Category Archives: Donald Westlake

Review: The Perfect Murder

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

At this my counsel rose and said:

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

From My Favorite Murder, by Ambrose Bierce

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

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

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

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

Donald E. Westlake, writing to ‘Tim.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow–!

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

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

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

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

You think this is funny, don’t you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels

Sidebar: The Dannemora Escape

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

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Dannemora prison escape, Donald Westlake

Bonus Item: Playback (Mad Magazine does Payback)

As promised, here’s the second (and to date, final) Westlake-related parody in Mad Magazine. Dortmunder fans can take some small satisfaction in the fact that The Hot Rock got seven pages, and Payback only four, though that probably relates more to changes at Mad in the ensuing decades than to the quality of the films being spoofed. And I note with approval that they didn’t even notice Parker. It was out of theaters too fast for them to do anything with it, anyway.

I tend to agree with the artist’s unspoken assertion that the most enjoyable thing about Payback was watching Lucy Liu and Maria Bello strut their considerable stuff. And hey, the movie wasn’t that inconsistent about how much money he’s asking for. Okay, maybe it was a little. Anyway–Playback.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake film adaptations, Parker film adaptations

Review: The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution and Other Fictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By the bank?” I asked.

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

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

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

“That is real nice,” I said.

“Speeches, and little kids giving him flowers.”

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

“He was in orbit,” Harry said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which finally, brings us to–

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

$_12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To coin a phrase….

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake short stories

Parker at the Movies, Part 3: The Bald Parkers

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Have you ever noticed how the movies adapting famous book characters tend to pretty them up?   A great example would be Donald Westlake’s own John Dortmunder; tall, angular, stoop-shouldered, dark-haired, and generally unprepossessing in the books–played by Robert Redford in the first Dortmunder movie–and the only one to date that isn’t slow torture to watch–but you still look at Redford, who you know is giving it all he’s got and it’s not his fault he looks like that, and you just kind of roll your eyes a bit.

Another classic case would be Raven, the malnourished hare-lipped hit man of Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale, who has thus far been played by fashion plates Alan Ladd and Robert Wagner.  Neither of whom had a harelip.  Or was English, but never mind that now.

Point is, when you’re making a movie, you’re investing a lot of money, and you want people to go see it.   That means you cast stars, or people you think are going to become stars.   Stars tend to be good-looking.   So book characters adapted to film will generally be prettier in their screen incarnations.   Not always.  But usually.  What would be really unusual–downright bizarre, you  might say–would be casting leads who are far less attractive and physically impressive than the character in question.   Why on earth would anyone do that?

The very first thing we ever learn about Parker (other than the fact that his manners leave something to be desired), is that he’s tall, powerful-looking, rough-edged but irresistibly attractive to women, and has a full head of hair.   And that he’s got huge vein-covered hands.  That last one is a tough order to fill when you’re casting around for actors to play him, but the rest of it should be no problem.

We’ve already seen that order filled three times, by Michel Constantin, Lee Marvin, and yes, even Jim Brown (though obviously the Parker in the books isn’t black).  The movies they were in all had significant shortcomings (The Split is 90% shortcomings), but casting wasn’t one of them.

All of these portrayals, and Mel Gibson’s as well (I think we can all agree that’s a more predictable Hollywood casting move, though technically Gibson cast himself), lived up to another aspect of the character–that he only seems to have one name–whether it’s Georges, Walker, McClain, or Porter.  Nobody calls them by any other name.  And they don’t call any of them Parker, because Westlake wouldn’t have it.

One other thing–there’s no indication, in any of the books, that Parker has a strongly identifiable regional accent–let alone a foreign one.  We know he grew up in a large eastern city, probably in New York state.  Really though, he could pass for a local almost anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.   It would take a veritable Henry Higgins to draw any conclusions as to his place of origin simply by listening to him.

So how then to account for the fact that each of the two remaining films I’m going to discuss in any detail here feature a ‘Parker’ who is short and balding?   The first of which answers to the rather conventional name of Earl Macklin, and talks like a redneck from Kentucky (which he tells us is where his family came from–he’s got his granddaddy’s pocket watch as a keepsake).

And the second of which, even though he’s arguably further off the mark than any portrayal since Anna Karina’s (possibly worse), actually gets to use the Parker name–though he’s clearly English, and referred to as such in the movie–and this guy was never an A-List star, or a terribly well-regarded actor, though he’s certainly a busy one.  How does he rate the name all the others were denied?

That last question is the easiest to answer–Westlake had died.  His heirs didn’t feel as strongly as he did about not selling the Parker name, and a producer acquaintance of Westlake’s best known for some rather forgettable TV movies for the Lifetime channel, convinced them to sell him and his partners the film rights to possibly the most forgettable of the Parker novels–along with the right to use the name Parker, based on what turned out to be the empty promise of doing more adaptations if the first one worked out, which it did not.   Worth mentioning that this acquaintance had been after Westlake for years to work with him on a project, and Westlake seems to have always put him off.   And I’ll put off further observations regarding that film until later.

The first film, of course, is The Outfit, and was Westlake’s personal favorite among the Parker film adaptations–I would draw a clear distinction between calling a movie your favorite, and calling it the best–two entirely different things.  My favorite movie of all time is probably Lady and the Tramp.  I would not try to convince anybody that’s the greatest movie ever made.    It’s simply very near and dear to my heart.   As The Outfit, in its own way, was to Westlake (though he might have only seen it once or twice).   And to a small devoted coterie of buffs, who have long defended the notion that this is the best Parker adaptation ever.   And I humbly dissent from this view.

The film has many fine qualities, to be sure–rest assured I shall not neglect mentioning a one of them.   It did not deserve to be forgotten, as it was for many years.  It’s an entirely good thing that it’s easily available on DVD now, and online, and is periodically shown on TCM, the way it was meant to be seen (I still have it on my DVR from the last time they showed it).   But there are reasons why when you look up a list of Robert Duvall’s best movies ever, this movie is never listed, unless all his movies are listed, in which case it’s still out of the top 40–well underneath his uncredited 20 second cameo appearance as a (presumably alien) priest on a playground swing in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Back in the day, I would go see movies simply because Duvall was in them (his performance in Tender Mercies still makes me tear up).   I don’t anymore, because his movies mostly stink now (like everybody else’s), but they didn’t always.   He had one of the great careers in cinema history.  He is one of the most brilliant and original thespians who ever lived.  And he is so tragically miscast here it isn’t even funny.

You don’t hire the best actor–you hire the right actor.   So why hire Duvall?  Well, partly because he’d just become a lot better known, due to his acclaimed performance in The Godfather.   Acclaimed, but not nominated–too small and quiet a role, but basically everybody who went to the movies knew Duvall’s face now, after his reputation had been steadily building over the course of the late 50’s and 60’s.  Could he be a marquee name, the way Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and other short, pug-ugly actors had been in the past?  The way Gene Hackman would be?   Talent can trump looks in the right roles.  Audiences get tired of looking at vapid pretty boys all the time.

So he was a rising talent, but still not a very expensive one.  This was not going to be a big budget picture–the director, John Flynn, hadn’t done much of anything yet (and ultimately never would).   Flynn had wanted to do it period, but the studio said no dice–hard to see how it changed much, since the novel was set only about a decade before the film came out.   I think you have to go back more than ten years to call it period.  Call me old fashioned.

Duvall was semi-famous but affordable–add in a few more semi-famous but affordable actors, along with some formerly big stars from the golden age, and maybe you’ve got a winning formula.   They added Joe Don Baker and Karen Black, and the poster would play them up like this was a contemporary take on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.  And boy was that not going to work.

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Baker was cast as Cody–the movie’s equivalent to Handy McKay, and he looks nothing at all like Handy, but he gives an effective performance all the same, and having just appeared as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, he might well have sold more tickets than Duvall in some parts of the country.   He’s there for sex appeal, something Duvall has never possessed.   By the way, he totally steals this picture from Duvall.  He probably would have been a better Parker.  He’s got a better poker face, he’s 6’2, and he’s got hair.

Karen Black is clearly supposed to be there for sex appeal, but strangely has none (not usually a problem for her).   She plays Bett–the name lifted from the novel, but she couldn’t possibly be any more different from the spoiled sadistic heiress Parker has temporarily hooked up with.  Black’s career had also been gathering steam of late, with appearances in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces.

But there’s nothing easy about watching her performance in this film–it’s excruciating.  Not her fault–she strikes no sparks with Duvall (few actresses ever did), and the role is badly written and conceived–she shouldn’t be along for the ride at all, and it’s never really explained why Macklin wants her there.   And yet there she is, all through the picture.   Like I said, they were hoping to get some of that Bonnie and Clyde vibe, but for that you need onscreen chemistry, and she and Duvall have none.   And I mean zero.

There’s a love scene between them–that takes place right after he slaps her around for touching his gun (really?)–that makes me want to gouge my eyes out.   She says “I wish I didn’t love you so much” and he seems good with that.

Point Blank, based on The Hunter, had not been a success in the U.S., partly because of its large production budget (though it did very well in Europe, and probably did turn a small profit eventually).  I don’t know why MGM decided to make an informal sequel six years later, with an entirely new cast and director–maybe they’d picked up the rights to The Outfit, just in case Point Blank hit it big (though Lee Marvin always said he’d never do sequels–they could have recast), and then decided to do one on the cheap?

The Outfit does indirectly follow up on the events of The Hunter, but since this is a completely different (and much less interesting) version of Parker, with a different backstory, and different motivations, there was no attempt to link the two films in the promotion, or in the script.   And the script is the real weakness here.  John Flynn wrote it himself.   John Flynn has exactly two writing credits on IMDb, and this is his first–the second is for a 1983 TV movie.  He was not a writer.  But we’re still in this era where the directors felt like they could do anything, and the studios tended to let them try.

Talking about the movie years later, Westlake expressed his disappointment that Flynn’s career never really went anywhere, but with 20/20 hindsight it’s no surprise at all.   He was an incomplete talent, with a visual style even his admirers had to admit was on the pedestrian side (he came out of television and he ended up there), and he never had the knack of getting the best performances out of his actors.   He also had terrible judgment–he needed an experienced screenwriter to adapt this book for him–arrogant as John Boorman might be, insistent on the supremacy of director over writer as he was, he knew better than to try and do it all himself.

Westlake wouldn’t have written the script (he refused to adapt his own works), but there were many others who could have done a fine job.  Maybe there were reasons why Flynn had to do it, but the only parts of it that work at all are where he more or less copies directly from the book.   When he goes off on his own tangents, it’s a disaster.  And he does that a lot.

What I heard about this film before I saw it was that it makes no attempt to humanize ‘Parker’, lets him just be a predator fighting his way through a human jungle, but that isn’t true.   The movie opens with his brother Eddie (yes, he’s got a brother named Eddie), also a heister, being killed by two hit-men (one of them dressed as a priest, for no comprehensible reason), while Eddie’s dog Soldier, a long-haired German Shepherd, cries miserably, being unable to protect him, since he’s tied up.

Macklin later goes to speak to his brother’s widow (played by Jane Greer–many bit roles in this film are filled by faces out of the past), and knowing the dog did his best, goes over to pat him gently on the head, and throw a stick for him to fetch.  Aww.

The film is full of dogs for some reason–instead of the black and tan cur in the novel that Parker has to kill just to show us he doesn’t give a damn about dogs either, there’s a White German Shepherd named Judge at Chemy’s place (Shepherds are easier to train), who Chemy’s treacherous sister-in-law sics on Cody for rejecting her (because who’d believe she’d throw herself at Macklin?), and does Macklin kill the dog?  Does Cody?  No, Chemy does it, with an axe handle.  Why’d there have to be a dog at all?   You’ll have to be the judge of that.   There’s a bunch of Doberman Pinschers in the film as well, but they just strut around looking cool, and don’t do anything.

This is possibly the best scene in the movie–and the truest to the book, in spite of many changes.  Several lines grabbed directly off the page, mainly spoken by Richard Jaeckel’s (excellent) Chemy–you could imagine him doing a radio show called Criminal Car Talk.   Good stuff.   There’s so much good stuff here.  But it keeps ringing false, because Flynn doesn’t trust the material enough.   You know who he got to play the fat ugly red-headed sister-in-law?

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Sheree North–one of the great blonde sex goddesses of the 50’s (they thought she’d be the next Marilyn Monroe), who turned into quite a decent actress in the 60’s and 70’s, and she does a good job here, but how does it make sense that ‘Parker’ is a short balding flabby slightly pot-bellied yokel, while possibly the least attractive character who ever appeared in a Parker novel is–this?

I understand they needed somebody to be sexy to sell the film–North beats out the much younger Karen Black by a country mile here–but she’s only in the movie for like five minutes.  Did it ever occur to them that she might be a bit more appropriate to play Macklin’s girlfriend, if he absolutely had to have one?   Black is still too green.

The plot of The Outfit echoes that of a far superior crime film, based on the work of a much less distinguished novelist, that also saw release in October of 1973–Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.  The script, written by two frequent Siegel collaborators (Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, who did the script for Dirty Harry), came from a now-forgotten book by John H. Reese (who mainly did westerns, but dabbled in crime fiction).

And just to show what a small incestuous world Hollywood filmmaking can be, the film also stars Joe Don Baker as a steely hit man, Sheree North as a slutty photographer who hooks up with Baker, and Point Blank‘s John Vernon as a weak-kneed mob flunky (he was good at those).

Charley Varrick begins with the title character, played by Walter Matthau (one of his greatest roles), robbing a small bank with his gang, that turns out to be a mob bank, so the mob sends men after them.   The Outfit begins the way it does because the Macklin brothers and Cody robbed a bank that turned out to be a mob bank so the mob sends men after them.  Quite the coincidence, huh?   Or maybe not.   Flynn would have been in a position to hear about what Siegel was working on.

Of course, in the story The Outfit is based on, the mob couldn’t give two shits about Parker until he comes after them for the money his former partner gave them–he wants that exact sum, nothing more or less–when they send men after him, he puts pressure on them to stop by getting various heisters across the country to hit their operations randomly, costing them millions of dollars, and creating an opportunity for him to take out the head of The Outfit without any fear of reprisal from its new chief.

Here, Macklin already has the money, but he’s mad about his brother, so he and Cody keep hitting Outfit operations all by themselves, saying it won’t stop until they give him the totally arbitrary sum of $250,000.   To pay for his brother’s life and for Bett getting tortured to try and make her betray him (which by the end of the film, you kind of figure she should have done).

He seems to have completely forgotten about that 250k by the end, and it seems like there’s nobody to take over from the boss he’s killed–because organized crime in California, where this is happening (note the palm trees), is built entirely around one rather passive pussy-whipped horse-breeding semi-retired mobster played by Robert Ryan.   Yeah.  It’s a bit different.

In the best-known scene from this film, Menner, the man who burned Bett with lit cigarettes, is shot in the hand by Macklin for his ungentlemanly behavior (“You shouldn’t use a girl’s arm for an ashtray.”).   Macklin knows this is the guy who put the hit on him and his brother–and he leaves the guy alive.  To try again. For no reason other than that Flynn figures there’s more mileage in the character.   There isn’t.   He’s just annoying.   Played by a unique-looking character actor named Timothy Carey, who has a bit of an online cult these days, but there’s no depth to him at all.   He’s ugly, mean, and stupid–only there to make Macklin look good by comparison–doesn’t quite work.

I mentioned that Joe Don Baker might have been a better ‘Parker’ than Duvall–but there’s one actor in the film who’d have been nearly perfect, if he hadn’t been one of those guys who never gets to play the lead–in this film, he doesn’t even get to have a name–his character is billed as ‘1st Man’.

His real name was Tom Allen, but he usually got credited as Tom Reese.  He’s the hit-man who killed Macklin’s brother while dressed as a priest for no reason. His partner in one scene is played by Roland La Starza, a former boxer (former light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore also shows up in a brief cameo–why?  I dunno.  Why is Anita O’Day singing in the background at an Outfit bar, and you never even see her?  Why not?).

Can’t find any images of him from The Outfit–here’s what I could find.

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Reese was from Tennessee, but he didn’t have any strong regional accent when he was working–great voice, deep, resounding, and stark.   Powerful yet muted screen presence.  Big.  Blocky.  Six feet three inches tall.   Large veiny hands that swing at his sides when he walks–there’s this one scene where the camera looks down on him while he walks away, and you think there’s been some mistake–THAT’s got to be Parker.  He and Duvall are never in the same scene, though given that he killed Macklin’s brother, and is trying to kill Macklin and Cody, you’d expect some final confrontation, but I guess they figured there wasn’t time.

Keeps popping up through the film, looking all scary and professional, and then fades into the background–he seems to be in the back seat of the car Menner is in when he makes his final stupid attempt on Macklin’s life, but it’s hard to be sure, the way it’s shot.  Sloppy filmmaking, slipshod storytelling, and a waste of a fine actor.   Who realistically couldn’t have played Parker, because the studio would want a bigger name.   But one thing you can be sure of–he would have played the part straight.

And Duvall can’t.   He’s too much of a Method man–studied with Strasberg.   He’s got to know what Macklin is feeling, and find some way to link that up to his own experiences–and since even Richard Stark didn’t always seem to know what Parker was feeling, that approach is never going to work out.   He didn’t understand the character intuitively, the way Lee Marvin did–Marvin sensed there was something alien and unreachable about Parker, something you couldn’t explain or act out–just inhabit.   Marvin had the kind of screen charisma where he could just sit there, his expression blank and vacant, and you could read anything into those eyes.

Duvall, lacking that kind of gift, had to rely on his peerless acting skills, but they’re ill-suited to this role.  He can’t just inhabit Macklin, because he doesn’t get him at all (the script isn’t giving him any help, and neither is the director).

So he grimaces, fidgets, laughs at odd moments, smiles all the time, and in spite of his rather bloody profession, he’s a pretty nice guy to the people he knows and trusts–except Bett, who he abuses, then makes out with–and refuses to just leave behind, even though she’s got absolutely no skills to contribute to the job at hand.  Her main function is to get killed by the bad guys, so Macklin has an excuse to go kill them at the end.   It’s not enough that they owe him money.  Because this is a movie.

He and Cody have a major bromance going on (that’s the real love story in the film, not Macklin and Bett).  They make a half-hearted stab at the scene in the book where Parker doesn’t want Handy to come in with him out of friendship, but it doesn’t work, because they are friends.   They love each other–it oozes out of every scene they’re in.  When a wounded Cody tells Macklin to go on without him, you never for one second believe that’s going to happen.

And at the end, when it all comes out their way (except they got no money at the mansion, and don’t seem to care), Cody yells out the film’s final tagline “The Good Guys Always Win!” and Macklin thinks that’s just hilarious.  Freeze frame, roll credits–on ‘Parker’ laughing like an idiot at a bad joke.  His girl got killed by bullets meant for him a few hours earlier.  You don’t want him to cry about it–though he looked about ready to when it happened.  But that was a few hours ago.

Why’s he doing all this crazy dangerous stuff?  Because the script tells him to.  Why does he keep winning, in spite of being apparently the worst heist planner in the history of the genre?   Ditto.

Why’d it all go so wrong?   Because they had the wrong director (who insisted on also being the wrong writer), the wrong star, the wrong love interest (they were wrong to have a love interest),  and the wrong idea–but they were trying to get it right.   I really believe Flynn was trying to adapt the book, but here’s the problem–when you’re trying to do a Parker novel straight, you can’t do it half-way.   Either do your own thing, like Boorman did, or stick as close as you reasonably can to the structure and spirit of the book, as Cavalier did with Mise à Sac.

Why did Westlake and others (including George Pelecanos, whose work on The Wire I respect the hell out of) think it went so right?   I think mainly because they mentally airbrushed out all the things that didn’t work, because they so loved the things that did.   And a lot of things in this movie work really well.

For the first and thus far only time in a Parker adaptation, you have a community of professional heistmen and their associates–a network of professionals.   You see Macklin and Cody get their guns from a sort of mobile arms dealer working out of his suitcase–not as believable or interesting as the equivalent scene from the book, but still pretty good.

You have Madge and her motel (it’s more of a bar, but never mind), as gossipy and chatty as in the book, though not nearly so perceptive and well-informed.  Marie Windsor is the only older star in the film who seems to be having a good time with her role–of course, she wasn’t that big a star to begin with, so this isn’t such a demotion for her.  Ryan and Greer both seem to be remembering better days (and they were better, but what’s past is past).

You have Chemy and his brother cooking up innovative getaway cars.  You have Cody at his diner (we never actually saw Handy’s diner in the books, but what the hell).  You have some good casual conversations in the periods between the action scenes.   These aren’t icons–they’re people.   Often badly written people, never brilliantly acted people, but sometimes that just makes them seem more real–most of our scenes in real life aren’t Oscar-worthy either.

And as Westlake observed, the film has a certain ‘flat’ matter-of-fact quality to it–a lived-in look.   Like I said, it really didn’t matter whether they made it ‘period’ or not, because the locations they were shooting in looked exactly the way they would have in the early 60’s, and well before that.

Of course, the setting is wrong–it’s not New York, not even northeastern–but none of the films ever get that right.   It’s always France, L.A.,  Chicago.  Nobody ever wants to put Parker in his proper setting, for some reason.   Just like nobody ever sets an adaptation of A Gun for Sale in England–one of them is actually set in Turkey, believe it or not.   Setting matters, and nobody’s ever going to get Parker right until they put him in his natural habitat.  If you adapt Plunder Squad, you can set it in California, okay?

I think Westlake would have loved it just for the fact that it had Robert Ryan as the Bronson character (named Mailer here).   He would have loved seeing so many of his peripheral characters brought to life, even if they are mere shadows of their true selves.   I think the very modest nature of the film would have appealed to him–its lack of pretension–he knew there was no danger of this movie ever overshadowing its source material.   It was safe for him to love it, because so few people ever would.   It did decent drive-in business, maybe–but was probably not even one of the Top 40 grossers for 1973.

Let us not forget, the first adaptation was made without his approval, because he hadn’t been fully paid for it, leading to a lengthy irritating lawsuit.  The second and far better French adaptation he probably hadn’t even seen by the time The Outfit was made.   Point Blank he knew to be a magnificent if somewhat incoherent piece of work, but that was, you might say, his problem with it–that and the fact that the director had been openly dismissive of his profession in general, and his novel in particular.   The Split took one of his best novels and tossed 99% of it in the trash.

Then later there was the movie based on Slayground, the one Parker novel that positively begs to be made into a tightly focused bottle story, and I don’t even want to talk about how far wrong that went–I’m amazed they spelled the title right.

So what was the one ‘Parker’ film that actually tried to do the book some measure of justice?   This one.   It failed.  Badly.  But it tried.

And then it basically disappeared for a long time after it left theaters–surfaced here and there on latenight television, then vanished from there as well, only popping back up on DVD after Westlake had died.   So by the time he was doing interviews about the films based on his work, it had probably been over a decade since he’d last seen it.  In my case, I only saw The Outfit after having read a bunch of enthusiastic fan reviews online–and it did not, for me, live up to the advance publicity.   The books were fresh in my mind.  I was disappointed.  First impressions tend to be lasting ones.

I can think of one more reason why Westlake might have overdone it a bit in his praise of The Outfit–it’s just a guess, but note the ending.   Macklin and Cody have finished off Mailer at his mansion–the cops and EMT workers are coming.  They need to slip away unnoticed, so Macklin puts on a white ambulance driver’s jacket (don’t ask me where he got it), loads the wounded Cody into a waiting ambulance, and drives away.   Sound familiar?   Need a hint?   It’s 1973.  Westlake is writing Butcher’s Moon.

He stole the ending.   I mean, it’s a script based on his book–if Flynn can use Westlake’s ideas as he pleases, why can’t it work in the other direction?   Only fair.  It’s a great idea, rather badly used in the film–they just improvise, the way they’ve been doing all through the picture.   In Butcher’s Moon, the ambulance has been stolen in advance, Parker leaving nothing to chance if he can help it.

It’s a much better idea the way Westlake uses it.  But still–not his idea.   There’s a certain sense of professional obligation there.   He’s going to be a little nicer than he otherwise would have been.   Not feign enthusiasm, but perhaps exaggerate it a little.

Like I said, just a theory–but Westlake lifted that ending.  It’s pretty obvious.  I guess it’s possible Westlake gave the idea to Flynn, but he said they really didn’t communicate any, and Flynn taking his suggestion would have also made him feel more favorably towards the film, so it works either way.   And either way, I think I’ve said all I’ve got to say about The Outfit.   If somebody wants to tell me I’m full of it, I’d be only too pleased.   But let’s get this straight–Parker isn’t short.  Parker isn’t sentimental.   Parker isn’t BALD.   Three strikes yer out, Macklin.

So given that I’ve vowed to never let any of my articles go longer than 6,000 words again, I’ve got less than a thousand words to talk about the other baldie.   Oh no.  How terrible.  And I was so looking forward to discussing Jean-Luc Parker and his bullshit enterprise (yes, I’m very proud of that, thanks for noticing).

This was the film they promised would be like the book–one of the worst books of the series (and the worst possible pick to begin a film franchise with), but still a decent piece of work–and you can vaguely perceive the outlines of its plot here and there in this film, the very first where ‘Parker’ is named Parker, and that’s why it has a special place in my personal movie hell.

I can’t really get that mad at the Godards and Boormans of the world for not doing what they never said they’d do.   But this–thing–truly does mark a new low point in the long strange history of Parker at the movies, and I’d actually prefer not to dwell on it any longer than I have to–also, to properly review it, I’d have to watch it again.  In the words of the immortal Bartleby, I would prefer not to.

Here’s how it begins–I’ll use (NIB) as shorthand for ‘Not In Book.’  Parker and  his associates are robbing a state fair (NIB), with his associates dressed up as clowns (NIB), and Parker dressed as a priest (again with the priestly garb?  in the book, but not during a heist), and actively involved in the heist as opposed to creating a diversion (NIB), never mind that this means that he can be easily described and identified by the guards he helps overcome, not to mention all the people whose attention he attracted earlier by winning a sweet little girl a stuffed animal at a sideshow game (!!!).

He flashes back (in the middle of a job!)  to taking Claire to a barbecue (NIB), at her father’s house (NIB), where he tells her she looks beautiful (!!!), and then she tells him how much she loves that he loves her dad (!!!!).   Then back to the heist, where Parker gives a panicking guard a little heart-to-heart talk about women (NIB), after having already told everyone there that he doesn’t steal from people who can’t afford it,  or hurt people who don’t deserve it.   Which is, by the way, repeatedly contradicted by his behavior throughout the rest of the picture, without any sense of irony that I can detect.   Oh, and (NIB).

Still engaged in the heist, he flashes back to the barbecue again (seems to have some kind of attention deficit thing going on), where Hurley, who is his mentor (NIB), tells him in person (NIB) about the heist he’s going to be pulling with these guys, who are there at the barbecue for no discernible reason (NIB).

Then back to the heist, which nets them a million dollars (NIB), and Parker is asked to kick in his share to pay for a bigger job–a jewel heist–and it slips out they’re paying a million dollars for a house in Palm Beach–it’s a 100k downpayment in the novel, and who buys a million dollar house cash upfront to pull one job?  And instead of an isolated McMansion trashed by a rock star, the house is on a tiny plot of land, surrounded by other houses, and Lord only knows how many potential witnesses.  Why not put out a neon lawn sign with a blinking arrow on it saying “This way to the jewel thieves”?  (NIB)?  You betcha.

They don’t want to tell him anything else about the job they’re pulling (NIB) even though they mean to kill him if he won’t participate (NIB), and then he leaps out the window of a moving car (NIB), and then the punk named Hardwicke whose uncle is a Chicago mobster Parker will later kill (NIB) has to go shoot him, causing life-threatening injuries that Parker somehow recovers from during the ride to the hospital he gets from some kind hearted tomato farmers he will later give a lot of his money to in gratitude (NIB).

Then at this hospital he learns that the fire set by the punk (NIB) as a distraction at the fair (NIB) has killed a man (NIB), to which news he responds with what looks an awful lot like guilt (!!!!!!!!) and then he chokes out a black orderly (NIB) and escapes using a scared cancer patient for cover (NIB), seemingly little the worse for wear (NIB).

And this is just the first 20 minutes of the film.

This film was a critical and commercial flop, and since this time they used Parker’s name, it probably poisons the ‘franchise’ as far as movies are concerned, for at least a generation.  Given the trendlines of this three part overview I’ve just written, that may not be such a bad thing.  The two best films came out almost half a century ago.     Been downhill ever since.

On to cable television?   How the hell would I know?  Enough about ‘Parker.’   In my personal opinion, there may someday be a film/show/whatever that does Parker justice, but there will never come a day when all the Parker adaptations combined are worth the worst Parker novel ever written.

And speaking of which, our next book is The Black Ice Score.  Which I just reread, and I liked it this time.  Maybe it’s the company I’ve been keeping?   Enjoy the turkey–as long as it’s the kind you eat.

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Parker film adaptations

Parker At the Movies: Part 1–The Frenchman Always Shoots First

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NUSSBAUM: Now that you have seen several of your creations transferred to film, do you subscribe to the auteur theory, or are you one of those wise-ass scribblers who refuse to acknowledge the artistic superiority and creative transcendence of the director?  (Answer by mentioning two American and two foreign directors, one of whom must be French; and relate their work to the young Orson Welles and the imitative product of Peter Bogdanovich: Use more than one sentence if necessary.)

WESTLAKE: I love your question.  Remember the scene in The Third Man where Joseph Cotten, the writer of westerns, is posing as a literary-type lecturer?  He’s asked a question about James Joyce.  If you can find a still of Cotten’s face when he’s reacting to the question, you’ll have my answer to you, sir.  But I might have some additional things to say, so why not start a new paragraph and see?

I subscribe basically to the theory that a movie is not the book it came from, and in almost every case it shouldn’t be the book it came from.  I have never adapted one of my own novels to the screen.  Movies are a different form, they require different solutions.

Al Nussbaum interviewing Donald E. Westlake by mail (the entire piece can be found in The Getaway Car).

By the end of 1967, ten Parker novels had been published under the name Richard Stark.   None of them had been best-sellers, but sales had been strong.   The reviews had been glowing, the audience had been growing, and Hollywood was starting to take notice.  But Hollywood has never been the be-all and end-all of film making, much as it might like to think otherwise, and Richard Stark had many ardent fans who could not read English.  Parker translated very well into other languages, it seems.   Translating him into other mediums was going to prove a much more challenging prospect.

One place where the Stark books were developing a following was France, where they were published by Gallimard under the Série Noire imprint, which specialized in French translations of American crime and detective fiction of the hardboiled variety, though it also published some very impressive homegrown literature in the same genres.  Please note–the French Wikipedia article on Serie Noire has a photograph of Westlake–and mentions Killy, under its French title of Un Loup Chasse L’Autre–(‘A wolf hunting another’).

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These books generally had plain black covers with the title in yellow print, and often no cover art–very stark indeed.  Parenthetically, a Jose Giovanni Serie Noire entitled Classe Tous Risques (later made into a superb film, like so many of Giovanni’s novels), features a character named Eric Stark (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film).  That book came out in 1958–the first short story Westlake sold under the name Richard Stark was published in a science fiction magazine the following year.  Coincidence?  Yeah, probably.  Lot of that going around in this genre.

Depending on which source you’re reading, Gallimard’s Serie Noire books may have inspired the coining of the phrase Film Noir by the French critic Nino Frank–he was originally referring to American films like Double Indemnity and D.O.A (okay the directors of those two were European, what’s your point?), which had been hugely influential in Europe–but  French readers of policiers and roman noirs were no strangers to ruthless anti-heroes who came back in book after book–they were way ahead of us there.  Back in 1911, the first in a long series of novels about a deadly master criminal named Fantomas appeared–a shadowy figure who evaded definition as easily as he evaded the police–a supervillain you’d probably call him today, but one the reader is invited to admire if not quite identify with.

A later and far less diabolical example would be Géo Paquet, aka The Gorilla, who appeared in a long series of books in the 1950’s–in the first film adaptation in 1958, starring the great Lino Ventura, he breaks out of jail by bending the bars of his cell (he possesses amazing strength, hence the name), and ends up embroiled in a plot involving stolen nuclear secrets.  And I wish I knew more, but all the sources are in French.   I’d watch any Lino Ventura movie, so hopefully it’ll pop up on DVD here in the states.

I wish I could begin to express my stunned admiration for French noir at its best–master film makers like Jacques Becker, Jean Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot.   Actors like Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Alain Delon, Paul Belmondo, who combined acting ability, star charisma, and often the kind of physical prowess you’d expect from trained stuntmen.   What Warner Brothers started in the 30’s and 40’s, these idiosyncratic artisans took up with a vengeance, focusing and perfecting it to a degree that has never been surpassed.   When it comes to films about  ice cold yet oddly vulnerable gangsters, outlaws, and heisters, with a sang froid you could crack nuts on, there’s the French and then there’s everybody else.

And tragically, none of these masters ever adapted a Stark novel–no, the first Parker adaptation ever was lensed by the one French director who could be guaranteed to have no respect for the form he was dabbling in.   Or any other form.  Or form, period.  Love him, hate him, don’t give a damn about him, you must acknowledge that Jean Luc Godard respected nothing but his own oddball muse, and his main reaction to a well-crafted story with great characters was to turn it upside down and inside out, and unravel every last plot thread onto the cutting room floor.  Character?  Qu’est-ce que c’est?

I’ve already told the story of how Made in USA came to be in my review of The Jugger. I’ve got nothing to add to that. And zero interest in ever seeing that film again. Once was plenty. When I look at film stills online, I can appreciate the imagery, the sense of composition, and of course Anna Karina–her I could look at all day long. And I can appreciate the weird irony that Parker was first portrayed as a woman–not like it would matter to him either way.

There are maybe one or two scenes in the film that seem to bear any relation to the story Westlake told; even there you have to squint hard to see it. The only actor who is remotely well-cast is the one playing Tiftus (Typhus in the film, ha-ha, très très drôle, maestro). I personally don’t think the film even works on its own incoherent terms–it’s a collage of shout-outs to various American writers, directors, and actors Godard seems to have liked, combined with an affectation at contemporary political commentary that I don’t think anybody really understands (though many pretend to).

The haphazard quality of the piece is not wholly by design: the film’s screenplay, such as it is, was cobbled together at the last possible moment, so Godard could use the same equipment he was renting to make Two or Three Things I Know About Her to simultaneously shoot this film, which he finished in less than two weeks. And let me say, it looks it. To paraphrase Moliere’s misanthrope, “I might, by chance, make something just as shoddy–but then I wouldn’t show it to everybody.”

Godard never gave a damn about the downtrodden of the earth, as I see it–he had a vision, and he wanted to express it, and I can respect that, wish him well of it, and mainly avoid his films, because I don’t like them.  This is not aimed at the Nouvelle Vague in general–Truffaut I like, Malle I like, Agnes Varda I adore (and her late husband Jacques Demy); Melville is probably my favorite French filmmaker. We all have our tastes.  There are many ways to tell a story, but my impression of Godard is that he never cared about stories at all.

But for all of that, Made in USA set the pattern for very nearly all the Parker adaptations that followed–the people who wrote and filmed them were not interested in doing a faithful adaptation, even if they said they were (Godard, at least, is guilty of no such double-dealing).   Something about the character of Parker interested them, or the general heisting milieu, or they just wanted to do a crime picture and they could get the rights to a Parker novel cheap enough (always with the proviso that they couldn’t call him Parker), but they were out to tell their own stories, usually very different from the ones Stark had told.

They had their own vision and worldview to get across, which Stark (and Westlake) would generally feel little affinity towards (Westlake had nothing to say about Made In USA, other than it was ‘a rotten movie’, and I think that’s the film buff in him talking, not the writer who got cheated out of his pay).  Also, not surprisingly, none of them had the nerve to show Parker the way he is in the books, because he does horrible things to people, with not so much as the slightest pang of guilt, and gets away clean in the end, usually with a lot of money.   Screen versions of Parker can get away with robbing other crooks–sometimes–somehow, second-hand theft is okay.  Whatever.

Donald Westlake was well aware of the fact that the main point of any film based on a book is not to literally transcribe the printed page into imagery and dialogue.   An excessive concern with fidelity to the source can do more harm than good.  The point is to make a good film–but he also felt strongly that the script should at least attempt to convey some essence of what the original writer had been trying to say.   Godard’s film would have to be considered the worst in this regard–but the other French adaptation of a Parker novel was, by this standard, far and away the best.

And far and away the hardest to see, but I got lucky.   Almost exactly a year ago, I was able to see a pristine print from La Cinémathèque Française unreeled at the Museum of Modern Art–no subtitles, but they had a screen under the screen where titles could be shown.  Packed house that night.   It is apparently possible to download a version screened for television years ago (pan&scan, I assume), but I’ve never done this.   So I’ll be going by memory, and notes I made at the time.

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Information about Mise à sac (often translated as Pillaged) is hard to come by–particularly in English.  It’s a little-known film outside of France, though it seems to have had some kind of release somewhere in the English-speaking world under the title Midnight Raid.  Its director, Alain Cavalier, a protege of Louis Malle, would not generally be considered to occupy the first rank of auteurs, but as one of the few surviving names from an exciting era of filmmaking (he’s eighty-three, and still working), who worked with talents like Catherine Deneuve, Romy Schneider, and Jean-Louis Trintigant at their peak, he’s somebody any serious fan of classic French cinema should be familiar with.

As they should be aware of Claude Sautet, who shared a screenwriting credit with Cavalier on this film–he’s better known for writing and directing that very film adaptation of Classe Tous Risques I mentioned above, where Jean-Paul Belmondo played Eric Stark.  And again, I’m almost sure that’s a coincidence, but they do start to mount up after a while, don’t they?

The way Cavalier and Sautet went about adapting a Stark novel was in total contrast to Godard–first of all, in that there was no legal confusion over the film rights, leading to a lawsuit.   Westlake was properly paid for The Score, and there can be no question at all that the screenwriters studied the book closely–whether it was Cavalier’s idea to make a film of it, I don’t know, but once he was actually doing so, it seems to have been his intention to get as close to the spirit and letter of the novel as possible–within reason, of course.

You can’t very well do a perfectly faithful adaptation of a book that opens in Newark New Jersey, and whose principal action is in a western mining town, if it’s set in France.   Some translation of setting and motivation and general cultural milieu shall be required.  And while French noir tends to be much less inclined to moralize than its Hollywood equivalent, you rarely ever see criminals profit from being criminals in it–usually crooks die or get caught in the end, and when they don’t it’s usually because they didn’t actually commit the crime they intended to commit.  Law & order must prevail in the end–the question is how and to what extent.

And also, I would say, the influence of existentialism, and a general attitude of fatalism that permeated French filmmaking at this time, lead to a sense that these individualists, however admirable on some level, will have to pay the price for being individualists–life will always find a way to bring down those who rebel (which does not necessarily make their rebellion less admirable).   The best French noirs tend to be tragic stories–of powerful uncontrollable personalities on collision courses, with each other and with destiny, and the most they can generally hope for is to remain themselves to the (very) bitter end.

But I must say, I don’t quite see that in this film.  I see the general style and mindset of French noir in Mise à sac, but I also see much of the Starkian ethos in it–you will be rewarded or punished not in accordance with whether you toe the line, but rather with how well you know yourself and your profession.  I get the sense that Cavalier left himself open to the material he was adapting more than any other filmmaker, before or since.  He got infected by it, discovered an affinity with it.   And for this we can only commend him, while recognizing that it’s still his vision on the screen, and that he, like everyone else to date, has not given us a true cinematic incarnation of Parker.   Parker remains untranslatable.

What did Westlake think of Mise à sac?   He told Patrick McGilligan that he’d sold the rights via the usual channels, and had never once spoken to anyone who worked on the film.   Some time later–presumably in the VCR era–he saw it at a friend’s apartment in Paris–probably taped off the air, and not letterboxed, so hardly as the filmmakers intended it to be seen.  He did not know French, and there were no subtitles, but “I figured I knew the story.  It looked modest but good.” It looked a whole hell of a lot better than that to me, but modest it is, yes. It just wants to tell you a story.  No pretensions of any kind here.

The film opens with the Parker character, called only Georges here (I think that’s a first name), heading to a meeting about a potential job, in the city of Lyons.   He realizes a man is following him, and he waylays him–and roughs him up–doesn’t have to kill him, as happens in the book.   I guess Cavalier felt like a dead body in Lyons would attract more attention than one in Newark, and he probably had a point.

Georges raises a stink about being tailed when he gets to the meeting, but the mastermind of the heist (with the first name Edgar, instead of the last name Edgars) calms him down and does his presentation–where he proposes to rob an entire factory town in a remote rural area of central France.   Everyone is suitably taken aback by the audacity of this plan; Georges has serious reservations, but it all goes much as it does in the book–the money and the challenge are too good to pass up.

Nobody is named Grofield here, but there’s a Paulus, a Wiss, and a Salsa.   The Grofield character is named Maurice, and he’s not an actor (and frankly, he’s not that interesting).  They’re a merry crew of heisters, joking back and forth, enjoying each other’s company.   The personalities are not as well-defined as in the book–it’s hard to convey in a film what Stark does with his thumbnail portraits–but the actors do a great job making us believe in these  guys–they look like workmen preparing to do a job, and that’s precisely what they are.

The Edgars-Jean-Parker triangle is dispensed with rather quickly–Edgar has hired a callgirl, and Georges, worried about Edgar’s professionalism–sensing something wrong with him–exchanges a few words with her, to see if he can learn anything.  She is not seen again.

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The heist begins 25 minutes into the film, and takes up most of it–unusual for a Parker adaptation, and only slightly less so for a Parker novel, but this is an adaptation of The Score, and that one really is all about the heist.   Just like Copper Canyon, this town basically sleeps at night, and there’s an eerie quiet on the streets.  And then this small caravan of vehicles appears, and the game’s afoot.

And just like Parker, Georges patrols those streets in a commandeered police car, while the police themselves are locked up in their own jail–along with the unfortunate young man who sees a robbery in progress, and tries to call it in–the expression on his face when Georges shows up at the phone booth to ‘arrest’ him is priceless–we get to see him in bed with his very pretty girlfriend shortly before (she’s got lovely breasts–on full display–vive la france!), and we, like he, are wondering why he didn’t just stay in bed.

I actually think this is an improvement on the scene in the novel–the hapless young lover in that one just ends up bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a bad cold–but that’s because in the novel, the police station is going to get blown up, and Westlake didn’t want to kill the poor kid.   Here, Cavalier takes full advantages of the topsy-turvy scenario of the novel–the way the criminals have become the police, and the law-abiding citizens are tossed behind bars simply for getting in the way of a smooth-running operation.

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In the meantime, Maurice is watching the telephone exchange, and making time with one of the operators, who is of course a lovely young woman named Marie. She’s attracted to him, but she’s not trying to persuade him to take her along.   He’s no Grofield, I think I mentioned.

The middle of the picture, dealing with nothing more than the systematic pillaging of all the major businesses in town, is quite simply a joy to behold.   The most perfect translation of a Stark novel you could imagine.   But of course you’ve still got to stick the landing, and that’s where things get a bit messy.

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Edgar, like Edgars, has a vendetta against the town–only this time it’s much more personal and specific.   He’s not a disgraced police chief here–he was fired from his position at the local plant by the owner and manager, and one gets the feeling he originally just thought he’d get his revenge by stealing everything in town, including the factory payroll–but as he looks at the beautiful house this man lives in, he decides it’s not enough.   He doesn’t want to burn down the entire town–just the man’s house, with him in it.  There’s a woman involved somehow, but I only saw this once, a year ago, so the details are a bit hazy.

Georges realizes something is wrong, and confronts him–and somehow Edgar knocks him down.   Which you know was never going to happen to Parker, but this ain’t Parker.   Coulda been, shoulda been, woulda been, but no cigar.

I should talk about Michel Constantin now.   He was never a big star, or really a star, period–this is probably the most central role he ever played in a film.   He was always the heavy, or the sidekick, though greatly prized in that type of role.  He made his debut in the classic Jacques Becker prison escape picture, Le Trou, and let’s just say his acting skills never really got past the basics–but he exuded a certain authenticity.

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(That’s not from Mise à sac, but you see what I mean, right?)

He was only 6’1, but seems much taller on film.  He tends to loom over the other actors (not a lot of tall people in these movies).  He just looks big–and blocky–and shaggy–and ugly, but somehow you know it’s the kind of ugly that gives at least some women vibrations above their nylons.   He walks in a certain indefinable way, with his big veiny hands swinging at his sides, and you just go “right”.   He’s Parker.   Until he opens his mouth.

See, he has to speak the dialogue he’s been given, and he’s got to react the way the director tells him to, and Cavalier isn’t trying to give us the Parker from the books.   He either doesn’t want that, or doesn’t know how to convey it.  He’s interested in telling a story about a group of thieves pulling a daring robbery–he’s interested in the subversive nature of that robbery, and the interaction of the robbers with the townspeople, and the whole notion of what happens when a little town is asleep.

But he’s not giving us the mythic lethal enforcer, the master planner, the wolf in human form, and certainly not the guy who has no sex drive until after he finishes a job–I’d guess he thought that would detract from the gritty realism he was going for with this scenario–bit late to argue with him now.   To see things from his POV–he doesn’t have a star–none of these actors, talented as they are, were big names.   It’s an ensemble piece, and that is in fact one of its strengths, but there is still a vacuum at the center, where Parker ought to be.  And isn’t.

Georges is a rather polite soft-spoken fellow, who laughs and jokes readily, reacts with horror to Edgar burning down the plant manager’s house, and seems entirely human–nothing terribly enigmatic or unaccountable here.  He conveys Parker’s professionalism, his calm, but the only time he shows us the more frightening side of the character is when he comes up behind a guard at the factory in the darkness, looking like something out of a horror movie (the spare and effective background music sounds like a horror score at points), and takes the man out hard–at which point one of his colleagues exclaims angrily “Oh, so we’re killing people now?”

Actually, it’s a good question–why kill a guard when you don’t have to?   It’s not clear whether the man is actually dead.   But that’s basically the only serious act of violence committed by Georges in the whole movie.   Cavalier didn’t really do violent films–it wasn’t his thing–and this is his only real crime film that I know of.

He obviously loves the material, but he’s a bit restrained about it.   He’s depicting a small French town being despoiled by brigands–not in the past, but in the time period he’s making it in–and he’s worried people might think he’s saying crime pays.   He’s only dabbling in this genre, and the fact is, heist movies in general–regardless of nationality–hardly ever play out the way a Richard Stark novel does.

And it doesn’t–not here.   The job is thoroughly spoiled by Edgar’s vendetta–he ends up dead in his own fire, and the rest of the gang flee with the loot, but they aren’t in the American west–they can’t disappear into a vast uninhabited landscape and hide out until the heat dies down, as happens in the book–there’s farms all around the town.   There’s a lot of cops.   There’s no place they can hide in the country.  Their plan was to get out of town before anybody knew what was happening, and get to Lyons or some other big city where they could blend in.   The plan in the book wouldn’t work here, and Cavalier doesn’t really want it to work.   This money was stolen from honest citizens.   Something must go wrong.

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The truck with the loot gets stuck in the mud of a small access road they’d hoped to avoid the cops on.   Georges and the others make a run for it.   Maurice is hung up on Marie, who he’s taken along as a hostage, and can’t accept the money is lost–it slows him down enough to get caught.  The police close in with tracking dogs (Parker might actually watch this part of the film with interest), and nab most of the crew.  But Georges and one of the other heisters make it to a small village, wait calmly for the bus, and get away clean.   Georges didn’t get the money, but he didn’t forget who he was, and what he was there for, so he lives to steal another day–that, at least, is Starkian morality.   And it’s the end of the film.   Roll credits.

I loved it, but with obvious reservations.   Parker isn’t Parker, which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that they had an actor exceptionally well equipped to play Parker.   The Grofield/Mary subplot is basically gutted of all the things that make it work, and comes across as a petty distraction.   There isn’t really time for the last act, with the heisters hiding out after the job, police helicopters overhead, tensions quietly mounting, Paulus freaking out, and Parker insisting Mary has to die–but it’s sorely missed.   And of course Georges doesn’t get to to back and have sex with Edgar’s girl, who isn’t really his girl anyway, but it would have been a nice finishing touch (did Constantin ever get the girl, in any film he ever made?).

I agree with what Westlake told Al Nussbaum in that quote I put up top, but when you start throwing out whole chunks of story in a book this tightly plotted, it’s bound to create problems.   It’s like you’re in a plane, and you’re in a hurry to reach your destination, so you start tossing out bits and pieces of machinery to lighten the load, hoping none of them are essential.   Probably not a good idea. But at least Cavalier mainly refrained from adding entirely new storylines and characters of his own devising, in place of the jettisoned material–which would be a problem with most of the later adaptations.

It’s a terrific little film, but it’s not The Score–and that’s going to be a recurring theme with all these pictures, good and bad.   Most of them have great moments. None of them come close to the books they’re adapting–but overall, I’d have to say this one came the closest.   And naturally, in the perverse universe we live in, this means that it’s the most impossible one to see, and may never get a DVD release, because the rights are reportedly all tangled up, and with no stars in the cast, there might not be enough potential profit involved to get them untangled anytime soon.   C’est la guerre.

But for a good 30-40 minutes, watching this film, I was transfixed–for all that something is lost in the translation, something is gained as well–there are things a novel can do that a film can’t, but the opposite is also true, as Westlake acknowledged.   In terms of story and character, Mise à sac falls quite a bit short of its model, but visually, it has distinct pleasures of its own–what Westlake has to describe, it can simply show us, and it does so with a quiet  efficiency, and just a touch of grim humor.   A great film it’s not, but it doesn’t pretend to be.   It just tells us a story, and since the story is by Richard Stark, it’s well worth hearing–and seeing.

Much as I like the title I came up with for this, I don’t in fact know for sure the order in which the first three Parker adaptations were shot.   Mise à sac got released in France a few months after our next film was released in America, but release dates and production dates are two entirely different things.   Based on what Westlake told Patrick McGilligan, the two films described here were the first to go into production, but if so, the third film was not far behind them.  

And the third film, in terms of sheer visual panache, not to mention star power, is far ahead of all of the Parker films.   It is, in fact, a great film (whatever the hell that means).   But it’s also kind of a shitty adaptation.   And that shall be the point I try to convey next time, assuming I don’t draw a blank.   

PS: Actually none of these films are the first Westlake adaptation–and neither was The Busy Body with Sid Caesar.   The first-ever film adaptation of anything Westlake wrote was Le commissaire mène l’enquêtein 1963.   It’s an anthology film, and one of the episodes is based on Westlake’s short story Lock Your Door, which was first published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1962.   So any way you look at it, the French shot first, n’est ce pas?

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Review of Mise à sac

Review: Philip

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Mr. Neep squatted down beside Philip.  When he bent his knees, they made large cracking sounds, like a cap pistol when you pull the trigger and the cap doesn’t fire.  Mr. Neep said “Philip, you keep getting into trouble today.”

“I know it,” said Philip.

“That isn’t like you,” said Mr. Neep.   “What’s wrong, Philip?”

Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.

Buckminster Fuller

Philip is a very unique work in the Westlake canon.  His one and only children’s book.  His only book attributed to ‘D.E. Westlake’, which I don’t think was meant to obscure his identity, so maybe he just wanted to see how that would look on a book cover.  His only book that was written specifically to be illustrated (nothing against Darwyn Cooke, but it’s a fact).  The only book he wrote that was, far as I can tell, sold directly to libraries, and not in bookstores, making it by far the rarest and most expensive to collect of all his first editions (and to date, there have been no further editions).

You may have seen one copy for sale online with an asking price of $1,500–it’s been on offer for quite a good long while now, and I don’t see any takers, but the reasoning behind the price tag, I suppose, is that sooner or later some rabid Westlake completist will pick the winning lotto number and say “What the hell.”

What is the reason for this anomalous item in his bibliography?   What motivated him to write it?   Though there’s potentially a good living in children’s books, he must have known going in he was going to make very little from this one.

Donald Westlake and Nedra Henderson divorced in 1966, having married in 1957.  He married Sandra Foley in 1967, the year this book was published.   He had two young sons from the previous marriage, Sean and Steven–one would assume Sean couldn’t have been much older than nine, if that.   Philip is dedicated to them–with a somewhat indirect choice of personal pronoun.   “To Sean and Steven–before they outgrow it.”

Ah, guilt.   The ultimate motivator.   But was this book really written for them?   Is it, in fact, a children’s book?   Yes, The Westlake Review’s well-established tradition of asking odd questions with seemingly obvious answers continues apace.

I love children’s books–the good ones.   There are innumerable bad ones, but of course Sturgeon’s Law holds true for all genres of literature.   Probably no better reason to raise a family or have younger siblings than to get to read Dr. Seuss or The Wind in the Willows to them.   My younger siblings used to run when they saw me coming with a book in hand, but I always caught them in the end.  R.H.I.P.

That other cover up above is, of course, Robert McCloskey’s Lentil, first published in 1940, when McCloskey was only twenty-six.  My earliest memories of this book are of Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan reading it to me through the TV set.  It’s a spellbinding tale of a young boy with a harmonica and his faithful dog foiling a grouchy old villain who is ruining the big town parade by sucking on a lemon.  It makes perfect sense when you read it in the right mindset.

Given his 1933 birth date, there’s a very good chance Westlake read Lentil when he was a kid.   You’ll note some visual similarities, though of course the book’s artwork and visual design are properly credited to Arnold Dobrin, a very fine artist in his own right, if not in McCloskey’s league–not that Westlake was in McCloskey’s league as a writer of children’s books, either.  Westlake was lucky to get somebody this good, and the simple color scheme, heavily centered around two or three primary hues, was typical of children’s books in this general time period, when the influence of McCloskey (and Seuss) was overwhelming.   Though really, they still loom pretty large–there are no statues of Parker or Dortmunder anywhere, that I know of.   Maybe they were stolen?

Philip (no last name given or needed) lives in a huge apartment house, “taller than a spaceship and wider than a movie theater,” in a prosperous neighborhood in a large city that is not named but we all know it’s New York.   The apartment is a spacious two-bedroom affair with a terrace.  He lives there with his mother and father, but we never see the father, an absent figure in the story (hmm).  We never see any other children, either.   Philip has no siblings–like Westlake himself, I believe–no pets, seemingly no friends his own age in the building, but he is a happy calm self-possessed boy, who is enjoying his life, and mainly appreciates the interesting environment he’s growing up in, and the distinct pleasures of being an only child in a well-off family–most unlike the family Westlake himself grew up in.

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One of those pleasures is that your well-off parents will have well-off friends who give you stuff for no reason.   One day, the doorman Mr. Neep, ‘the biggest and shiniest doorman on the whole block,” rings up to say there’s a package for Philip.   It’s from Philip’s ‘Uncle Fred’, who is not actually an uncle, but went to college with Philip’s dad, and no I don’t know if his last name is Fitch, but I bet Westlake did.

The package contains the sort of gift any boy Philip’s age would be overjoyed to get–a big beautiful yellow toy dump truck, that actually works, and runs on batteries.   The kind of toy us middle class kids in the New York City area used to gaze at all googly-eyed when our parents took us to FAO Schwarz around the holidays, and then incessantly nag our parents to get us.   God, we were brats.   But seriously, parentals, why dangle the bait if you don’t want your kids to lunge at it?

Philip graciously accepts this majestic largesse like the little prince he is (reminds me of a good friend’s younger son, also named Philip, only he’s being raised in Germany), and then is faced with a problem–he has a dump truck.  Its only purpose is to scoop up dirt, carry it somewhere, and dump it.   But there’s no dirt to be found in his immaculate home, and his parents can’t take him to the park (Central, of course) until the weekend.   In the meantime, all he has to work with are toy building blocks.  It’s not at all satisfactory.

I had plenty of toys as a kid, and I (unlike Philip) grew up in the leafy suburbs of New Jersey, surrounded by lawns and gardens and trees, and no end of glorious dirt to track everywhere, and yes you may shed a tear for my poor mother now.   I got very obsessed with beavers at one point, and I decided I wanted to build beaver dams in the sloping concrete rain gutter in front of our house.  With my hands, of course–beavers don’t have trucks.

They were simple affairs at first, just mud and grass clippings, but I got more sophisticated in my building methods over time, and crafted very authentic-looking miniature beaver dams, with sticks and rocks and anything else that seemed appropriate.   I started to build twin dams like beavers often do, and I learned how to build them just before an overnight frost so the mud would be rock solid in the morning, but also just before a big rain, so there’d be a nice little river to dam, because otherwise what’s the point?   The neighbors started to complain I was flooding the street, creating miniature lakes they had to avoid Well, what did they think beaver dams are for?  The lakes proved the efficacy of my designs!    My parents told me to stop with the damn dams already.   Nobody appreciates a true visionary.

I’m sure many of you have similar youthful tales of thwarted creativity to tell, so we can all identify with Philip’s frustration–but somehow we know, from our own past experiences, that there’s always a solution to these types of problems, if you look hard enough, while simultaneously failing to think hard enough about the potential pitfalls.   This is part of the genius of childhood Buckminster Fuller was talking about, and exemplified so well in his adult life.  I bet I could have invented the geodesic dome if my parents hadn’t suppressed me.   Oh but the neighbors would complain!   Beaver-hating philistines.

Philip sees his window of opportunity–which happens to be in an actual window–with a window box full of dirt (DIRT!), that is currently not hosting any flowers.  It’s a bit confining for such a large truck, but he’ll work around that.  Next thing he knows, his pretty blonde mother is scowling at him, saying Mr. Neep called up to complain somebody was dumping dirt on his nice clean uniform.   Philip goes down to apologize, and Mr. Neep accepts in good grace.

Mr. Neep is the adversary in this not terribly adversarial story (certainly much less so than Lentil).  His uniform and size–and the absence of Philip’s father–make him the authority figure, and we know how Westlake feels about authority figures, particularly when they’re in uniform–but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, creaky knees and all.

Westlake is deliberately toning down his own anti-authoritarian streak, presenting a fairly benign and understanding (but still very impressive) authority figure who can be reasoned with.   Westlake knows his kids will be reading this, along with a lot of other people’s kids, and he doesn’t want to give them any subversive ideas that life will be giving them soon enough already, so what’s the rush?

(Also, there were probably real doormen in Westlake’s daily life back then, and you don’t want to piss those guys off, when you have to keep passing by them all the time.   Cops, Feds, gangsters, armed robbers, professional killers, terrorists, no problem–but not doormen.  Those guys are tough.)

As the story continues, Philip can’t abandon his single-minded quest.   He can’t wait until Sunday.  There must be dirt somewhere!   The sand in the lobby ashtray–no?   The tree pit on the sidewalk outside–no?   Shall he never find a place where he and his truck can make beautiful messes together?    Always the looming uniformed figure of Mr. Neep intercedes between him and his goal.

Mr. Neep finally talks to him (see above) and finds out what the problem is.   He tells the doorman at the next building something, and he tells the next doorman, and etc.  At first Philip thinks he’s just telling all the other doormen on the block how bad he’s been, and is rather downcast.  But it turns out this is the doorman message service, and Mr. Neep (a most exceptional figure of authority in a Westlake story)  has hit upon a solution to their mutual problem.

Philip sees workmen coming down the block, from a nearby construction site, carrying tools, boards–and dirt!   On his apartment terrace, they construct Philip a sort of sandbox, only with dirt from the excavation instead of sand.   His crisis resolved, Philip sets about happily to work with his truck.   His mother has no problem with all this dirt being brought into her home.   Nor do the construction workers wolf whistle at her and make comments about her bodily parts.   Well, you don’t expect realism from a children’s book.  You don’t even want realism in a children’s book.   Not that kind of realism, anyway.   Maybe construction workers were more courteous and self-restrained back then.   In the late 1960’s.   Never mind.

What you do want in a children’s book is a really fun exciting story, and that’s where Philip falls a bit short.   Westlake, I think is not writing a book about his own boys, but rather an idealized look at what his own childhood might have been like if his parents had been a bit more prosperous–his own mother worked very hard to supplement the family income, his father did a lot of business travel. I’ve already mentioned elsewhere the ghastly story Westlake told about how his dad felt a heart attack coming on during one of those trips, checked into a cheap hotel, drank cheap liquor, and waited it out.

So this, you might say, is to Westlake what Ah Wilderness! was to Eugene O’Neill–a wistful look at what might have been, a touched up photo of the author’s youth–only written at a small child’s level.   The menacing policemen who arrested and interrogated college-age Westlake for stealing a microscope become a friendly helpful doorman.  The mother who had to work her fingers to the bone, and probably had much less time for her son as a result, becomes a happy homemaker who approves of her son’s industry, even while expecting him to behave properly.  The absence of the father is interesting, but he’s only absent during the days.   He’s coming home to Philip every night, taking him to the park on Sundays, and certainly not in a fleabag hotel room, waiting to find out if he lives or not.   Nothing is really wrong in Philip’s world.   It’s perfect.   It’s a bit too perfect.

This is a children’s book written by a parent, from a parent’s perspective, and if there’s a message in it, it’s much more for the parents reading it to their kids than to the kids themselves.  The kids just want a good story.   The parents, Westlake thinks to himself (and at himself), need to be reminded that as annoying as the energy of their kids can be, as irritating as their endless curiosity and need to explore their world can become, they the parents need to remember what it was like–go back in their minds, and see it from the child’s perspective.   Show a bit more patience, and look for ways to help the child be creative–and to let the children explore at least some of the world around them by themselves.   Because once that time in your life is gone, you never get it back again.

The passage I quoted in my review of Murder Among Children, about how older people tend to resent the energy and noise of the young, might well have derived from Westlake’s awareness of how impatient he was with his own children.  As any parent will be, at times, certainly if he’s got a whole lot of books to write–and his marriage to their mother is falling apart at the seams.   But I think the main message is to just let children alone sometimes, and only step in when needed.   They need some unstructured time to seek their bliss, and make their mistakes.

There’s a real problem with that nowadays, with so many one or two child families–many of today’s parents tend to ‘bubble-wrap’ their kids, schedule every waking moment, never allow any free time for the child to just be a child, to explore, to learn on his own–they do this out of understandable fear, but they often do a lot of damage in the process.   Westlake isn’t reacting against that nascent trend back in 1967–but I doubt he’d have thought much of it later on.   Then again, he’s certainly gone out of his way to remove every last trace of potential danger from Philip’s life (though Mr. Neep does threaten to spank Philip at one point–something no doorman would get away with now).  He would have understood where those protective impulses come from.

So to answer my own question, yeah, it’s a children’s book, and a pretty good one, but far from a great one–there’s a reason it was never reprinted, though it continues to be in a number of public libraries around the country, which I hope will not all end up selling it on ebay, because then kids (and their parents) will never be reading it anymore. It’s kind of nice to know the book is still out there, reaching the audience it was meant to reach.   Even though most kids would much prefer Where the Wild Things Are.

It sympathizes with the problems of the child, but is written too much from the perspective of a parent.  It’s just a wee tad patronizing, I’d say–deadly to this kind of book, or indeed any interaction between child and adult.  This particular field of literature was never going to be Westlake’s metier, and yet we can still see elements of the writer we know peeping out–Philip’s little misadventures have within them the seeds of a personality that, if not properly channeled, might well end up planning crimes, if only out of boredom.   He doesn’t mean anyone any harm, but it’s just so much fun to figure out how to do things.   To look at the world around you, and figure out what’s possible and what isn’t.   You can go a lot of different ways with a personality like that–you can write crime novels–or you can steal microscopes.

Now, if a kid was writing this book, it would turn out a lot different.   Mr. Neep, much scarier in this version, might confiscate Philip’s truck, and hide it away in some dark room full of lonely toys.   Philip would have to figure out where his truck was, and then confront Mr. Neep, perhaps with a water pistol filled with water imbued with an indelible dye, deadly to Mr. Neep’s beloved uniform.   Philip would sight his weapon at Mr. Neep, standing in front of the room his truck is in, who would hold out his hands in fear, screaming “I’m only the doorman!”

“Now you’re the door,” Philip would tell him, and shoot him.

Well, that’s why children aren’t mainly allowed to write their own books.

But Westlake was still writing his, and safely away from the nursery, under yet another nom de plume, he’s about to publish one of his most hard-boiled adventures ever–set in the far reaches of outer space, on a distant and brutal planet, that might daunt the likes of Buck Rogers or Luke Skywalker–maybe even Parker.   It’s got sex and violence and weird-looking hairy horses, and everybody is really really mean.   “Dad, the book about the toy truck is boring–can we read this one with the cool cover, by this Curt Clark guy?”   “NO!   You can never read that book!”

I bet they did anyway, when he wasn’t looking.   Kids are natural anarchists.    Which is fine.   Until they grow up.

PS: One last time, I will repeat my offer–anybody who posts in response to this review may, if he or she so desires, receive an email with a scanned version of Philip–cover to cover.  Just include your email in the post, transcribed in such a way as to foil those nasty spambots.  I’ll do the rest.   My inner Neep would allow no less.

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