Category Archives: Donald Westlake

Mr. Westlake, The Baroness, and The Mysterious Affair at Nottingham

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 TimeButcher’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 nitwit.

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, meld them, cross-reference 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 New Jersey 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.



Filed under Donald Westlake

Plug: Scott Bradfield’s Westlake Review

Came across a link to this on VWOP.  One of the best overviews I’ve ever read.  

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.)


Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark

Review: Get Real, Part Last


“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 would 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.

“You’re right.”

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!” “


“Start listening!”

“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—


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.

You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)


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

Addendum: The Mystery of Joseph Albert

“I’ll carry the message,” Meany said.

“Yes, you will,” Parker agreed.  “On the floor.”

“I’ll carry it now!  I’ll make a phone call!”

“Who to?

Meany licked his lips.  His elbows were twitching back and forth from the strain of holding his hands together on top of his head.  “One of the owners,” he said. “A guy that can make the offer.”

“What’s his name?”

Meany didn’t like doing this, but he knew he had no choice.  “Joseph Albert.”

Parker looked at Arthur.  “Do you know that name?”

From Firebreak, by Richard Stark.

“You look more like your mother than your father,” he said.

Then I got it.  “You’re a lying son of a bitch,” I said.

“You look a lot more like her. I know.  I see your father in the mirror every morning.”

I laughed at him.  “You’re crazy, or you think we are.  Or are you just wisecracking again?”

“It’s true,” he said.

Bill said, “What the hell’s going on?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve written my last Stark review.  (Unless there’s some unpublished manuscript out there, awaiting rediscovery.  I think we’d know by now.)  Not my last Stark analysis by a long shot.  There will always be more to say about an author that interesting, even if he was just one voice within the convoluted cranium of Donald Edwin Westlake.

But I did think, after typing out three part reviews of  Firebreak and Dirty Money, that I had at least covered the bases for both those books, plumbed their essential mysteries  Again, I’m forced to say–I was wrong.  I missed the most tantalizing mystery of all.

Throughout the series, starting with The Hunter, Parker had come up against arrogant mob bosses.  Taking money from them, waging wars of attrition upon them, forming alliances of convenience with them, and, more than once, murdering them when they became sufficiently irksome.

Arthur Bronson.  Walter Karns.  Adolf Lozini.  Louis Buenadella.  The excellent character guide for these books maintained at the University of Chicago Press website, glosses over the details a bit when it refers to them all as members of ‘The Outfit.’  Lozini and Buenadella are midwestern mafiosi, aware of The Outfit (still headed by Karns at the time of Butcher’s Moon), loosely affiliated with it perhaps, but not under its sway. Only Bronson, Karns and their various subordinates referred to in the first sixteen novels would count as members of that national syndicate, peddling vice to the masses.

To Parker, I should add, the differences between various criminal organizations are meaningless, semantic–their names are just words these people play with to pretend they’re something more than thieves, like him.  He recognizes them as part of his world, on the same general side of the law as him, and sometimes he has to deal with them. Thorough-going independent that he is, he can never identify with any such group.  His ethos and theirs are diametrically opposed.  In this, Parker represents his creator’s own deep feelings about authority, and more specifically, corporations, legal and otherwise.

The final such enterprise Parker encountered, first in Firebreak, then again in Dirty Money, was Cosmopolitan Beverages, an ‘import/export’ business (another fancy name, this time for smuggling), headquartered in Bayonne NJ, run day to day by Frank Meany, described as a semi-reformed thug wearing expensive suits.

But The Big Boss (one of five, we’re told), is named Joseph Albert.  We never see him,  Parker only talks to him on speakerphone.  We’re told his voice is heavy, guarded.  He sounds educated–doesn’t talk like a thug, reformed or otherwise (we’ll assume his suits are even nicer than Meany’s).  A CEO of crime.  If that’s not too redundant a term.

By the end of Dirty Money, by default the end of his story, Parker has formed yet another alliance of convenience, this time with Cosmopolitan.  He’ll sell them the roughly two million dollars from the bank in Massachusetts,  for 200k in untraceable cash–they can launder the bills overseas.  Gives him money to live on, gives them a little more liquidity.

He attaches one more condition to the deal–they put him on their employment rolls, vouch for him with the straight world, so he can create a new identity for himself, have a driver’s license and passport that will hold up to all but the most intense scrutiny.  A strictly no-show job (mob guys know all about those).  Meany and Albert will be only his nominal bosses–but still–it’s a compromise.  The biggest he’s ever made.

The Information Age is becoming a problem. Forcing him to make difficult choices.  But he never flinches from those.  Without good ID, he’s not going to stay free much longer.  But it suddenly occurs to me–what he’s doing here is not entirely unlike what Mal Resnick did–for very different motives–when he gave all the money he and Parker had stolen together to The Outfit, to regain his position there.

Joseph Albert is briefly referenced in Dirty Money–Meany clears the exchange with him, and reports to Parker that Mr. Albert said that if Meany wanted to cut a deal with a son of a bitch like that, it’s up to him.  In Firebreak, remember, Parker had more than hinted that if Albert didn’t call off the hit on him they’d ordered as a favor to Paul Brock, he’d be putting one out on Albert, after he killed Meany.  And carrying out the contract in person, as usual.  Difficult to say how personally Albert took that threat.  On the phone, he sounded very cold and businesslike.  More of a Karns than a Bronson.

So what would have happened if there had been more novels?  Would this arrangement have held?  There are reasons to doubt it.  Parker has effectively shared his score with them.  Suppose they decide they want a share of subsequent heists?  Suppose they decide he really is their employee?  Suppose they have little errands for him to run?  How much can he say no to, before they tell him play ball or his cover’s blown?  He and Claire can walk away from the house in New Jersey, but it would be harder for him to walk away from his new name (whatever it is).

You have to figure there would be some kind of showdown.  Perhaps not as sanguinary as the previous wars.  But when Parker has a problem with middle management, he always wants to go straight to the top.  And that’s not Meany.  That’s Albert.  Interesting name, that.  Joseph Albert. Is that the whole moniker, or just first and middle?  You know, like Sinatra was sometimes called Francis Albert.

I don’t know how I missed this for so long.  Granted, when I started reading these books, I  had almost no background info on their author.  But it’s been a few years since I learned the name of Westlake’s father.  Albert Joseph Westlake. That’s right.

And I also learned that after Albert Joseph’s death, Westlake discovered his father knew people in organized crime, back during the Prohibition era. He may, in fact, have done accounting work for bootleggers.  You know.  People who smuggle alcoholic beverages, among other things.  Import/Export.  A very cosmopolitan trade, I’ve heard.

So shall we chalk this up to coincidence, or a private joke?  I don’t think so.  He’s telling us something.  He knows most of his readers won’t twig to it, but he thinks some of us will (I doubt I’m the first).  The Parker novels aren’t whodunnit mysteries (The Jugger being a partial exception), but mysteries they are, all the same.  Mystery writers give you clues.  It’s up to you to put the pieces together.  To look underneath the surface of things.  These books were never just about stealing and killing.

But what is this about?  Was Parker headed for an “I am your father” moment?  Pretty sure he turned to the dark side a long time ago.  The supreme mystery of the series–the one we never got close to solving–was where did someone as strange as Parker come from in the first place?

We know he served in the army during WWII in his early teens, going by his age when we meet him (and this is something that happened a lot more than people think).  We know he got dishonorably discharged after getting involved in the black market, and that it didn’t bother him one bit.

We know he lived in cities when he was younger, never felt at home there.  We know he got involved with armed robbery somehow, after the war.  We know he got married, that he was in love with his wife, but that he lost all interest in sex a few months after he pulled a job, only to have his libido ramp back up again after he pulled another.  That’s it.  He is never seen to think about anybody he knew before all that.  He doesn’t have any tattoos (unless you count bullet wounds), but if he did, you can bet none of them would say “Mother.”

His alternate universe mirror twin, John Dortmunder, was found abandoned at the door of a convent, when only a few minutes old.  Raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  So did something comparable (but utterly devoid of comic overtones) happen to Parker?  Only without the nuns, or a long stretch in prison?  Is that why he had to grow up so fast? Or was he ever really a kid at all?  Who–or what–could have given birth to such an unaccountable creature?  Who could have fathered him? Being a foundling doesn’t explain him in the least. Maybe nothing could.

The Hunter was written more or less in tandem with 361, the best of Westlake’s early crime novels, before he became known more for comic capers under his own name.  (Both books feature the George Washington Bridge in their opening chapters.)  It’s a taut little noir masterpiece, about a young man named Ray Kelly, just out of the army, who finds out the man he sees as his father wasn’t always an honest lawyer–he used to work for a mob boss.  The mob boss, named Kapp, is Ray’s biological father.  Who tries to make the protagonist accept him as his true father.  Doesn’t go well.

Ray’s mother killed herself, when he was very young.  The mobster tells him she was–different.  She married Ray’s foster father first, had a son with him.  Motherhood brought something out of her, something Kapp couldn’t quite describe, something that attracted him, so he took her, and she went, willingly.  Ray looks like her, he’s told–and he’s like her in less obvious ways.  He has his father’s brains, drive, genius for criminal intrigue, and violence comes naturally to him–but he’s not a joiner.  Not an organization man.  Independent to the core.

And he wants the truth, at all costs.  He wants to know about himself, even if it means destroying every last vestige of his old identity.  He’s telling us all this in first person narrator form.  And we still feel like he’s not really sharing with us.  Always holding back.  A stranger on this earth, as much as anyone Camus (or Dinah Washington) ever imagined.

It’s not hard to divine that 361 was part of how Westlake dealt with mixed feelings about his family.  The man who raised Ray Kelly clearly loved him, was loved in return.  As Westlake was loved by the man who got him out of trouble, when he was caught stealing equipment from a college laboratory for pocket change.  Then apologized to his son for not being able to give him everything he needed in life. But is that all there was to the relationship?  Gratitude and guilt?

Albert Joseph Westlake worked very hard, kept his own counsel.  On the road for business, he felt a heart attack coming on, checked into a hotel, drank cheap liquor until it had passed.  When he lost his job, he went out day after day, as if he was still employed, keeping it from his wife and children for months.  Because that’s what he thought a man does.  Whatever he may or may not have done for bootleggers–that wasn’t something he ever shared with his son, and his wife didn’t know much about it either–just that a well-known gangster once approached him, addressed him as Al.

Westlake had his doubts about this way of living, but he could respect it.  What he couldn’t do was accept the life his father had chosen–whether it was working for a company or a mob.  He was going to work for himself, hew to a different path.  His father never lived to see him succeed on that path.  Is it likely the father had nothing to say about the pragmatic drawbacks of the career choice his son had made?

With rare exceptions (Up Your Banners comes to mind) Westlake never wrote too much about parent/child relationships.  He came at them obliquely, for the most part.  So yes, I think this is another case of that sideways glance at his own childhood–feeling his father never was honest and open with him.  Feeling abandoned at times by a mother who worked constantly herself.  Feeling like a cuckoo in the nest. Different. Odd.

But at the end of the day–and Dirty Money was written at the very end–hadn’t Westlake ultimately spent his life working for corporations?  Literary agencies, publishers, film studios.  Yes, freelance work.  What’s the difference?  It still amounts to giving the bosses what they want in exchange for the money to support yourself and your loved ones.  He was more creative than his father, sure.  More independent.  Lots richer. But in his mind, Albert Joseph Westlake still loomed over him.  As fathers tend to do, all the more in death.

What was going to happen? Is Joseph Albert literally Parker’s long lost sire, or just a sly subtextual metaphor for Donald Edwin’s conflicted emotions regarding Albert Joseph?  Could be both.  Not neither.

Would Parker have been forced to go to war with Albert, to kill him, or be killed by him?  Would he declare independence once more, or would he be drawn further in for a time, as Ray Kelly was?  Would we at least find out who his mother was?

Remember Quittner, from Butcher’s Moon?  Somebody like Parker, it’s implied–who had joined a criminal syndicate, surrendered his independence.  And over time, this compromise had eaten away at his sense of self.  Made him a shadow of the wolf he was born to be.  Unable to cope with the wilder freer version of himself he was confronted by in Tyler.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to Parker too.  But would Stark allow that?  Could he prevent it?  The romanticism of the earlier books was, as I’ve already mentioned, starting to wear thin in the latter ones.

I think no matter how many more Parker novels Westlake had written, we’d never have gotten all the answers.  But as matters worked out, we got none.  Just a question that was never asked out loud.  Who is Joseph Albert?  And why, when Meany comes to him with Parker’s offer, does he say (according to Meany), “If you want to deal with a son of a bitch like him, it’s okay with me”?

Technically any male wolf–well, I’m reading too much into it.  I do that sometimes.  But the mystery remains.  Everyone in this world faces the same mystery.   Who was my father?  Who was my mother?  That relationship can span most of our lives.  We can love them, hate them, condemn them, forgive them, ignore them.  Do we ever know them?  And if not, do we ever really know ourselves?

Search your feelings.  You know it to be true.


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

Mr. Parker and The Casting Call

Office women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations above their nylons.  He was big and shaggy, with flat square shoulders, and arms too long in sleeves too short.–

–His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.  His hair was brown and dry and dead, blowing around his head like a poor toupee about to fly loose.  His face was a chipped chunk of concrete, with eyes of flawed onyx.  His mouth was a quick stroke, bloodless.  His suit coat fluttered behind him, and his arms swung easy as he walked.

“I saw Point Blank at a film festival a year or so ago, and I was absolutely shocked. I’d forgotten.  It was a rough film.  The prototype.  You’ve seen it a thousand times since in other forms.  That was a troubled time for me, too, in my own personal relationship, so I used an awful lot of that in making the picture, even the suicide of my wife.”

Actors.  Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em.  Well, some do both, of course.  That second quote up top is from Dwayne Epstein’s Lee Marvin: Point Blank, and I feel I must point out that the trouble in Marvin’s personal life was the break-up of his first marriage, to Betty Ebeling (why am I suddenly reminded of a passage from Adios, Scheherazade?

She did not commit suicide.  She left her movie star husband, because he drank, and he saw other women, and she had a hard time of it for a while there, but she published a tell-all biography, and got a career, and she made out okay.  Her ex maybe a little better.

Marvin, being an actor, was conflating his own past emotional tumults with that of his character, Walker–a character he’d played once, decades before.  Whose wife commits suicide.  In the movie Point Blank, directed by John Boorman.  Based on The Hunter, written by Richard Stark, aka Donald Westlake.  (I’m not sure Marvin ever read the book.)

But he did like something about the character in the original script, drawn heavily from the novel, that he literally threw out the window when he took control of the project, and gave it over to Boorman, who made a very interesting movie with a largely incoherent story, and it bombed.  Marvin had The Dirty Dozen out the same year, so again, he was fine.  Lee Marvin was always going to be fine. And he was the best actor ever to play Parker, the one who got closest to the character.  No cigar, mind you.

He wasn’t the first to play some version of Parker.  That was Anna Karina.  I’m not counting her.  Don’t yell chauvinism, I’m not counting Peter Coyote or Jason Statham either.  I think there are four film adaptations, from 1967 to 1973, of four Stark novels,  (plus one 1999 ‘remake’ I can’t leave out, though I’d like to), that are close enough to even talk about as adaptations.  Five performances worth evaluating as attempts to portray a fictional character who has been notoriously difficult to portray.

All are entertaining.  All have casts to brag on.  None of them got it right.  The books or the character behind them. Parker has eluded everyone who ever tried to capture him on film.  To be fair, some weren’t trying that hard.  Their interests lay elsewhere.

But let’s note two things–the books must have been popular to get four radically different adaptations, in so short a time, most of them featuring big names above the title.  And even if none of the movies hit big, they still gave a substantial boost to Westlake’s career.  And therefore, to Stark’s career.  And hence, to Parker’s longevity.  Would we have twenty-four Parker novels if not for those first four Parker movies?  The relationship can’t be denied, however poorly the progeny resemble the parent.

Let’s beg another question.  Could anybody get it right now?  Could anybody have gotten it right at any time in the past?  Is Parker just too elusive to be captured on film, pixels, or whatever they’re using now?  Big screen, small screen, episodic, serialized–could it ever work?  Should we give a damn either way?  Is there any better way to ruin a good book than to make a movie of it?

Thing is, we make a movie in our heads, every time we read a work of prose fiction.  We cast the characters from a pool composed of actors living and dead, people we have loved or loathed or just seen in passing on the street.  Quite often the result is a composite of all the above, an ideal, something that could never exist outside our heads.  Real casting directors have to settle for what’s available.  (And within their price range, and of course they have to think about things like name recognition, drawing power.  I don’t.)

So let’s start by talking about these five very different stars who at least got within spitting range of the character (who wouldn’t waste spit on any of them).  And next time, I’m going to talk about actors, ranging across a pretty broad span of time, who I think might have gotten closer.  With the right script.  The right co-stars.  The right director.  The right producer.  The right timing.  Sheahright.

(All the while aware that I’ve got one more novel to review here, but allow me this one last diversion before that part of the blog runs its course.)

Let’s run them down, one by one.


Though an argument could be made for #2 on this list, Lee Marvin should probably be considered the first actor who tried to play Parker.  (I don’t know what Anna Karina was trying to do, and judging by what I’ve read about the filming of Made In USA, neither did she.)

Does Parker have prematurely white hair?  No, and he probably doesn’t have blue eyes, though ‘onyx’ is a touch ambiguous.  Details.  Marvin’s face, his body language, his gaze, and most of all his voice, set the benchmark all subsequent interpretations have fallen short of.

Marvin, as he later indicated, was in a disturbed abstracted emotional state when he made Point Blank, because his marriage had broken up (there is some reason to think Westlake’s first marriage was getting rocky when he wrote The Hunter; it ended shortly before Marvin’s did).

After toiling in obscurity for years, he became an A-Lister almost overnight, an Oscar winner, the guy everybody wanted.  He’d already been through hell in the Pacific, and later he made a movie by that name.  There are things no acting class can teach you.  Life is the ultimate Method.

I’ve already talked plenty elsewhere about what I admire and deprecate in this film.  Marvin bears equal responsibility for both.  He had so much clout by then, he could give John Boorman final cut.  He trusted Boorman, and was willing to experiment.  Boorman, grateful beyond measure, was willing to take ad-libs (Walker blankly repeating what somebody says to him, as if it’s meaningless) and incorporate them into the film, often to good effect.

The end result is very very very strange.  Compellingly so.  Also confusingly.  At the end of the day, I don’t believe this film has anything at all to say.  It’s all surface.  But what surface.  You could fill an art gallery with nothing but stills from this movie.  And at the center of it is a performance like no other.

Without any pressure to create a character with comprehensible human motivations (since Walker may in fact be a ghost, or else having a fever dream of vengeance as he lies dying on Alcatraz Island), Marvin was free to just react–or not react.  To sit and stare at nothing at all, while we wonder what he’s thinking about.  To walk down a hallway with cold dead eyes, like he’s Murder Incarnate, which he well might be (even though he never directly kills anyone in the whole movie).

He doesn’t explain himself.  He doesn’t share anything with  us.  He doesn’t seem human.  He doesn’t react to anything he encounters in the story as a normal man would. Except Angie Dickinson, and that works fine for Parker too.  It’s just–perfect.  The script isn’t, but hey, quibbling.

If you contrast his performances as Walker with his character in The Dirty Dozen (a military heist film, Marvin as the planner, putting together a string, pulling a job), and his laconic hitman in Don Siegel’s The Killers, you see an actor uniquely outfitted to play this character.  And with no further interest in playing him.  To Marvin, this was just an interesting gig.  That ended when Boorman yelled “That’s a wrap!”

He flat out refused to do sequels (don’t hold your breath waiting for Dirty Dozen 2, though they never do stop remaking it under other names).  So even if Point Blank had done Godfather numbers at the box office, he wouldn’t have done another. A sequel to Point Blank wouldn’t have made any narrative sense, anyhow.  Which would at least have been consistent with the first film.

Marvin’s professional standards and perverse free-roving individualism–the things that make him resemble Parker even when he’s not playing Parker–made him unattainable for any further adaptations.  If there was ever an actor too well-suited to the role of Parker, Lee Marvin was it.

However, if there was ever someone genetically engineered to play Parker it was–


Not a lot of people out there have seen Mise a Sac (aka Pillaged) in a theater.  I’m one of them, and it was a beautiful pristine print from Le Cinematheque Francaise, on loan to the Museum of Modern Art, with subtitles projected below the screen, a large appreciative audience present.

I had a cold, but figured the chance might never come again, and so far, it hasn’t.  I sucked on Mentholyptus to keep coughing to a minimum, become far too engrossed to worry about bronchitis setting in, and far as I’m concerned, this is the best and truest adaptation of anything Westlake ever wrote.  And one of the most cunningly subversive crime films ever.

Westlake himself only saw it when visiting someone in France–they had taped it off TV.  No subtitles.  He said it looked good.  Not as good as Point Blank, which he always said was the best (not his favorite, that’s different). He had nothing to say about Michel Constantin’s performance.  I’m not sure his performance is really the point here.  It’s more about his presence.

Constantin was one of those guys who almost never got to play the lead.  He was mainly in crime films, a second banana in most–this is probably as close to a starring role as he ever got.  6’1, an inch shorter than Marvin, but that, combined with his lean build, craggy facial features, and a certain je ne sais quois, made him an eerie monstrous figure, towering over most of his cast mates.

Read that description of Parker up top.  Other than his thick black hair (which matches descriptions from later books) he’s a direct match.  Ugly, but in a way that probably gave a lot of women vibrations above their nylons.

He’s just–right.  I can’t explain it.  He doesn’t look like a movie star.  He doesn’t act like a movie star.  Because he’s not a movie star.  He’s some guy off the street who got tapped on the shoulder, and said “Pourquoi pas?”   (I bet he didn’t get paid like a movie star either.)

There are moments when he’s just walking down a street, his hands at his sides, and if you’re a Stark reader, you almost gasp.  He’s not somebody they pulled out of central casting.  He’s somebody they pulled off the cover of a vintage crime paperback.  You can’t believe this guy exists in three dimensions.  And then, as I said in my earlier review of this movie, he opens his mouth and ruins everything.  Well, he’s got to say what the script tells him to, right?  And in French, to boot.

Like I said, he wasn’t a star.  He would have had basically no clout on set, and maybe he never wanted any.  He wasn’t the kind of actor who gets called upon to act, which would be good, if the director knew what to do with that.  This is the best adaptation of a Parker story by far, but it’s a Parker story where Parker, as we know him, doesn’t exist.

What we have in his place is a workaday French thief, tough but not ruthless, operating out in the provinces. Laid-back, professional, courteous, jokes with his colleagues, and only shows flashes of the explosive violence we associate with the character he’s derived from.  This is an ensemble piece, no big names in the cast, no one player dominating. It works for the story being told.  But that story has been edited.

I believe Alain Cavalier understood what Westlake was doing with The Score, but he wasn’t quite doing the same thing.  He’s better at the visual end of things than he is at the dialogue (though he’s got a hell of a writer collaborating with him on the script, in Claude Sautet).

I don’t know if he could have done a heist film where they got the money and lived to spend it, and never even thought of reforming, but I can’t say I’ve seen a single French heist film where that happened.  Existentialism has a morality all its own.  And it’s not Starkian morality.  Damn Sartres, anyway.

Cavalier, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to make Parker the criminal juggernaut he is in the books.  He’s much more interested in Edgar, the character filling in for Edgars, the one whose vendetta against a town drives the plot.  I don’t agree, but I can’t really argue  That’s what most filmmakers would do in his place, unless they had a major star playing Parker, and he doesn’t.

It’s one novel, filmed out of sequence.  How much time does he have to explain Georges to us?  Very little, so he doesn’t try.  Would it be better if we got some backstory, flashbacks, monologues, telling us why this guy robs banks and jewelry stores for a living?  It would be much worse.  You have to respect the integrity of the story being told, which in its turn, respects the book it’s riffing on, much more than Boorman respected The Hunter, or John Flynn The Outfit.

Say what you will about how Cavalier used his version of Parker, he picked the right guy to play him.  And then didn’t give him enough to do, or the right direction as to how he should do it.  Frustrating.  Because I don’t think Constantin would have needed much coaching at all to hit that elusive bullseye, dead solid center.

There’s something about him–this watchful quality.  Which is, you know, the mark of a good actor–much more how you listen than how you talk.  There’s this great sense of situational awareness about Georges, an understanding that yeah, these are his fellow pros, the men he has to trust his freedom with, and he better not take his eyes off them for a minute.  He leans in when he’s talking to them, he enjoys their company–but he never lets his guard down–until one crucial moment.  And he becomes the second actor playing Parker to get knocked on his keister by some boob he should be able to take apart one-handed.  Oh well.  Nothing’s perfect.

I have my problems with the way this movie wraps up (the way most heist movies wrap up).  But I like the final moments of it very much, and I bet Westlake did too.

It’s been frustrating for me to have to describe this movie to fellow enthusiasts who haven’t seen it.  No DVD in the offing, there may be issues with the rights.  But it’s been shown on TV many times (though never in the U.S. that I know of), and maybe you should sit down now.  You probably are sitting down.  You ready for this?

Somebody uploaded the entire movie to YouTube last year.    Crappy print. Pretty sure this was originally taped off TV with a VCR, like the version Westlake watched, only this one has subtitles.  May have been edited for broadcast.  But this is probably as good as it gets for now.  And watching a bit of it just now, my estimation of Constantin’s Parker went up, not down.  The movie’s opinion of him may be wrong, but he’s just right.

But suppose they were to cast somebody who was super-tough in real life–on the gridiron, no less.  And given that many of Parker’s earliest fans were black men, isn’t it only fair that a black man get to play him?  Wouldn’t it be cool if he had an eclectic troupe of brilliant quirky thespians supporting his criminal venture?  Well, it would have been, if not for the script.  Again.


The worst of the five films I’m looking at here, The Split coulda woulda shoulda been the best.  An adaptation of what many consider the best book of the series, I’d be willing to make all kinds of allowances for it, given the talent assembled here.  They transplanted the action west again, but okay (insert eyeroll here).  They spend too much time on the stadium heist, but that’s what they bought the book for.  They don’t have Little Bob Negli, but Peter Dinklage wasn’t born yet–although, Mickey Rooney would have been a cool substitute, and there have always been brilliant actors who happened to be vertically challenged.

The heart of the story being adapted was the string banding together to try and get their money back–not most of them banding together to try and take out the character standing in for Parker, as happens in the movie.  Forming what you might almost call a lynch mob.  Which is unfortunate, given that the character standing in for Parker is played by Jim Brown.

I mean, was this really necessary?


I’m a fan of Jim Brown.  Not as a football player.  I don’t watch football.  Even if I did, he retired when I was in kindergarten.  I’d probably have enjoyed his Lacrosse game more (he did too).

I’m a fan of Jim Brown the actor.  Have been most of my life.  I think he could have been a great Parker.  A good actor. Not a fancy one.  As an actor, he was basic; intense, physically and sometimes emotionally intimidating, dangerously attractive to women, and at all times he displayed a quiet brooding intelligence, along with a general disregard for convention.

Parker isn’t white.  Parker isn’t black.  Parker’s just Parker.  He has no racial identity, because only humans believe in race, and he’s not one.  Could they have written a  role for a black actor–in the late 60’s–with an icon like Brown–that worked that way?  Probably not, but it would have been something to see.

Personally, I think Jim Brown always saw himself as Jim Brown first, everything else second.  Part of equal rights is the right to be yourself.  Not saying he didn’t or doesn’t care about civil rights, that he didn’t identify with the people he came from–he did, and does, he’s still a leader in that area today, in his 80’s–but he’s not so easily pigeonholed, and he always goes his own way.  Doesn’t give a damn what people think.

I believe he could have gotten inside the Parker we see in The Seventh, in a way few other actors ever could.  But the character in that novel never made it into the script.  Not even close.

And of course, how are they going to have Jim Brown confront a white cop in his own home, with his wife and kids nearby, without everybody going crazy?  Parker may not care about race, but we still do.  How are we supposed to believe the cops in a small city in upstate New York won’t grab (or gun down) a Parker who looks like Jim Brown on general principle, after a major robbery?  Would Vegas be much different?  I doubt it.

So they made it about war among the criminals, and they divide along racial lines, because that’s what seems to make sense.  Hey, Stark didn’t write a book with an integrated string until the 21st century–hardly anyone did.  Ocean’s 11 was so goofy, nobody took it serious, and Sammy was part of the pack.  There was Odds Against Tomorrow, but Belafonte got to break some of the rules because he was Belafonte.

Dortmunder got integrated in the early 70’s because that’s comedy, and the rules are different.  But when they adapted that book for the movies, they cast Frank McRae as Herman X. I love him dearly, but that’s terrible casting.  And that was the least of it.  There are far worse Westlake adaptations than The Split, you know.

But this is the worst of the five films I’m looking at here, and all the more egregious because they had some of the best actors on the scene then–Klugman, Sutherland, Borgnine, Oates, Carroll, Julie Harris for crying out loud–a Quincy Jones score to boot–and they wasted it all, just like they wasted Jim Brown.  And not just in this movie.  Hollywood threw away Brown’s potential, over and over again, because they already had Sidney Poitier, and there wasn’t room for another one (and Brown wasn’t as subtle–or socially acceptable–as Poitier).

But in certain scenes in this film–like when McClain is testing out his potential string members–you see what could have been.  Just professionals, sizing each other up, never quite trusting each other, but ready to work together, to get their split.  Race doesn’t enter into it, because the only color they see is green.

And imagine him standing on top of that unfinished building, in the dark, over the Amateur’s dead body, realizing he got the same money he would have gotten if everything had gone just right.  Imagine Jim Brown’s laughter in the darkness. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.  Oh well.

From a talented actor who made it on the basis of his superb physical gifts to one of almost unequaled thespian achievement–and guess what?  Now Parker is a short bald redneck who wants to avenge his brother.  He’s versatile, give him that.


I’ve made my problems with this movie known in the past, no need to dwell on it in depth here.  It has its cult, and I can see why, yet I still dissent vigorously. The Outfit is a decent drive-in flick, with some fine performances, an intriguing gritty atmosphere, and a script that does a fair to middling job of invoking the underground criminal subculture that Stark wrote about.  As a film, I rank it far far below both Point Blank and Mise a Sac.

So why is it here?  Because Duvall.  Is there a greater actor?  Probably not.  Could there be anyone more constitutionally unsuited to playing a man described as big, tall, shaggy, and irresistible to women?  You tell me.

Westlake spoke well of this film, calling it his favorite of the Parker adaptations, while still saying Point Blank was the best movie as a movie.  He didn’t say much about Duvall’s performance, that I can find.  Diplomacy.  He knew damned well that was not his character up on screen, but who wouldn’t be flattered that an actor that good would even want to play somebody you created–even as you waited in vain to hear him speak a single line you wrote?

What Duvall got right was Parker’s focus, his tunnel vision, the way he becomes the job he’s doing until it’s done, and everything else in him shuts down for a while.  He could identify with that (I suspect he’s very much like that himself, as was Westlake).  There are scenes in The Outfit where Macklin braces gangsters and treats them like punks.  But he’s too emotional.  He justifies his brutality in various ways.  He’s a misogynist and a knight errant at the same time.  He’s a psychopath with a professional veneer.

And his victory makes no sense, because honestly, he’s not that good at this.  No strategy, not even tactics.  He just walks into places and shoots people.  That’s not Duvall’s fault.  John Flynn was basically half a filmmaker.  The half that’s there is very good.  It’s not enough.

Again, there are moments, in spite of Duvall looking nothing like Parker, where you can still see the character glancing out for a moment–sitting at a bar, looking at nothing, as Marvin did–but Marvin trusted that.  He knew his face was so magnetic, he didn’t have to come up with bits of business to make him look at us.  Duvall knew he’d never have that kind of charisma.  If he was going to be a star, he’d have to make it on acting alone.  It’s a testament to his genius that he did.  But it doesn’t work here.

Duvall used the Method, and the Method says you have to know exactly what your character is feeling.  No human, not even Westlake writing as Stark, could ever fully comprehend what Parker is feeling.  There’s no mystery to Macklin.  But without that mystery, he’s an ill-conceived anachronism.  A heister out of the 30’s who never learned from his mistakes.  Just a good old boy who went wrong.  I’d award points for him not being dead or jailed at the end, but that’s true of all the Parkers.

Let’s run a comparison test.  Here’s Duvall walking down a hallway with murder in his mind–

Here’s Marvin,–

See the difference?  One is just playing the character.  The other is inhabiting him.  Duvall doesn’t understand Parker.  Maybe Marvin doesn’t either, on a conscious level.  But the way Duvall works, he can’t play anyone he doesn’t understand on a conscious level.  Marvin could.  And he was also big and shaggy and sexually charismatic.  Nobody said life was fair.  Parker sure never said that.

(And what I say is that if you watch the beginning of Mise a Sac, Constantin walks the walk better than either of them. If only he could talk the talk.  The total package.  So hard to find.)

And if anybody ever proved life is not fair, it’s–


I have to give the film industry credit for one thing–they stuck to the one name thing when adapting these books.  Westlake wouldn’t let them call any of these guys Parker (he claimed that was about money, and I don’t believe him), but having one name has always appealed to show people (Vegas, baby, Vegas!), so they stuck with it.  Mind you, it’s always easy to tell if it’s a first or last name in the movies, so they even got that wrong, but I want to be positive where I can.

Of the five performances I’m ranking here, Gibson’s is last and least–but not bad. I’m prejudiced in this matter.  I don’t like the guy.  I think he’s talented.  I also think he’s got more and worse issues than your average major movie star–no small achievement.  But you judge an actor’s performance, like any artistic endeavor, on the merits.  And Gibson’s Parker is not bereft of merit.  He shows us a few things we haven’t seen before.

This is not so much a remake of Point Blank as a new interpretation of The Hunter, that went through the wash a few times after Brian Helgeland wrote it. But it focuses on a lot of the same crucial scenes in the book.  And like the earlier film, it chooses to have the protagonist’s wife betray him, not out of fear for her life, as Stark had it, but because she wanted to–with reservations.  In both cases, she’s remorseful afterwards, in both cases she kills herself because of that, but it was her choice.  (And never very well explained, in either film).

And in both cases, the character standing in for Parker is, we have to say, a lot gentler with her than Parker was with Lynn.  I question whether any filmmaker would ever faithfully adapt that part of Stark’s novel.  It’s too damn stark.  Parker slaps her to the floor, then tells her to take too many pills, and she does (because she’s addicted to him, far more than the pills she’s taking, and he’s made it clear she’s getting no more of him.)

Then he mutilates her face, so her corpse won’t be identified, and dumps her in the park.  But, we’re made to know, he could never have killed her.   Not even if she was coming at him with a knife.  Not even if she betrayed him to Mal again.  She was his, he was hers, and while he may no longer love her, he fears her, as he fears no one else.  He didn’t believe she could ever turn on him, but she did.  He has not fully recovered by the end of that book–to some degree, the recovery process extends all the way to The Rare Coin Score. Time wounds all heels.

In Payback, as in The Hunter, there’s another woman.  Walker and Porter each get seriously involved with a beautiful blonde they knew from before (the wife’s sister in the first movie, a call girl Porter used to drive in the second), with Lynn’s body barely cold.  The second version is closer to the book, but not by much.

Gibson really got into his performance here.  I happen to think it’s his best, in any movie of his I’ve seen.  Because it’s the most honest.  Most of his characterizations are extremely dishonest–which is by design.  He’s hawking a product, not telling the truth.  He’s appealing to that part of us that wants to perpetrate mayhem and still feel like a good person, and there’s always a market for that.

Even when he’s a psycho trigger happy cop, he’s a psycho trigger happy cop who is a total sweetheart to everybody but bad guys.  Somebody you’d trust with your beautiful teenage daughter who has a crush on him.  This is not who Mel Gibson is, but it’s who he typically plays.

His Parker is a decent enough guy to women he cares about if more than a bit rough around the edges–okay, consistent with the book character.  He’s wordier than I’d prefer in explaining himself to Maria Bello’s Rosie (now there’s somebody who gives honest performances), but they’re sugaring the pill for the audience, I get it.

They sugar the pill because while Porter is very  much a human being, not a wolf in human form, he’s still a human being who has nothing resembling a proper conscience.  He feels no guilt about stealing, killing, torturing.  He assumes everybody is as amoral as he is, and he’s usually right.

He sneers when somebody tries to attach some higher motive to his cash-based vendetta.  “Stop it, I’m gettin’ misty.”  Not something Parker would say.  But I applaud the sentiment.  Porter’s not a hypocrite.  And at times, playing him, neither is Gibson.  Works for both of them.

I applaud the dialogue, most of all.  The best of any Stark adaptation, which tracks, because much of it was ripped right from the pages of Stark’s book.  It was that dialogue, delivered with flair and zero apologies, that caught my attention when I started catching this one on TV.  It’s that dialogue that made me curious to read the originals.  It’s that dialogue that is responsible for this blog’s existence. The dialogue, and the verve with which the cast delivers it.

Most of the other actors in Payback (all of them very fine) put a bit of a wink into their dialogue–not Gibson.  Deadpan, and dead serious.  Give me my money or I’ll kill you.  That’s right.  Somebody says, “They’ll kill me if I help you” and he rejoins “What do you think I’m going to do to you?  Worry about me.”  That’s damn right.  And from the book.  And Gibson means every word of it.

He’s loving the chance, for once, to play the violent selfish vengeful dark-hearted bastard he really is, deep down inside.  (Okay, I’ve never met him, but I surmise, from a safe distance.)

An actor needs that leverage.  Some part of him or her that resonates with the character he or she is playing.  This is Gibson’s point of access.  And it works.  Up to a point.

See, the problem is, he enjoys it too much.  Both causing pain, and receiving it.  There are no scenes in The Hunter where Parker is tortured.  Nor were there any such scenes in the original screenplay for this movie.  Gibson wanted to get tortured.  He’s into that.

Parker is neither a sadist nor a masochist.  Gibson’s both.  Oh please, even if you never saw that Jew-baiting passion play he lensed (that ends with Jesus back from the dead, and looking to kick ass), you know that already.  It’s not any kind of secret.

He’s created a character who works on his own anti-heroic terms, better than any of Gibson’s other characters.  Because this time he doesn’t have to pretend to be a hero.  It must have been a huge relief, but the box office was only okay by his standards, so he went back to what he knew.  Pity.

Unlike Marvin, he can’t get into the enigma of Parker, the mystery–only the fantasy of being tougher, meaner, and more devious than any of his antagonists.  It’s a sharp performance, but also a shallow one, and that’s what the screenplay called for, even before it got tinkered with, so can’t really blame him for that.  I don’t think he had any problem with the superficiality of the role, though.  If he ever noticed it.

The Chandler-esque offscreen narration he recites (that he had written for him, when he took control of the picture), while probably a good device to keep the audience engaged, and evoke the genre, isn’t something Parker would ever do.  Parker’s not going to explain himself.  To anyone.  Ever.  Least of all us.  Gibson, at the end of the day, still wants us to think of him as a nice guy.  Duvall’s performance may present even worse problems, but it’s got integrity.  Mel Gibson knows not the meaning of that word.

And of course Gibson’s short.  And too damn good-looking.  See what I mean about life being unfair?  At least he’s got all his hair.  (Even more unfair.)

While I think each performance needs to be judged in its own right, having done so, I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that my personal preference runs in strict chronological order–Marvin, Constantin, Brown (more for what could have been than what was), Duvall, and Gibson.  As to the other three, they weren’t playing any version of Parker, far as I’m concerned, least of all the one billed as Parker.

There’s no reason to think Hollywood will give Parker another go after the Statham film. There’s also no reason to think they couldn’t do even worse next time.  But I can’t convince myself that there couldn’t have been something better.

And next time, it’s the could have beens I’m going to look at.  Actors who might have played Parker, but didn’t.  You’ll guess some of the names I’m thinking of.  Not all of them, I bet.


Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Parker film adaptations, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder



Dear Jeff,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, fine, I’ll get back to work.



Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake screenplays, Uncategorized

Review: Watch Your Back!

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

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

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

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

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

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

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

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

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

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

Okay, it’s like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

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

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

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

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


(Ya gotta believe.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

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

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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