Category Archives: Donald Westlake

Mr. Westlake and the LOA.

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

Lord Byron

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

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

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

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bulk of Westlake’s vast treasure trove of stories, in physical and/or electronic form (including some things that went unpublished in his lifetime)–some e-publishers have even made some of his early science fiction and sleaze paperbacks available–nice thing about that is they don’t have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

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

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

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

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

three_library_of_america_covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing Time
Killy
Anarchaos
Up Your Banners
Two Much!

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

361
The Hunter
The Seventh
Wax Apple
The Ax

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

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

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

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

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

I’m just putting it out there.

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Richard Stark, Tucker Coe

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

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

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson

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

From Dancing Aztecs, 1977. 

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

James Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake

Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

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

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

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

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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Perfect Murder

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

At this my counsel rose and said:

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

From My Favorite Murder, by Ambrose Bierce

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

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

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

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

Donald E. Westlake, writing to ‘Tim.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westlake makes a rather detailed analysis of what he perceives to be the crucial defects in Tim’s character, his mistakes in life, deduced from the slight biographical data provided.  Each writer is free to a certain extent to improvise upon the basic scenario provided 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 Pickard to get her slot, but apparently she’s still alive and presumably still in one piece.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westlake, in his brief contributions to this work, seems, I must say, almost Godlike in his perceptions and abilities.  In the quote up top, he 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