)
The Aland Islands, believe it or not, are not to be found in any George R.R. Martin novel yet published, but are to be found in the Baltic, all 6,700 or so, where they are yet another self-governing dependency, this time of Finland. Even though they mainly speak Swedish. Don’t even ask. Anyway, they only came here once. I think I was out of vodka that day. Sorry guys.
So as you can see, I now control most of the known world, as well the parts nobody knows. Not bragging or anything, but take a gander at the map up top. Still a bit of mopping up do in Africa and Asia (Little Rocket Man is proving a minor obstacle on the Korean peninsula), but by and large, my suzerainty is achieved. If only Alexander the Great had run a blog. (He didn’t, right?) All significant land masses are now claimed for Fred-onia. Save one.
Yeah. That one. You see where I’m going with this.
Greenland, what is your problem with me? Denmark, your mother country (kind of), came along like a lamb. 1,563 visits–#6 on my hit parade. More than Australia, which is a continent (or so it claims). And yet you remain this vast empty space on my map. Not. One. Visit. (And you never write either.)
Yes, I understand you’re mostly frozen wasteland, now rapidly turning into melting wasteland, but that is neither here nor there. Resistance, as they say, is futile. You shall be assimilated. But by whom? Ah, there’s the question. Here is one potential answer–
Don’t look at me, wasn’t my idea. This reality’s Max Fairbanks has fixed his covetous eye upon you, for reasons future historians and psychiatrists shall long debate, and never mind what that nice lady in Copenhagen says. How many divisions does she have? That many? Well, she needs them all to keep an eye on the Shirtless One, who just snatched up The Crimea (of all things) with no regard whatsoever for historical anachronism. Forward into the Valley of Dumb ride the 56,000–unless something saves you. But what?
Democracy, you say? The sound even-tempered reliable judgment of the American voter? I somehow feel no editorial comment is needed here. Anyway, that’s over 15 months off. He could annex you between the election and the inauguration. Probably put John Bolton in charge, just so he doesn’t have to look at that mustache anymore. (You have walruses there, right? Like that, but worse.)
No, my tiny reindeer. What you need is John Dortmunder. (And maybe Parker for some of the wetwork.) You need The Westlake Review. I hereby offer you sanctuary beneath my vaulted ceiling. (Notre Dame being presently indisposed.)
And if you accept my gracious offer, as indeed you must, I shall appoint Burren (see above) as your territorial governor. I mean, she won’t live there, obviously. But she shall speak eloquently for your interests in the world community. And never once use the word “huge.” (Also, no pussy-grabbing. She’s a bit wary of cats.) An islander herself, please recall. She’ll get you.
The choice is yours, Greenland. My benevolent sway. Or–
And if you think it’s less than credible for some threadbare blogger to make such an offer of protection–you guys get the news where you are, right? What does ‘credible’ even mean anymore?
And the best thing about my offer is, you don’t even have to formally agree to it. You just have to visit this blog and read about it. Even once. And Greenland will no longer be a white empty space on my map, as of course it already is on most other maps. And in reality. Though global warming will fix that. As Andy Kelp predicted. I think I’ll put him in charge of your Ministry of Nature and Environment. Maybe don’t leave any valuables there. Or park any vehicles with MD plates outside. Welcome to the family. God save us, every one.
His hand on the knob, she called his name. He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand. He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.
It was his belt buckle that saved him. Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh. The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door. But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.
He awoke to heat and suffocation. They’d set fire to the house.
I shouldn’t need to tell you.
Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.
Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.
Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two. (This will be a short piece. Hopefully get the motor running again.)
Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths. My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s? Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!) I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all. Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.
You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding. Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?
Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following. Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me. You’re either along for the ride or not, right? Last chance to leap out of the getaway car. Here we go…..
So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for. Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu. Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on. If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right? That’s what they did. Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).
One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw. A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.
Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga. And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.
At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative. He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio). He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic. It just came out that way.
He’s been written about a lot. Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic. I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much). So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario. Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.
It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before. Joe had the right face (paid well for it).
According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it. Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way. A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.
Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding. He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.
He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it. He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?) 25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one. (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)
It was released on June 15th, 1967. Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco. There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other. And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s. The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.
See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask). A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).
Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared. To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead. For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door. Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.
Goro isn’t dead, though. The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know). He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged. Off-kilter. Bad stuff ensues.
Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966? You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975. (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)
So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes. As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met. I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it. (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)
What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out. (Played out about the same way in Payback).
She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel). But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?
(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)
But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.
Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him. And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term). And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.
Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers? It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not. Do I think it’s a great film? Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it? Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?
There are some pretty serious second act problems. I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.
The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do. There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example). It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.
Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery. In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?” It definitely is, but I need more.
Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant). It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction. I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.
But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).
Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it. It’s been hunting us down since 1962.
Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it. Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko. An unquestionable match. Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting. There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel. Sayonara for now, suckers.
In my shamelessly self-indulgent David Murray review, I was pleased to open with a quote from Joe Goldberg, referencing a lunch he had with Donald Westlake in Beverly Hills, in the 90’s.
I’ve referenced Goldberg several times here, because that friendship is of interest to me, and I’d like to know more about it. Westlake dedicated Somebody Owes Me Money to Goldberg (congratulating him on his recent book by referring to him as ‘a titled man’). He loved to repeat the story about how he was lamenting that Parker had been played by actors as diverse as Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, and Anna Karina. Goldberg (who had been working as a script reader for various studios) quipped “The character lacks definition.”
I just got a copy of his landmark collection of essays, Jazz Masters of the 50’s, and am reading it now. He had to give up music criticism for a time, because all the clubs closed down, and he made the exodus to the left coast.
Did you ever wonder how Donald Westlake became friends with Joe Goldberg? They were both born in Brooklyn, but Westlake moved upstate when he was very young. You probably assumed they met at a club in Greenwich Village, or possibly a record store. Maybe just I assumed that. Whoever assumed it was wrong. As I just found out.
It didn’t last very long. Not a lot of articles, and most of it seems to be recorded interviews of a very old Joe Goldberg done for an oral history project. Which are mainly about his work in Hollywood, and I couldn’t find any references to Westlake, but I skimmed. Because they got a bit depressing. (I’ve done oral history myself, and you know, probably these things should not be done just before somebody dies, though I guess better late than never.)
Even though this blog only lasted about two months, there’s gold in them thar hills. My eyes bugged out a little when I spied this entry–do I need to tell you who ‘Hal’ is? He is, one might say, a man who wrote dirty books. Then gave up that respectable living to write for Hollywood. The cad.
In 1958, I was churning out paperback pornography along with other writer wannabes like Larry Block and Don Westlake.
One of us found a magazine called SWANK or STANK or SLANK that had an article about pulp porn that praised Don Holliday (my pen name) and Sheldon Lord (Larry’s pen name) and Edwin West (Don’s pen name) as being the only pornographers who could write their names in the dirt with a stick.
The article was written by Joe Goldberg which we assumed was a pseudonym. In fact, I thought that Larry had written the piece and Larry figured that Don had and Don was certain that it was my work. But ten or twelve drinks later, one of us had the bleary idea to see if a Joe Goldberg existed in the Manhattan phone book. And sure enough, one did and he became a life-long pal to all three of us.
If we neglected to thank him for the puff piece, well, we do now. Mucho gracias, buddy.
(There actually was–and still is–a dirty magazine named SWANK, but for all I know the other two exist as well, along with SANK, SKANK, and SPANK. Presumably not SHRANK.)
There’s an earlier contribution from Mr. Dresner, but it’s less germane to our interests here.
So. Let me see if I have this straight.
To pay the bills, in the late 1950’s, three men who were someday going to be successful writers were turning out what was then considered pornography, under false names.
And to pay his bills, a guy who was someday going to be a very influential music critic was reviewing their dirty books for a dirty magazine. Under his own name. (I guess that was considered more respectable?)
And this is how they became friends.
Well, I said it was an addendum.
Joe Goldberg passed in 2009. Here’s a very informative obit with a link to him ably dissecting the Ken Burns Jazz history docu in 2001. Nobody thought to do an oral history of him then? Oh well.
Far as IMdB knows, Hal Dresner is still alive. He’d be in his early 80’s.
What are the odds, you think, that he would be able to tell me which sleaze novels credited to which pseudonyms of which Westlake poker buddies contain uncredited Parker cameos written by Westlake, as attested to by D. Kingsley Hahn?
I’ve thought about asking Lawrence Block, but how the hell do you open up a conversation like that? Trying to come up with a segue…….”Mr. Block, you’re probably the only member of your clique who expressed nostalgia over writing those things…..” Well. I’ll work on it.
Paul Madvig arrived early in the afternoon. “Christ, I’m glad to see you alive again!” he said. He took the invalid’s unbandaged left hand in both of his.
Ned Beaumont said: “I’m all right. But here’s what we’ve got to do: grab Walt Ivans and have him taken over to Braywood and shown to the gun-dealers there. He—”
“You told me all that,” Madvig said. “That’s done.”
Ned Beaumont frowned. “I told you?”
“Sure—the morning you were picked up. They took you to the Emergency Hospital and you wouldn’t let them do anything to you till you’d seen me and I came down there and you told me about Ivans and Braywood and passed out cold.”
“It’s a blank to me,” Ned Beaumont said. “Did you nail them?”
“We got the Ivanses, all right, and Walt Ivans talked after he was identified in Braywood and the Grand Jury indicted Jeff Gardner and two John Does, but we’re not going to be able to nail Shad on it. Gardner’s the man Ivans dickered with and anybody knows he wouldn’t do anything without Shad’s say-so, but proving it’s another thing.”
“Jeff’s the monkey-looking guy, huh? Has he been picked up yet?”
“No. Shad took him into hiding with him after you got away, I guess. They had you, didn’t they?”
“Uh-huh. In the Dog House, upstairs. I went there to lay a trap for the gent and he out-trapped me.” He scowled. “I remember going there with Whisky Vassos and being bitten by the dog and knocked around by Jeff and a blond kid. Then there was something about a fire and—that’s about all. Who found me? and where?”
“A copper found you crawling on all fours up the middle of Colman Street at three in the morning leaving a trail of blood behind you.”
“I think of funny things to do,” Ned Beaumont said.
You can’t tell a completely new story. That’s a fact. Nobody can do anything about it, nobody should try. Total originality is a chimera; maybe not even something one should aspire to–wouldn’t something completely unprecedented be at the same time untested, unreliable–even incomprehensible? How would we even know if it was any good or not? Art is a process, hopefully a progression–like life. You build on what came before, absorbing influences, and sometimes improving on them. Evolution is a thing, and we should respect it, since it’s how we all got here.
All that being said, there’s some consensus that this particular story, structured this particular way, within this particular genre, is a relatively original confabulation of Dashiell Hammett’s. If anybody told it before, in some form or other, it didn’t take, and nobody remembers it. You could probably find some version of it in Shakespeare, like you can everything else, but Shakespeare didn’t write crime fiction, he wrote fiction with crimes in it. There’s a difference.
Perhaps something of a certain wily Spanish barber here? Ostensibly the servant of a count, but with his own ingenious agenda, wheels within wheels, and he gets the girl. Maybe, but Senor Figaro had his predecessors as well, and none of them are the stuff hardboiled heroes are made of.
Let’s run through the particulars, shall we? There’s this guy. Tough. Resourceful. Smart. Attractive to the ladies. Snappy dresser. Coolly competent, with a cutting sarcastic wit. A cagey operator, a fixer, a consigliere, working for some kind of criminal outfit. This outfit isn’t necessarily a gang. But connected. Fingers in a lot of pies. Playing a dominating role in whatever burg it’s situated in (usually a fictional one). In short, a machine.
But that machine has a lot of moving parts, depends on a whole lot of things running just so. There’s the law to worry about (though it’s usually on the take), and there’s rival outfits looking to cut themselves in. There’s the human factor to contend with. Machines with lots of moving parts are prone to breaking down.
Hence the need for a fixer, and he’ll be our protagonist, our window into this world. But he’s not the boss. He works for the boss. The boss’ good right hand. A valued asset. He and the boss are just like that. Maybe
It’s the maybe part the story tends to hinge on. That’s where the variables tend to stem from. Where do the fixer’s ultimate loyalties lie? How much can he rely on the boss? How much can the boss rely on him? How much do they trust each other when the chips are down? Why is such a multi-talented individual content to be a mere flunky? Is he, in fact, content to be that? There’s dames in the mix, because that goes with the territory, and they just complicate things further, but nobody’s complaining much.
Hammett had written about a town with just such a machine before, in Red Harvest. The Continental Op comes to a corrupt midwestern mining town, where rival factions are at each others’ throats, and even though it’s none of his beeswax, in the process of doing his job, he plays them against each other, and restores a sort of balance, strictly off the books.
But his loyalties are never in question, because he’s talking to us in the first person, and we know what he’s up to, who he works for. He brings us into his confidence. He’s an employee, a private cop, on the side of the law, even if he bends it a lot. A detective.
The hero of The Glass Key is, technically, a detective for most of the narrative, sworn in as an investigator for the D.A’s office, trying to solve a murder (which turns into several). But that’s just a disguise he puts on, to help his friend, the power behind the throne, who has city hall (and the D.A.’s office) in his pocket. If he finds out his boss is the murderer, he’ll still help him beat the rap.
Hammett had written about criminals his whole career, often from direct experience with them, as a Pinkerton operative. His detectives were on the shady side of the law, often leaning towards illegality, but still lawmen, when the chips were down. Not this new guy. If Sam Spade is ambiguously straight (you know what I meant), Ned Beaumont is just as ambiguously crooked. They’re working different sides of the same mean street.
It’s hard to say just how crooked, because Ned Beaumont (at all times referred to as such by the very formal narrator) isn’t going to share with us. He’s not going to tell us what’s going on inside his head. The Continental Op stories are the Op telling us his stories, but Hammett had moved into the third person with The Maltese Falcon, and found it suited him (he’d dabbled in earlier shorts, but not his best ones). He went back to first person with The Thin Man, but weirdly it still felt like third person, the ambiguity and emotional distance remaining (Westlake admired this very neat trick, but we can talk about that some other time).
Hammett doesn’t use the greater freedom of this more objective format to switch up perspectives, though. He’s still sticking with his man, be it Spade or Beaumont, letting us see the world entirely through their sharp cynical eyes, but not letting us inside their sharp cynical minds, as he did with the Op. Keeping us guessing. Who is this guy? What’s he up to? What does he want? Does he even know? That’s the real mystery. The rest is McGuffins.
Hammett’s novels came out one after the other from the late 20’s through the middle 30’s, usually first in serial form in Black Mask, then in hardcover (no paperbacks yet). Between 1927, when the early version of Red Harvest started its run, to 1934, when The Thin Man came out in book form.
Five novels. Two with The Op, then three successive protagonists, each of whom had other stories afterwards, but Hammett never could come up with a convincing second act for any of them. The Op stories greatly outnumber all the others combined, but that was partly because Hammett stopped writing–at least he stopped writing stuff he believed in enough to publish in book form, which to him was all that really counted. Movies, radio–nice source of drinking money. It wasn’t real.
Hammett was hitting a wall. Everybody’s got an opinion about what that wall was composed of, how it got built. Lillian Hellman said she never figured it out, and who’d know better than her? Hammett was the ultimate Hammett protagonist. Nobody knew what he wanted. Maybe not even him. But with just five books, written in less than a decade, he changed the face of mystery forever. The genre has produced a few better writers (Westlake was one of them), but he was its supreme innovator. Perhaps the greatest genre writer of all time. Better than most of the non-genre people as well.
But for all that, Mr. Hammett and I have a little disagreement. He said The Glass Key was the best of his five published novels. I’ve read all five now, and I say it’s his worst. Still pretty damn great. Full of inspired passages, like the one above. Asking some very good questions, laying some very crucial groundwork. But the answers aren’t entirely satisfying, the paving stones don’t fit together just right.
For one thing, it’s supposed to be a murder mystery, and the mystery itself is on the weak side. For another, Ned Beaumont is by far the least convincing of Hammett’s four major protagonists, because he’s got motivation problems. That all his later fictional progeny inherited, to some degree. For all his talents, he’s a study in failure. A loser by choice. Maybe that’s what Hammett liked about him.
Hammett found a problem well worth solving–a new way of telling a detective story, a new perspective for writing about the criminal underworld, and its many links to the world us solid citizens live in–and he couldn’t balance out the equation. But he saw the potential there, even if he couldn’t quite realize it. Hoping, perhaps, that he could figure it out later. Later never came. The Glass Key turned out to be a promise never fulfilled. At least not by Hammett himself.
In fiction, as in math, unsolved problems are often the most intriguing ones, and each new generation will test itself against them. Many have taken a whack at rebalancing Hammett’s figures. We’ll be talking about that. Let’s check his calculations first.
214 pages in the first edition hardcover. 10 chapters. Each chapter is long, and split into roman-numeraled sections–Chapter 1 gets IX of them.
Ned Beaumont is introduced to us as an habitual gambler who loses a lot at the craps tables, and never once worries about it. He’s not gambling to get rich, but because he likes it. On his way to get more good money to throw after bad, he runs into a guy he knows named Walter Ivans. He greets him by saying ‘Lo Walt. He greets everybody this way. The ‘Lo part. Can’t be bothered with a two syllable greeting. Not big on formalities, is Ned Beaumont.
Ivans stutters–he’s nervous, but seems like the impediment isn’t just nerves. (Also seems like this rings a bell with me, with regards to a very early Westlake novel based quite directly on this one. Mr. Westlake found subtle ways to namecheck his influences.)
Ivans’ brother is up for a prison rap–he and Walt are both connected to the same outfit as Ned. He wants the boss of their outfit, Paul Madvig to make that rap go away. Ned, visibly discomfited, says he will, but not until November–after the next election. Walt’s not satisfied. Ned says he’ll talk to Paul about it, but Walt shouldn’t expect anything.
He goes upstairs to the boss’s office–yeah, same house as the gambling parlor. Not much need to keep up appearances of legality in this sewn-up town. He asks Paul for a couple hundred to tide him over (around three grand today). Madvig, a tall powerful-looking blonde in a suit, maybe forty-five years of age, is not merely the big wheel, but the only wheel in town–everybody else is just a cog in his machine. Never ran for office in his life, and all the politicians are under his well-manicured thumb. He’s also Ned’s best friend in the world–maybe his only friend. Ned’s not really the Dale Carnegie type, as we’ll see.
Paul coughs up the two hundred like it’s carfare. But he expresses concern at Ned’s recent run of luck. He hasn’t won in over a month. “That’s a long time to be losing.” “Not for me” Ned Beaumont responds, bothered by the concern. Prickly, even with his pals.
Ned picks up the phone and calls a bookie. Hedges a bet on Peggy O’Toole–500 to win, 500 to place, 500 to show. He’s mad at himself about that. Says he should have put the whole fifteen on her nose. Only it might not rain. Peggy runs better in the rain. We’re inferring Peggy is a horse. I had a dog named Peggy. Ran like blazes, wet or dry. Hey, if you’re bored, you can leave. Ned’s not the only one who gets prickly around here.
They spar a bit, these two. There’s always some beef between them. They can never be fully at ease together, because they’re not wired that way. Ned works for Paul, hits him up for money often, but he’s not the type to knuckle under, to anybody, ever. Paul respects that, and he needs Ned–his brains, his guts, his instincts. But the sparring never ends. Here’s a sample round in the running bout–
Ned Beaumont grinned crookedly at the blond man and made his voice drawl. “We didn’t have to do much worrying about women’s clubs before we joined the aristocracy.”
“We do now.” Madvig’s eyes were opaque.
“Tim’s wife’s going to have a baby next month,” Ned Beaumont said.
Madvig blew breath out in an impatient gust. “Anything to make it tougher,” he complained. “Why don’t they think of those things before they get in trouble? They’ve got no brains, none of them.”
“They’ve got votes.”
“That’s the hell of it,” Madvig growled. He glowered at the floor for a moment, then raised his head. “We’ll take care of him as soon as the votes are counted, but nothing doing till then.”
Paul’s working on a move that could make him respectable, get him out of the rackets for keeps, married to Janet Henry, beautiful young society girl, the daughter of a senator who needs Paul’s support for reelection. Paul talks up the political advantages for their organization in this strategic alliance. Ned figures the alliance is more amorous than strategic–Paul’s in love, maybe more with the idea of Janet than Janet herself. But either way, it’s amour fou, and Paul can’t be argued out of it.
And if this all panned out, if he ascended to a higher level, what would Paul need his faithful fixer for? Ned’s skeptical Paul’s plan will ever pan out–old money always looks down on new, and Janet has shown no interest in Paul. But still, the question remains implicit–if Paul marries up, does he leave Ned down below to run the stuff he can’t touch anymore? Right now, it’s moot. They’re still in the trenches, fighting rival machines, political and criminal in nature. Paul can’t get by without his good right arm.
The arm, for his part, would take six bullets for Paul without a whimper. But the tension is always there, regardless. Alpha males. Two men who look at the world in deeply incompatible ways, and like each other all the more for that. Their acquaintance can’t be longstanding–we’re told Ned got to this hick burg from New York a year or two back. We don’t know how they met, how they got so close, how Ned became family–Paul’s mother keeps asking when Ned’s coming to dinner. The two must have clicked almost on sight.
We never learn how this friendship got started. But Hammett can get it all across to us in a few brush strokes. He takes it for granted we all know what it’s like, the loyalty of friendship. How much it means, in a cold and inconstant world. How much you’ll put yourself through for it. And all the more if you’re one of those people who have a hard time finding it.
The friendship between Beaumont and Madvig is a mystery in itself. And is there any greater mystery than friendship? How it gets born. And how, sometimes, it dies. The first mystery isn’t dealt with here, but we’re going to get an answer on the second. Spoiler alert.
A lot happens in Chapter 1. After Paul tells Ned to keep the foot soldiers happy by footing all the bills for the jailed man’s wife, Ned goes out and at some point finds a dead body on the street. He doesn’t call the cops right away. You get the feeling this kind of thing happens to him all the time, but this is a different order of stiff.
It’s Taylor Henry, son of Senator Henry, brother of Janet. A bit of a rake. Who has been sniffing around Paul’s charming young daughter, perhaps by a prior marriage, but that’s another thing we never hear much about. Paul has made it clear there’s to be no romantic quid pro quo in this case, but that just made Taylor more attractive to her, and she to him. Forbidden fruit.
So before calling the law, Ned goes back to straighten out a few things with Paul. Like, did he do it? Paul’s not telling either way. He doesn’t sound real broken up about it–or surprised. Says Ned should go ahead and make the call, which he does. Oh, and in the sporting news, it did rain, and Peggy O’Toole came through like a champ. Ned’s won a tidy sum. But his bookie has disappeared. Somebody owes him money! (Westlake never stopped referencing Hammett).
Turns out the bookie, named Despain, also held paper on Taylor Henry, who was known to be careless about things like debts of honor. Could Despain be the killer? That would make Ned’s life easier in some ways, harder in others (he needs that dough). He tells Paul he’s going to pop over to New York, where this welsher is holed up, and just to make things legal, Paul should get him sworn in as a deputy sheriff or something equivalent. It ends up being special prosecutor for the DA’s office. Easier to fix.
Paul’s not happy about any of this, but Ned’s a dinner guest at Paul’s house when he makes this odd request. Hard for him to say no, since Ned is saying that if he can’t collect his winnings, after finally winning, it’s going to make him feel like he’s fated to lose. Is this the real reason why he wants to go? I have no idea. Maybe Ned doesn’t either. He improvises a lot. Knows where he’s going when he gets there.
Before Ned leaves, he talks to Opal, Paul’s daughter. They’re pretty tight, or they were. He’s almost a big brother to her. He knows right away she’s lying when she says she hadn’t seen Taylor Henry for weeks. Her main reaction to this is to wonder if Ned and her father had been spying on her trysts with Taylor. Ned hadn’t been. Good bet Paul had. The last thing she says, before Chapter 1 ends, is that she’s pretty sure she was in love with Taylor Henry. It goes without saying that she’s thinking that’s what got him killed.
Ned gets to New York, finds Despain, gets his money, and comes back fairly well convinced that Despain didn’t kill Taylor Henry (but he’d do for a fall guy if one was needed). Ned is a very reluctant detective indeed, since he’d really rather not know if Paul is the killer. All the more since if he was, Paul should have told him already. They’re supposed to be pals. And you don’t keep your second in command in the dark on something this big.
So that’s the set-up. There’s a few more elements to be introduced, like the diabolical Shad O’Rory, an Irish gangster who speaks with the expected brogue (not too thick, and neither is he). He’s Paul’s principal rival, hoping to exploit his vulnerabilities to take control of the city himself. Ned’s got him pretty well scouted, but Shad’s got a few tricks up his sleeve, and some formidable henchmen, one of whom is a real bulldog–not a metaphor, he’s literally a dog, with a mind like a steel trap. Also not a metaphor.
The big X-factor is Ned’s attractiveness to women, which he seems to find more of a nuisance than anything else. Women hold a lot of the secrets in this story, and they insist on sharing them with Ned. Now in the second movie adaptation, with Alan Ladd–which probably a lot more people know than the novel–there’s a strong emphasis on the relationship between Ned and Janet. Because Ned and Janet are played by Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, who had been established as a screen team by This Gun For Hire, an equally misleading adaptation of a Graham Greene novel Westlake was influenced by.
As often happened with Hammett, the first adaptation was more faithful to the book, but it was a later film that stuck in the public imagination. Movies like big romantic pairings, and the problem with a straight-up adaptation is that the big romantic pairing in the novel is between two men, isn’t sexual in nature (I guess you could figure it that way, but you’d be figuring wrong), and doesn’t have a happy ending. (And if they’d been true to the book, neither would the Ladd/Lake thing, but after This Gun For Hire, the populace would be jonesing for them to get a break, so why not? Hollywood.)
The Glass Key isn’t really about sex, though. And Ned isn’t really about Janet. He likes her and all, but he likes other women too. He drives one man to suicide just by making love to his wife by the fireside, in the man’s house, while the poor guy watches. Ned feels bad about this. But he feels bad about lots of things he’s going to do anyway. And the guy had it coming. He ends up with the one girl he should have stayed away from, but it’s impossible to believe they’ll be together very long.
In spite of my penchant for blow-by-blow synopses, I find myself oddly disinclined to go into all the funny things Ned Beaumont finds to do in this book. Seems like every other chapter, he’s running around in the dark, covered in mud (I think that only happens twice). Literal and metaphorical mud.
He gets cussed out, beaten up, tied up, mauled by a dog, put in the hospital (where he engages in the standard Hammett banter with a cute nurse who kind of rolls her eyes at him while batting them at the same time), and somehow he just keeps bouncing back, finding a new angle, homing in closer and closer to the truth that he never wanted to begin with, but he’s going to get it anyway, because he’s the detective in this story, like it or not.
To me, the best Hammett novels–by which I mean the other four–make all the ‘hugger-mugger’ of the genre work for them, with them–a feature instead of a bug. But The Glass Key seems more a prisoner of the clichés it’s coining than the master of them. They distract from the story that’s really being told here–which is about Ned and Paul. We don’t see enough of Paul, because Paul’s got to remain oblique, so we keep thinking he’s the killer. To distract from who the real killer is. And yet I spotted the killer (after a few false guesses) and I never do that. Well, hardly ever.
Paul and Ned know their friendship is on the rocks, but they don’t want to let it go. They know they’ll never find this kind of connection with another human being, ever. I think maybe this is my favorite scene in the whole book, where Ned very nearly walks out on Paul in a white hot rage (he gets those a lot).
This argument is what you might call the practice break-up, early on in the book. Every relationship on the rocks has one. Like every Fred Fitch review has an over-long quote.
Ned Beaumont emptied his seidel and let the front legs of his chair come down on the floor. “I told you it wouldn’t do any good,” he said. “Have it your own way. Keep on thinking that what was good enough for the old Fifth is good enough anywhere.”
In Madvig’s voice there was something of resentment and something of humility when he asked: “You don’t think much of me as a big-time politician, do you, Ned?”
Now Ned Beaumont’s face flushed. He said: “I didn’t say that, Paul.”
“But that’s what it amounts to, isn’t it?” Madvig insisted.
“No, but I do think you’ve let yourself be outsmarted this time. First you let the Henrys wheedle you into backing the Senator. There was your chance to go in and finish an enemy who was cornered, but that enemy happened to have a daughter and social position and what not, so you—”
“Cut it out, Ned,” Madvig grumbled.
Ned Beaumont’s face became empty of expression. He stood up saying, “Well, I must be running along,” and turned to the door.
Madvig was up behind him immediately, with a hand on his shoulder, saying: “Wait, Ned.”
Ned Beaumont said: “Take your hand off me.” He did not look around.
Madvig put his other hand on Ned Beaumont’s arm and turned him around. “Look here, Ned,” he began.
Ned Beaumont said: “Let go.” His lips were pale and stiff.
Madvig shook him. He said: “Don’t be a God-damned fool. You and I—”
Ned Beaumont struck Madvig’s mouth with his left fist. Madvig took his hands away from Ned Beaumont and fell back two steps. While his pulse had time to beat perhaps three times his mouth hung open and astonishment was in his face. Then his face darkened with anger and he shut his mouth tight, so his jaw was hard and lumpy. He made fists of his hands, hunched his shoulders, and swayed forward.
Ned Beaumont’s hand swept out to the side to grasp one of the heavy glass seidels on the table, though he did not lift it from the table. His body leaned a little to that side as he had leaned to get the seidel. Otherwise he stood squarely confronting the blond man. His face was drawn thin and rigid, with white lines of strain around the mouth. His dark eyes glared fiercely into Madvig’s blue ones.
They stood thus, less than a yard apart—one blond, tall and powerfully built, leaning far forward, big shoulders hunched, big fists ready; the other dark of hair and eye, tall and lean, body bent a little to one side with an arm slanting down from that side to hold a heavy glass seidel by its handle—and except for their breathing there was no sound in the room. No sound came in from the bar-room on the other side of the thin door, the rattling of glasses nor the hum of talk nor the splash of water.
When quite two minutes had passed Ned Beaumont took his hand away from the seidel and turned his back to Madvig. Nothing changed in Ned Beaumont’s face except that his eyes, when no longer focused on Madvig’s, became hard and cold instead of angrily glaring. He took an unhurried step towards the door.
Madvig spoke hoarsely from deep down in him. “Ned.”
Ned Beaumont halted. His face became paler. He did not turn around.
Madvig said: “You crazy son of a bitch.”
Then Ned Beaumont turned around, slowly. Madvig put out an open hand and pushed Ned Beaumont’s face sidewise, shoving him off balance so he had to put a foot out quickly to that side and put a hand on one of the chairs at the table.
Madvig said: “I ought to knock hell out of you.”
Ned Beaumont grinned sheepishly and sat down on the chair he had staggered against.
Madvig sat down facing him and knocked on the top of the table with his seidel.
The bar-tender opened the door and put his head in.
“More beer,” Madvig said. From the bar-room, through the open door, came the sound of men talking and the sound of glasses rattling against glasses and against wood.
Who needs a faithful film adaptation, when you can see every bit of it in your head, and cast any actors you want to read the lines? Or hey, maybe you and a friend you used to have.
And how does it end? That part the movies are always faithful to (more or less). Ned saves Paul’s bacon, deals with Paul’s enemies, fixes all Paul’s messes, leaving Mr. Madvig the unquestioned master of this lousy little town (where even the reformers are shacked up with gangsters)–and walks away into the noirish sunset with Janet, who despises Paul, and finding out he didn’t kill her brother didn’t change that one bit. Leaving Paul Madvig an empty burned-out husk of a man. Not to mention a really old joke–ever hear the one about the guy whose best friend stole his girl?
There’s no sense of masculine triumph here. Ned has declared his independence at last, but he’s still a gambler. He’s broken his losing streak, but there’ll be others, and he won’t have Paul to bail him out. Janet will get tired of slumming, or Ned will get tired of her feeling like she’s slumming–that’s not a relationship with a future.
Paul will rebuild his machine, make it more legit, but there’ll be this dead look in his eyes where a light once burned. Ned will go from one misadventure to the next, but he’ll never trust anyone else the same way again. It couldn’t end any other way, because they wanted different things. Damon and Pythias probably broke up over a woman too. (Unless it was another man, you know, ancient Greece.)
The Glass Key turns out to be Janet’s metaphor, from a dream she had, and it’s not a hopeful one. There are some good scenes between her and Ned, but Hammett was capable of much better, and the dreams are a bit too Freudian for his style. He’s getting too fancy, trying to move up in the literary world. It doesn’t suit him any more than it does Paul and Ned. What he had going down on those mean streets was better than most of those society authors, anyway.
I will say, with Ned Beaumont, he’s anticipated the existentialist anti-heroes of Sartre and Camus by about a decade. And I’m sure a bunch of French critics have said this already, but in French, right?
So as a story, I find it fascinating but inadequate. As a character study, provocative but unfinished. As a template for future mystery authors, and maybe even some non-genre scribes, influential as all hell, but that begs the question–did any of the books based on it hit the target Hammett aimed at here?
One of those authors, you must realize, was Donald E. Westlake. This was the very first target he aimed at in the very first novel he wrote under his own name. Why would he do something so hubristic? Because, I hubristically argue, he agreed with me that Hammett hadn’t hit the mark. So maybe he could.
But before he set his sights on that bullseye, there were some other archers stringing their bows. Let’s talk about them. Next time. In the meantime, in-between time, here’s some book covers.
Now go have a beer with a friend. That crazy son of a bitch. Or daughter.
Portrait of US writer Donald Westlake. Portrait de l’ecrivain américain Donald Westlake.
Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages. The stain of suspicion cannot be allowed to spread too far if each suspect is to be a rounded, credible human being, not a cardboard cut-out to be ritually knocked down in the last chapter. And in a self-contained community–hospital, school, office, publishing house, nuclear power station–where, particularly if the setting is residential, the characters often spend more time with working colleagues than they do with their families, the irritation that can emerge from such cloistered and unsought intimacy can kindle animosity, jealousy, and resentment, emotions which, if they are sufficiently strong, can smoulder away and eventually explode into the destructive finality of violence. The isolated community can also be an epitome of the wider world outside and this, for a writer, can be one of the greatest attractions of the closed communal setting, particularly as the characters are being explored under the trauma of an official investigation for murder, a process which can destroy the privacies both of the living and the dead.
From Talking About Detective Fiction, by P.D James.
Since the First World War and Prohibition combined to create the atmosphere in which the puzzle would be transmogrified into something new that would reflect the new reality, I think it’s nice that the phrase for that new thing should itself combine words from the war and the bootleggers. Hardboiled dicks. Tough guys who were interested in a very rough kind of immediate justice having to do with this particular case at this particular moment, because there are no reliable long-term social truths or social contracts. The determination to turn the puzzle story on its head shows very clearly in its changed treatment of class, of persons in different social strata. In the previous form–previous in origin but by no means dead, then or now, very much still with us–the detectives and the victims alike tend to be from the upper classes, or at least not below the professional middle class–I mean, no tradesmen–while the murderer could be of any class at all. Frequently, however, he would turn out to be jumped-up, to belong actually to a less exalted class than the one to which he’d been pretending. I mention only Lord Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance. The puzzles tended to be rather more like crossword puzzles, in that the solution might hinge on esoteric knowledge, of bell-ringing, or Chinese vases, or Turkish cigarette ash.
But on come the hardboiled dicks, and everything goes out the window. Puzzle solutions require knowledge no more esoteric than that people are sometimes greedy, people are sometimes jealous, people are sometimes afraid. The hardboiled dick himself was middle-class at best, more probably working-class in his background, never claiming much more than a high school education, and the only thing he will ever offer as special knowledge is that he knows where the bodies are buried. He’s an insider, in other words, in this topsy-turvy unsentimental world. As for the upper classes, who are popularly thought of as having caused the war and profited from it–much of which turned out to be true, by the way–they don’t even come off well in these stories. When they appear at all, they are made fun of and despised, they are gullible patsies for con men and professional gamblers, their daughters are dumb enough to run away to Mexico with ex-cons. They are even, at times, the murderer, and their motivations are as human and messy as anybody’s.
From The Hardboiled Dicks, by Donald E. Westlake (originally a talk given at the Smithsonian in 1982, now collected in The Getaway Car.)
Looking over articles relating to Westlake’s demise recently, I was reminded of a story I first encountered in the article archive for The Violent World of Parker (that site’s long lamented absence is one reason I had a tough time remembering the specifics). A minor episode in Westlake’s life, that just slightly outlived him.
Right after Jimmy Breslin died, I did a piece about what seemed to me a sort of between-the-lines feud going on with him and Westlake. Maybe more of an unstated rivalry, since both wrote about comic criminals. Westlake put a few shots over Breslin’s bow across the years, Breslin finally took umbrage when one of them was a scathing NY Times review of a less than scholarly biography he’d written of Damon Runyan.
Based on a reference to Breslin in Dancing Aztecs, it seemed to me that they had rubbed shoulders here and there–and they definitely met at least once, since they participated in a writer’s panel in 1997. And I never could find a transcript for that. I’m probably not finding any transcripts relating to this story either.
But the link here is my enduring curiosity about whether Westlake ever had any literary vendettas going on, of the type well-known authors so often engage in. It wasn’t his habit to self-publicize much, so we wouldn’t necessarily know if he did.
Closest he seems to have come was when he announced his resignation from the ranks of science fiction writers in a polemic submitted to a little-known fanzine, in which he disparaged (among other things) the editorial style of Frederick Pohl (who according to Lawrence Block, never forgot nor forgave the slight). But they both seem to have spent the rest of their lives ignoring each other. It’s hardly in the same league with Saul Bellow telling a prominent bookseller he’d never speak to him again because the poor schlub had praised John Updike in an interview.
I don’t believe there was any feud between Donald Edwin Westlake and Phyllis Dorothy James, aka Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, FRSA, FRSL, ETC., creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, who pops up on the telly quite often. I don’t believe they held each other in low regard. Nor was there any kind of mutual admiration society in session there. Guarded distant respect? Something like that.
I know they met once at a dinner party, because that was mentioned when this story I’m trying to understand came out, to the mutual embarrassment of all concerned, other than Westlake himself, since it came out in response to an obit for him in a British newspaper, that seems to have been hastily researched, as obits often are.
There is no reason to think they ever corresponded. There is some reason to think they glanced at each others’ work here and there (Westlake probably more at James’ than vice versa, because he had more catholic tastes.)
They were not enemies. They were not friends. I have to think neither would have approved of the word ‘frenemy.’ They were only colleagues in a peripheral sense, inhabiting as they did different ecological niches within the same genre biosphere. They didn’t even occupy the same land mass. So how did this happen?
I probably rely too much on links (that may someday cease to function), so let’s sum up for the record. P.D. James said something she really should not have said, on a late night shortwave radio program being broadcast to the planet in the wee wee hours (I can’t find out if it was live or on tape–if she was there in the studio at that hour, everybody should have cut her a break, since nobody not holding high office should be held responsible for what they say or do at two-thirty in the fucking morning.)
The comment that got her in trouble was–
“in the pits of the worst possible inner-city area, where crime is the norm and murder is commonplace, you don’t get moral choice, you don’t get contrasts between good and evil…”
Let’s be fair, and give her a chance to state her point more elegantly, which is to say, in print, in Chapter 6 of that instructional of hers I quoted up top, which is entitled Telling The Story–after quoting W.H. Auden’s semi-serious essay on murder mysteries, which compares the stereotypical corpse in some idyllic place to a mess left by the family dog on the drawing room carpet–
He believed, as I think do most British writers of the detective story, that the single body on the drawing room floor can be more horrific than a dozen bullet-riddled bodies down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets, precisely because it is indeed shockingly out of place.
Please note the “So Say We All!” tone of that sentence–not at all sure Auden would have concurred, but never mind–combined with what seems to be a complete ignorance of how Raymond Chandler wrote mystery stories.
I haven’t read all that much Chandler, and have my own critiques to make, as did Westlake–but as I recall, it was usually just a body here, a body there, and they weren’t all found on streets. There were plenty of rich classy dames in mansions, and one sadly neglected redhead in a nice little suburban cottage. His main problem as a writer was bad plotting and spotty characterization, which happens quite often in the cozies as well.
But imagine, if you will, how the author of Killing Time, Butcher’s Moon, and The Ax might react to the notion that a high death toll in a story somehow invalidates it emotionally, renders the audience incapable of pity. (Not that Westlake would have read this, it came out in 2009.) Hell, imagine what Shakespeare would say!
She caught hell from a class-conscious group of fellow mystery writers in the UK, and took umbrage to their criticisms like she was Lady Bracknell instead of Baroness James (she’d been made a non-hereditary peer in 1991). Her words were debated heatedly in Red Herrings, the newletter of the Crime Writers Association, Britain’s answer to the Mystery Writers of America, and the controversy leaked out to the mainstream press. As a direct result of this brouhaha, she canceled an appearance at Bouchercon 1995, which was held in Nottingham. Yes. That Nottingham. Writes itself, really.
Of course Westlake was there. You can’t seriously think the creator of John Dortmunder and his Not-So-Merry Men (complete with Little John), was going to miss a convention held there. Named after his most important critical champion, to boot. You can read a bit about the goings on here. Sounds like fun.
The furor over her ladyship’s remarks died down. She made other controversial remarks years later, but she got the better of that exchange (and a bit of her own back from the Beeb, like it was their fault she’d put her foot in her mouth).
After the great unpleasantness she’d been through, she got so concerned over ‘political correctness’ (I’m not convinced anybody knows what that means) that she ended up as the Conservative whip in the House of Lords.
(Oh I say–did she get a real whip? Please, someone tell me she had a real whip. I mean, the Lord Mayor of London gets a whacking big mace. I’m imagining her with a whip, right now, and you can’t stop me. Ker-rack!)
Then came the Westlake obit in the Telegraph, where (without any source whatsoever, or a byline even) the writer(s?) said Westlake had, in the context of the aforementioned furor at the Nottingham convention, called P.D. James a dimwit.
This was followed by emphatic denials, from everyone involved, that he’d said any such thing (and, confusingly, the article denying the insults also added to them). Mrs. Westlake went so far as to say she didn’t think her husband had ever used the word dimwit.
FYI–he did–at least twice. Both times in Dortmunder novels. That appeared Post-Nottingham. Search engines weren’t as good back then, and ebooks couldn’t be searched via Google. They can now. (The Kelp in me rejoices.)
From What’s The Worst That Could Happen? (1996).
“How was I to know some dimwit crook would choose that night to attack the place?”
(That’s Max Fairbanks speaking; I need hardly mention of whom he is speaking.)
From Bad News (2001)
Kelp said, “Aren’t you gonna get in trouble for this?”
“Oh no,” she said. “Everybody thinks I’m a dimwit anyway, I’ll just be flustered and embarrassed, and apologize to everybody, and they’ll all shrug their shoulders and get on with it.”
That’s Marjorie Dawson, a minor but sympathetic character in the narrative, who is not a dimwit. In fact, neither of the characters referred to as a dimwit is a dimwit. It’s the people who think of them as dimwits who turn out to be the dimwits. So that’s confusing.
There are probably other instances of his using the word, but I confess, my first reaction was also that I didn’t remember him using it. I’ve just learned not to trust my powers of recall. (And neither should anyone else.)
The first use is the more incriminating, since he presumably would have been working on What’s The Worst That Could Happen? in 1995. He might have submitted it before he left for Nottingham, or he might have finished it after the convention was over. It might be a reference to something he said (then wished he hadn’t), something somebody said that he said, or it could be a coincidence.
But it doesn’t prove anything. What are we trying to prove, precisely? That a deceased author of comic capers (and much else of consequence) did or did not belittle a subsequently deceased crafter of ‘cozies’ (not so cozy as all that), because she insinuated that you couldn’t write a satisfactory detective story about moral choices anywhere but the white middle class suburbs?
And anyway, isn’t there freedom of speech in the UK? Unwritten Constitution, you say? English Common Law, you say? Let’s just say we’re curious. That’s probably covered under English Common Law as well. I mean, going by the tabloids alone.
I looked around, and while a transcript for the offending BBC interview with James did exist, and probably does still, it doesn’t seem to be available to the general public now, and of course context is everything.
But there’s a lot of context one can pick up where such a prominent and vocal author is concerned, and I think we can, with cool heads, and a temporary disabling of our outrage circuits, figure out what she meant. “This is the kind of story I want to write, this is the way I want to write it, and I have to believe it’s the only proper way to write it, or I couldn’t write it with complete conviction.”
Some writers (including some of the very finest) are like that. Westlake wasn’t. To utilize the parlance of Isaiah Berlin, he was a fox. She was a hedgehog. I shall elucidate, of course. (Though really, the way she curled into a spiky ball after her fellow scribes berated her tells the tale in itself.)
He’d met her. He knew she was anything but a dimwit. But he also knew she was one of those people who tend to selectively narrow their horizons. Which is not necessarily the same thing as dimming your wits. Focus can be a good thing. And the middle class is well worth writing about, in any setting or genre (Westlake certainly concurred). Along with all the other classes, which is where we reach our sticking point with the Baroness.
When you need to know, every day, that you are doing the right thing, living the right life, writing the best stories, you will be be forced to conclude that certain other people are doing the wrong thing, living the wrong life, writing the wrong stories.
She hadn’t had much of a formal education, but neither had Westlake. They were both autodidacts, who learned by reading, living, and cross-referencing the two (it’s a good system). They were both children of the lower middle class who had risen above their station by dearth of hard work, but there the similarity ends, because Westlake went on identifying with his lowly origins, and developed a powerful dislike for the high and mighty.
James never forgot where she came from, but the memory had quite a different flavor for her. Her philosophy seems to be (and I’m not just extrapolating here, I’ve been reading a collection of nonfiction articles she published) “Yes, the social structure is inherently unfair, but some of us can move up, and we can all hope to move up, so let’s all be content with that.” (I don’t believe she’d have ever used a term so vulgar as ‘trickle-down.’)
She was no Mrs. Bucket (Bouquet, pardon mum), but she was quite chummy with Mrs. Thatcher. She was active in Tory politics. She had a whip. (Okay fine, but she’s got a straight razor in that photo up top.)
The American descendant of Irish Catholic peasants, who spent his life lampooning the rich and powerful, wasn’t going to think much of Thatcher or Tories, not that he was so PC either. But politics was never the most important thing to him. And I can only assume he’d have wondered, later on, why any successful writer would accept a voluntary demotion by going into politics, even if she never had to attend any hustings, or whatever they’re called.
Back to Nottingham: He was going to have been imbibing at least a bit at a trade convention (that’s why they hold the damn things). Her absence and its proximate cause would have been the #1 topic of conversation. He always liked a lively bit of backchat. Gossip is fun, and for any writer, fondly slagging one’s competitors in their (willful) absence is sheer heaven.
She’d promised to be there, and had then absented herself in a snit, her knickers in a proverbial twist, because she’d been raked over the coals in a newsletter nobody but other mystery writers ever read. The temptation to snark among those who were present (and had in some cases crossed an ocean to get there) would have been nigh-irresistible.
He said something. Which somebody remembered. It passed down the grapevine, which made its way to Fleet Street by obscure byways. Transmission error (combined with wishful thinking, the Brits like a spicy obit) could have done the rest. It might have happened like that. How the hell would I know?
But there’s the word ‘dimwit’ in two books he wrote afterwards, only pointed more at the people using the word than the ones subjected to it. And there’s the other thing, that perversely came out in the process of rebuttal. “She was lost in words years ago.”
See, I find it impossible to believe he’d just out and call her stupid in dead earnest, knowing she was no such thing–but that other phrase has a familiar ring of satire to it–this is, please remember, the man who once said of Ross MacDonald “He must have terrific carbon paper.” The implication being that MacDonald kept writing the same Lew Archer book, over and over again. That mot juste was published. In an anthology of articles by and about mystery writers. That saw print in 1977. MacDonald died in ’83.
Westlake could be scathing about other mystery writers, and writers in general. He could also be supportive and sympathetic, but something of the gamecock might come out in him, when a fellow scribbler got on a high horse.
For example, if a fellow mystery writer said something along the lines of “I know how you write a mystery, and everyone else is wrong.” Which, you know, would mean Dashiell Hammett was wrong. (The Telegraph obit writer’s most egregious error was to say Westlake wrote in the style of Chandler, a writer he had many times publicly disparaged. Obits are sometimes written by dimwits.)
It wouldn’t be about political correctness for him, though the elitism would have rankled. It would be more about professional pride. Not only his, but that of many others he admired. P.D. James wrote a very popular and enduring type of mystery, is widely acknowledged as a sophisticated proponent of that form, but she was, at most, one tiny alcove in a rambling old manse, built over the course of centuries, in every architectural style imaginable.
She’s a leading example of her style. It’s still just one style. Many will never agree it’s the most rewarding style. Though it’s really what you do with the style that matters.
Westlake was one of those very rare mystery writers who could convincingly straddle the hard-boiled and cozy styles, hybridize them. Starting out in the school of Hammett, he explored more of the manse than any crime writer I can think of. (Much more than James, whose oeuvre stands at fourteen Dalgliesh novels, two Cordelia Greys, and three miscellaneous entries, one of which is a Jane Austen pastiche with a murder in it–and short stories, but not that many. She had a late start. Better late than never.)
I don’t know if he spoke ill of Agatha Christie, as the infamous obit declared, but he sure as hell read and learned from her, as we’ve seen in the course of reviewing his mysteries. He may, at times, have been satirizing the conventions of classic whodunnits, but he knew them, backwards, forwards, sideways. He read everything.
He did locked room mysteries. He did manor mysteries. He did closed society mysteries, though they might be closed societies of outsiders. His manor might be a house in a small town that’s being used to bring mental patients back into the world, but it’s the same basic set-up James talked about–and nobody ever wrote a better mystery in that vein than Wax Apple. In which no one is truly good or evil, the detective refuses to think of himself as a detective, and yet right and wrong are very much the subject at hand. Morals, and misunderstandings, which is certainly the subject at hand for us now.
Perhaps no writer was ever better qualified to see both sides of the conflict that James’ remarks created, between the ‘cozy’ and ‘hard-boiled’ schools in Britain. But was he really in a position to play referee? He was just visiting.
She’d been a bit dismissive, perhaps unintentionally so, about those who wrote mystery novels set in high crime areas. Some of the hard-boiled kitchen sink school, resenting their elders and their higher book sales (because they’re aiming for a younger crowd, and older people make up a disproportionate section of the overall mystery audience, for reasons we needn’t dwell on now, but look who started a mystery blog in his 50’s) had been dismissive of her kind of story too. Both sides oversimplified.
There should have been a reasoned discussion of why what she said was wrong, but self-centered calumnies were more fun to write, and to read. The younger neo-noir crowd were chafing at the old guard, the old guard was bristling defensively, and Westlake would have remembered how he chafed under a different old guard, when he was writing science fiction.
(Which James also wrote, later in life, and refused to call it that. The Children of Men is an adaptation of her novel of the same name in much the same way Point Blank is an adaptation of The Hunter–if you look really close, you might catch a glimpse of the original plot and characters. She said she liked it, which in author-ese usually translates to “The check cleared.”)
Westlake had written about moral (and immoral, and amoral) choices, in all classes, in all kinds of settings. So had others. Even allowing for context, what she said was stupid. Nobody has ever lived who hasn’t said something stupid. But to say you can’t write a mystery story about moral choices in a crime-infested ghetto would, to me, indicate a complete ignorance of the work of Chester Himes, or anyone like him. And that kind of ignorance, for a writer, is a form of betrayal. A breaking of the ranks.
Because, you see, a writer is supposed to take interest in the whole world and everyone in it, and in particular everybody who writes about it, even if he/she can’t personally cover every corner of it, or read every book. You can still appreciate those who go where you can’t, tell you things you didn’t know, explain perspectives that differ from yours. That’s one of the reasons we have books. (To many of us reading or viewing ‘cozies’, an English middle class suburb is as exotic a locale as any–strange accents, odd food, arcane etiquette. I feel much more at home watching The Wire than I ever will Downton Abbey.)
At least in this instance, she didn’t appreciate those who ventured where she didn’t. Perhaps because she couldn’t. To her, the world she lived in and wrote about was The World. Everything else was just a shadow. Even her sophisticated suburban killers were more akin to her than the many good and decent people who lived in some violence-ridden slum.
(And you know, there are many gradations between a toney English suburb and ‘the pits of the worst possible inner city area.’ Yeesh. Not hard to break that code, and nothing she said afterwards could take away the taste it left in the mouth.)
She reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith, in her fascination with a more intellectual abstracted form of villainy–but James’ morality was a lot more simplistic (makes for better book sales, don’t you know). Highsmith, for all her many prejudices, knew there were all kinds of worlds out there, all kinds of people, and even if you didn’t like them, it never paid to ignore them. The boundaries between class, between race, are always porous. A hermetically sealed social environment is not only boring–it’s a fantasy. Doesn’t exist. Never did. Westlake wrote a book about cloistered monks, just to uncloister them. That’s where the fun is.
Some people read this type of murder mystery to feel safe. Cut off from the more complicated world that really scares them. A lot of people are like that, you know. All over the world, in all classes (it’s the peasant mentality in a nutshell, and we’re all peasants, you go back far enough). My world is the real world, my people are the real people. And they’re all wrong. There are as many ways to live a life as there are lives to be lived. And the sheer variety of life–and literature–was the principal delight of Donald Edwin Westlake. As they are to all foxes. (Though he had his comfort zone as well, and it got larger as he aged).
Now one other thing–her primary series character–a police detective. And a poet. A man of no moral failings at all, almost priestly in his devotion to duty, his lack of personal attachments. Her ideal. Westlake understood ideals. He also knew about Mary Sues. There’s a danger in getting so wrapped up in a character that you can’t see past him or her. He distrusted heroes, and perfect ones most of all.
James didn’t write police procedurals, where the department as a whole was the hero. She created a man who was born to be an independent sleuth–then made him an errand boy for the state–and never dealt, best as I can see (it’s not like I reviewed all her books, or any), with the contradictions that entailed. Well, that’s the sub-genre–in many ways, Lestrade has more descendants than Holmes. The brilliant heroic police inspector, seeking truth at all costs, has a large and legitimate place in the genre. (When they show up in reality, people tend to be less enthused, or have you never heard of John Stalker?)
A sub-genre she wanted to enlarge, make more complex, more challenging, and she did. But then, so did Westlake, when he wrote as Tucker Coe–whose cop-without-portfolio found moral choices in the oddest places. Even while he denied he was a detective. “The world is not one world, but a hundred thousand worlds, overlapping and yet almost entirely sealed off from one another.” Preach it, Brother Tobin.
There’s something else–if you’ve been reading Westlake for any length of time, you know how he felt about cops. You know how he felt, in particular, about detectives (and one of the reasons why, relating to his arrest as a young man–he sure didn’t meet any poets in that interrogation room).
And police detectives–well, they could be professionals, do their jobs honorably and well, and that was worth respecting. But to set one up as the ideal to which the rest of humanity should aspire? This was a man who spent much of his career writing about modern Robin Hoods (who robbed from the rich and kept it) and who’s her hero? The Sheriff of Fucking Nottingham. Who writes poetry on the side. There is an innate gulf of understanding there. To be sure, he wrote with great sympathy about Abraham Levine–but that’s the only series character he ever killed off.
James was herself often quite critical of other mystery writers–she and Westlake had that in common. She had an acerbic side, wasn’t afraid to deploy it in print. I think she suspected Westlake had said something critical of her, if only as a bit of backroom slagging, and the press had garbled it, as they so often do.
So like a good sport, she let the matter pass. It had been years ago, he’d just died, his family had shown the proper respect. To have even acknowledged an offense wouldn’t have been cricket (and might have revived the whole subject of her own dubious remarks). So she denied any offense had been given (which it might well not have been, she wasn’t there, a good detective never assumes).
Classy. It seems fair to say, P.D. James was all about class. Well, maybe that’s an oversimplification too. ( I wonder how many I’ve perpetrated here, but there’s only so much time I can devote to this quaint little cul de sac I’ve pulled us down.)
It seems entirely fair to say I pulled most of that out of my ass. But this story bugs me. It’s a mystery, begging to be solved. For crime writers, words alone are certain good, the ultimate murder weapons, and they can deploy them with cold-blooded efficiency. In this case, there’s no way to dust the weapon for fingerprints.
But there was means, motive, opportunity. Circumstantial evidence. As to James herself, I’d like to read a transcript of that Beeb interview–just based on what we know, we’ve got her dead to rights. But she had a right to her opinion. And to her legacy, which I wouldn’t take from her if I could, and couldn’t if I would.
I do wonder what he really said at Nottingham. We’ve established he knew the word dimwit. He knew worse than that, I’ll bet. So did she. But their respective schools both live on, in altered form, each serving its purpose. There’s plenty of room for both of them in the Mystery Manse, and thousands more besides. The game’s afoot! (Just try not to stick the foot in your mouth.)
But you know, I realize now, I’d much rather know what they said to each other at that dinner they both attended, and whether they had a chance to talk shop, talk books–maybe discuss their mutual admiration for Trollope? A writer whose predilection for political satire, disguised as melodrama, certainly influenced Westlake. And I might give that a look next. Ex officio, you might say.
And still quibble-worthy. Not everything in Westlake is about money (not that Bradfield said it was, and I can understand him needing a focal point). Money isn’t something his heroes seek for its own sake, but rather so they can remain independents, remain free, remain themselves. Identity was his topic, money was the modus operandi. But a damned important one, and he’s got the right idea here. The Organization Men vs. The Independents, and it’s never hard to tell which side Westlake is on.
Loved the reference to Harlan Ellison–see, Westlake was never that colorful. He didn’t tend to draw attention to himself (even in school, he said, he wasn’t the funny kid, he was the kid who hung around with the funny kid).
So he developed his readership, attracted many a prominent admirer, while he operated below the radar–like most of his protagonists. Because he was afraid, I think, that if too many people had an image of him, it might screw up his self-image. And that’s a legitimate fear. Writers who become too famous often lose track of what made them writers in the first place.
And it too often happens that The Next Book becomes a monster they have to slay, instead of a new friend they can’t wait to make the acquaintaince of. They end up spending most of their time burnishing their sacred reputations–always with that Memento Mori echoing in their heads, reminding them that posterity will stick most of them on a dusty neglected shelf, to make room for new names.
Westlake was never one of the writers everybody talks about. Never a Literary Lion, an icon of the book world, a celebrity. He was something better than that. He was a storyteller, who people showed up to read just because he was fun, and he told people things they needed to know to survive in this world.
I recently advocated for him to get a Library of America collection, and no doubt at all his work merits it–but I had other doubts. Maybe that would be a kind of prison for a writer like him. I definitely don’t think his work that’s perpetually in print should get that treatment.
Some of his best novels have been out of print a long time now, because they fall through the cracks, don’t fit the mental images of any of his disparate readerships, and those are the ones I’d like to see revived, somehow, because you can’t understand Westlake without them. Vital pieces to the puzzle, like Adios Scheherazade and Up Your Banners. Which do still have a lot to say to the world as it is now. I know what Bradfield means about the WASPy gangsters (though there were a lot of Micks and Dagos and Jews thrown in the mix), but Westlake did not always write about white folks.
Because he broadcast on so many different wavelengths, often represented by different author names, it was more like he had many reputations, instead of one–everybody knew him, but nobody knew the same guy. You could never nail him down, pigeonhole him, bring him to justice. He’d always find a crack to slip through, and get away. Like Dortmunder. Like Parker.
Let me quibble once more with this superb piece. Bradfield makes it sound like Grofield is tender-hearted, refusing to go on a job where innocent people might get hurt. In The Stark Lands there is no such thing as innocent people. He just figures the less mess you make, the less attention you draw to yourself. Unlike Parker, he can feel guilt, but he doesn’t tend to let it stop him. It would be self-deceiving for him to go around thinking you can rob supermarkets and payrolls with loaded guns and nobody but other criminals will get hurt. Grofield has his flaws, but he doesn’t lie to himself.
I agree he’s a great character, but he’s not in the same league as Parker, and there’s a reason Westlake stopped writing about him. Too many internal contradictions, and no way to resolve them in that kind of book. Grofield is a fascinating experiment, that didn’t work out as well as Westlake hoped (so Stark pulled the trigger on him).
But see, this is my point–Bradfield has his Westlake. I have mine. You have yours. They’re all real. And they’re all projections. And there the real Westlake goes, out the back door, laughing at all of us. Well, we’re funny. Bradfield refers to the Trumpian adversaries of Westlake’s fiction (at least one of whom was partly modeled after Trump). We made Trump President (some of us). We’re funny as a heart attack, man.
But he was in deadly earnest, and never more when he was joking. It wouldn’t kill us to recognize that more. This is one of the greatest and most enduring American writers, who pulled off an amazing magic trick–to publish one popular well-received novel after another, for five decades, without ever really becoming famous, or revered–or forgotten. The cover art changes, the books go on. Not because they’re ‘important’ but because people can’t stop reading them. Now they’re impulses on the internet. Next….?
Missing my comments section cohorts, so if anybody else has quibbles–with Bradfield or me–speak up. Hey, I’ve got another one–why has there never been anything like this in the New York Review of Books? “A prophet is not without honor, except in his home town.” Mark that well. (Had to get a pun in there somewhere.)
Portrait of US writer Donald Westlake. Portrait de l’ecrivain américain Donald Westlake.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.
But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.
“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”
“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”
“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”
“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.
“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”
Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”
“Ourselves,” Kelp said.
“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”
“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.
From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.
I love John Dortmunder.
I mean, not that way. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here. Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here. And I’m hardly alone in this. My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.
Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved. Nor does he give a damn if he is or not. Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him. Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.
Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with? We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.
And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true? Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon. You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not. Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.
I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car. No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories. Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all. (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)
Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy. Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here. With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.
One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy. True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century. Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it. He must have known that. Nor was this such a new sensation. He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life. Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.
But there are compensations. To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them. You may even get an inkling of things yet to come. And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning. So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.
All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work. The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.
The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them. We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing. Must that always be true? I could not say.
But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.
So what’s different? This time they know about it. I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger. To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before. Self-awareness is one thing. Self-consciousness quite another.
And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched. Most of all when you’re playing to a camera. Playing yourself. Instead of just being yourself. Which was hard enough to begin with.
To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work. What you do shapes everything about you. He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.
Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs. If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere. (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.) But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.
And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that. Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it. Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins. The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself. Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it. To be is to be perceived.
This is normal for entertainers, of course. That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?) But how about a writer? Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.
Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore. B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either. I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed. Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.
If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.
Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it. He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower. Few can claim to be that focused.
Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him. Maybe not even then. In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be. To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.
To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?
I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting. As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool. They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies. They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.
Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars. Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him. That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.
So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system. As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.
Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it. (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)
Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing. He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete. He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff. I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same. Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work. There is no Jobs, no CEO. Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers. An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.
It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow. Creative anarchism. (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates). And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea. No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.
Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it. Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires. So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer. Here’s just one exchange from that process. (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years). Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.
“Wires,” decided Kelp.
They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”
Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “
Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”
His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.
Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”
“I got it.”
“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”
Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”
“Same as last time. Comere.”
They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”
“You got it.”
“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”
“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”
Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “
“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—
“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”
The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”
“Can’t you hear anything?”
“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”
Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes. Dortmunder accepts. Graciously, if a bit stiffly.
Why is this work so good to watch? Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment. This, in a nutshell, is fiction. (And life, or it ought to be.)
Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted. There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions. They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”
I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape. Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.
Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty). Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap. But we watch it. Because it’s fun! Vérité be damned, we crave variety.
(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon. Won’t even mention Keanu. Too obvious. Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity. The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)
The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject. They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.
And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros in their own field–and what’s their job? To make you look good doing your job. Which makes them look good at their jobs. One hand jacking off the other. Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.
The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell. This is not who they are. If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived. To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.
They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company). They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it. That’s how they get real.
They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all. It’s not what they do. Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know. To thine own self be true.
Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a huff, because really. Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.
The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’ You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it. There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars. Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.” Well, maybe if it’s a diner.
The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you. Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops. Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet. Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere? Andy? Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom. The internet is definitely not there.
But Doug is, and that’s even worse. He doesn’t belong in the real OJ. They shut the door in his face. But he persists. The corporate overlords love the new heist show. They want to go ahead with it. Please, please come back! They’re kind of meh about it. The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way? Doug says that’s not how reality works. John says “Why not? How real is reality anyway?” That is the question, all right.
But they come back. Because money. And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera. Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene. Very stiff. But that’s okay, they can carry him. They’re professionals. They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.
So they pull the job. The cash is there, just like they thought. So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that. Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it. Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.
To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen. This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway. I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.
There’s a ton of cash in there. Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is. The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home. The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again. They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.
So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was. They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left. Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it. $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.
“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.” He smiles. And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past? The Avalon Bank Tower heist. The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better? Because it’s repeatable. They can keep going back for more. As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.
Except they don’t work there anymore. Corporate moves in mysterious ways. Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals. They can’t be associated with crime!
(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again. Westlake was still thinking about Trump. Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.
Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building. TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real. And it’s TUI that cancels the show. I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016. Much as his insights may be missed.)
So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent. Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs. Everybody else is fired. The show is canceled. Shut it down.
Just in time, too. They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news. Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook. “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place. You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”
Like himself, but not himself. Just like the others. They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly. Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio. Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy? You can dish it out but you can’t take it!
Marcy is so happy. This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé. The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play. Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned. Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.
Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one. 10k a hood, I mean head. Plus they got some money upfront. Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud). Plus they got the money from the dishwasher. Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out. (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)
“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks. Already snapping back to his old self. You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it. It’s a living. We suppose.
Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate. Dortmunder feels bad for her. She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not. She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something. Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash. “There’s an idea,” says Kelp. He doesn’t stop walking. Disappears around the corner. Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.
John, stop. Wait. Come back, John. Please come back. You can’t leave us. We love you. John?
Just like the man who first made him real. I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right? He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.
But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once. The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage. There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits. And that’s us, get it? We’re the fairies. Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.
Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality. Transcendent reality. And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again. (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).
Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming. I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way. The best way is to read the books. Over and over. Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it? Which is what I re-read Get Real on. Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind. And share it with someone who loves you. Then you’ll be real too.
Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what? No more? Well then. Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself. I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my job. It’s been real. You know? Open bar at the OJ. Bourbon’s on me. Tell Rollo Fred sent you.
PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words. Uploaded it to YouTube. You can view it here.