Category Archives: Enough

Review: Enough, Part the Second–Ordo

 

Ordo is a story in which absolutely nothing happens.  At least by the standards of crime fiction.  And that’s rare for Westlake.  He didn’t normally write that way.  Lots of famous authors do, of course.  ‘Serious’ authors.  The ‘slice of life’ folks.  They show us ordinary people having experiences, conversations, epiphanies, while performing various mundane tasks along the road to death.  Because that is, after all, most of what happens in life, (or if not, who has time to read?).

That’s why we eagerly consume crime fiction, along with a host of other entertainments.   To get the hell away from that mundane aspect of daily life.   Cunning genre writers find ways to tell us things about life, convey their personal insights, while still giving us a nice thrilling story, and that’s Westlake’s normal thing.

I think this is crime fiction, though.  In its own fashion.   It’s a murder mystery, and the title character, Ordo Tupikos, is the detective.  This is his only case.  He is not a reluctant detective, like most of Westlake’s other protagonists in this type of story, who get roped into finding out whodunnit, and having done so, usually feel like they should have left well enough alone.   They are perpetually discontented, not at ease with themselves, and a lot of fun to read about.

But Ordo, who is not the least bit discontented, who is totally at ease with himself at all times, really wants to crack this case, and when he finally does, he’s satisfied with the answer he got, and he goes back to his life, and that’s it.  End of story.  It’s interesting; I wouldn’t say it was fun.   It’s funny at points, but you don’t laugh while reading it.

So why would anyone want to read this?   Well, aside from the fact that it’s very well written, it’s mainly set in Hollywood, and the other main character in this mystery–at once the murderer and the victim–is a beautiful famous movie star, who used to be married to the title character.   Well, she was and she wasn’t.  It takes a little time to explain.

American writers of prose fiction are perpetually fascinated by Hollywood (they can’t afford not to be), and Westlake was no exception–he was increasingly dependent on the entertainment biz to supplement his income, he had friends and colleagues in Hollywood, he spent a fair bit of time there, he knew a lot of producers, directors, screenwriters, and must have met at least a few real film stars.  He’d tried the acting life himself for a while,  the straw hat theater circuit, none too successfully.

His first series protagonist was an actor (the Phil Crawford Trilogy, if you want to call it that), and he repeatedly wrote about actors in his fiction–he also wrote a short tell-all biography of Elizabeth Taylor  under a pseudonym–which had the misfortune to end just before she met Richard Burton.  Still a very sympathetic and rather insightful portrayal, I thought.  Taylor never really chose stardom, though, at least not at first–that life was chosen for her, by her mother.   Most people who become stars (as opposed to mere actors) choose to be stars.  That’s a rather important point.   The star in this book is much closer to a certain Norma Jeane Mortenson.

As I mentioned last week, to the extent that Enough got any critical notice, it mainly generated a lot of head-scratching from the critics.  Why is this story paired with A Travesty, a farcical yarn about a detective/murderer, when the protagonists, the stories, even the writing styles, are so blatantly mismatched?

Both stories have first-person narrators, yes.  But whereas Carey Thorpe is the more usual type of Westlake narrator, full of clever urbane asides, pop cultural references, and inadvertent revelations of his own confused identity that he may fail or succeed in grasping before the story ends (this one fails), Ordo Tupikos addresses us in a simple unadorned fashion, describing his experiences to us matter-of-factly, much in the manner of Paul Cole, the amnesiac narrator of Memory, a book Westlake chose not to publish in his life, perhaps because he knew it wasn’t what people expected from him, perhaps for other reasons (see my review).

But while Paul Cole (an actor, reportedly on his way to stardom before he was skulled with a chair by a jealous husband) is prevented from achieving self-understanding by his amnesia, Ordo, much like Parker, has a very complete understanding of himself.  He knows who he is.  He’s always known.  He can’t understand how anyone couldn’t know that. He’s Ordo, and he’s never wanted to be anyone else, anything else.  What would be the point in wanting something like that?   What else can you ever be but you?

Unlike Parker, though, he has to tell us his story himself–no Richard Stark to translate, and really, no translator needed–he’s not a wolf in  human form–he’s just a man.   He doesn’t rob banks.  He has no problem performing those mundane tasks I mentioned above to earn his bread.  He has no creative impulses to satisfy, frustrated or otherwise.  His intelligence seems to be quite normal.  He isn’t what you’d call intellectually curious, but then he finds himself presented with a puzzle, and it triggers this itch in his head (like Parker gets sometimes), and he has to go solve the puzzle before he can be at ease with himself again.

Ordo is a sailor, thirty-eight years of age at the time our story begins, doing a hitch in the U.S. Navy, as he has been for most of his adult life.   But he’s no military lifer–his job isn’t who he is–it’s just what he does for a living.  He’s going to retire at some point, and get another job.  He is mainly out of touch with his mother and siblings–his family isn’t the source of his identity, nor is his ethnicity, a mixture of Greek, Swede, Native American, Irish, and Italian.

Two marriages, both short-lived, no children.  Nothing in the way of religious convictions, and no indication of any kind of conventional patriotism, though he’d surely fight for his country if called upon.   Born in Wyoming of all places, he’s been all over, and has no ties to any particular community.   Not even a ball team to root for.  He just lives.

The end of the second marriage seemingly upset him (he implies his wife was unfaithful).   He drank a bit, got into some fights, and the judge suggested he go back to the Navy for a while, which he did–the routine straightened him out, and he started dating a divorced woman with three kids.  He likes her, and she him, but it’s not true love, just companionship, sex.  He doesn’t identify himself by who he’s sleeping with either.

One day he’s working at the Naval Repair Station that is his current assignment, and one of his fellow sailors shows him an article in a magazine about Dawn Devayne.  He knows who that is, one of the reigning blonde bombshells, he’s seen some of her movies, but is confused by the fact that his buddy is telling him that the article mentions she was once married to a sailor named Ordo Tupikos.  There’s a picture of him and her on their wedding day, in San Diego.   Her name was Estelle Anlic when he married her.

Ordo doesn’t understand it–Estelle Anlic, then just a teenager (she lied to him about her age, and her mother nearly had him arrested for statutory rape before she had the marriage annulled), looked nothing at all like Dawn Devayne.  She wasn’t a blonde for one thing, but it’s much more than that.  Estelle was pretty enough, but nothing special–Dawn Devayne is widely considered one of the most beautiful glamorous women on the planet.  She’s got ‘It’, as the saying goes.

Estelle didn’t even know what ‘It’ was.   But they were happy together, for the short time they were married.   He loved her.  It was real, whatever it was they had between them.   Wasn’t it?

He’s confused.  He knew Estelle Anlic.  This woman in the magazine, the woman on the movie screen–that isn’t her.  That’s another person entirely.  And yet this person used to be his wife.  She’s become somebody else.  He didn’t know that was possible.   It never occurred to him that people change their identities.   Not just their names, their appearances, but who they are inside.

His navy buddies kid him about it for days, until one of them makes the mistake of calling Orry (his nickname) by his former wife’s current last name, at which point he picks up a wrench and walks toward the man.

“My name is Orry.”

He looked surprised and a little scared.   He said:

“Sure.  Sure, I know that.”

I said:

“Let me hear you say it.”

He said:

“Jeez, Orry, it was just a–”

“Okay, then,” I said, and went back to where I was working, and that was the last I heard about that.”

But what’s he supposed to do when his girlfriend, having heard about his first wife, gets all excited, and wants to try a lot of weird sexual positions?  And gets upset when he doesn’t understand, and won’t play along with her fantasies?   He doesn’t understand people any more than Parker does.

What did Fran want from me, anyway?   Just because it turns out I used to be married to somebody famous,all of a sudden I’m supposed to be different?  I’m not any different, I’m the same guy I always was.  People don’t just change, they have ways that they are, and that’s what they are.  That’s who they are, that’s what you mean by personality.  The way a person is.

Then I thought: Estelle changed.

That’s right.   Estelle Anlic is Dawn Devayne now.  She’s changed, she’s somebody else.  There isn’t any–she isn’t–there isn’t any Estelle Anlic any more, nowhere on the face of the earth.

And if she isn’t the same person she was when he knew her, loved her, does that mean he’s somebody else now?

He’s got to understand.   He’s got to find out what happened to Estelle.  So he requests some leave, and on his way to L.A. makes a brief stop in New York, where he meets a hooker who specializes in pretending to Dawn Devayne, and is insulted when he passes up her services, screaming after him that what he’s after is Robert Redford.   Who now I think on it, is probably who they’d have cast to play Ordo if there’d been a Hollywood film based on this, but never mind now.

He gets to Hollywood,  a small town within the labyrinth that is L.A., and it doesn’t take him long to find Dawn Devayne’s agent, who is obviously suspicious at first, but being a rank sentimentalist, is delighted when he finds out that yes, this really is his client’s first great love, and he facilitates their reunion happily. And Dawn herself is eager to see Orry again.

He’s giving us his impressions of Tinseltown as all this is happening, and what he’s showing us is an entire community of people who are all trying to become somebody else, who are proudest when you recognize them for playing some other person, even in just a bit role.  The ones who haven’t made it yet try to look as though they have, as they push carts through the supermarket with an air of privilege, while picking up only the cheapest items.

Even the limo chauffeur who drives him to the agent’s office is playing a part–the guy who knows all the stars.  Dawn Devayne?  Great lady, very real, doesn’t give herself airs at all.  He’s completely thrown off balance when Ordo mentions he was married to her.   That wasn’t in the script.

What really fascinates Ordo is the Walk of Stars, where the names of icons past and present are embedded in the sidewalk.   He hears a family of tourists talking, the kids asking about all the names they don’t recognize, Emil Jannings,  Dolores Costello–the boy teases his sister by saying that all these people are buried underneath their names, standing straight up to save space.  She isn’t 100% sure he’s lying.

So finally he meets Dawn Devayne.  Who remembers him.  Very very well.  She says he hasn’t changed a bit (which is not the lie it usually is when old friends meet), and of course he can’t return the compliment, if that’s what it is.

And before you know it, they’re lovers again.  She just decides they should be, so that’s what happens.  He says she’s everything men imagine she would be, everything his girlfriend Fran was trying (and failing) to be.   And he adapts to that rather effortlessly, and she’s very pleased with his performance in bed.  But there’s something about the way she treats him–like he’s her old dog that she had brought up from the country to play with.  The old dog learns a few new tricks.   But he’s still just a dog.

He asks her current co-star, heterosexual onscreen, gay in real life, and whose name is Rod (of course it is) how Estelle Anlic became Dawn Devane.  When Rod realizes Ordo is seriously asking the question, he gives him the best answer he can.

“She decided to,” he said.  He had a crinkly, masculine, self-confident smile, but at the same time he had another expression going on behind the smile, an expression that told me the smile was a fake, a mask.  The inner expression was also smiling, but it was more intelligent, and more truly friendly.  He said, using that inner expression, “Why did you ask me that question, Orry?’

It was, of course, because I believed he’d somehow done the same sort of thing as Dawn, that somewhere there existed photos of him in some unimaginable other person.  But it would sound like an insult to say that, and I said nothing, floundering around for an alternate answer.

“You’re right,” he said.

“Then how?” I asked him.  “She decided to be somebody else.  How is it possible to do that?”

He shrugged and grinned, friendly and amiable, but not really able to describe colors to a blind man.  “You find somebody you’d rather be,” he said.  “It really is as simple as that, Orry.”

I knew he was wrong.  There was truth in the idea that people like Dawn and himself had found somebody else they’d rather be, but it surely couldn’t be as simple as that.  Everybody has fantasies, but not everybody throws away the real self and lives in the fantasy.

The only real drama in the story comes from two painful moments where Dawn is forced to confront her past–see, she won’t admit she’s changed that much.  Orry tries to ask her about it, in spite of Rod warning him not to, and she just blows him off, says she’s the same person she always was.  But when her agent, the sentimental old fool, presents her with a goddam standee made from a blown-up copy of that old wedding photograph of her and Ordo–with her looking as she did then–she flies into a rage.

Then later, her mother Edna (every bit as vulgar and common as you’d expect in a movie about a starlet’s past, but that’s how it often is in real life as well) shows up with her husband–also a navy man, retired, he and Ordo understand each other very well.   Edna, not quite recognizing Ordo, starts asking probing questions about what he’s doing there, is he going to be husband #5, like that.

Finally, Ordo, irritated by her attitude, probably still angry that she broke him and Estelle up, tells her he was husband #1–and with those words, Dawn gives him a stricken look, and makes her exit.  He never sees her again.  She just stays away from the house until he gets the message, and leaves.

He goes back home.   He finishes his term of service in the navy, retires, and marries his girlfriend Fran, who he says calmed back down, and they had perfectly good, perfectly ordinary sex, lived a perfectly good, perfectly ordinary life, and were contented with that.

He understands now, you see.  He doesn’t have that itch in his brain anymore.  Rod’s answer to the mystery of Estelle Anlic was good as far as it went, but Ordo figured the rest of it out.  To become somebody new, you have to kill the person you used to be.  There’s no other way.

Dawn Devayne murdered Estelle Anlic, who in Orry’s imagination is now buried standing up under her name on the Walk of Stars.  The reason Dawn seduced Ordo so passionately, luring him into an erotic fantasy of swimming pool sex and wild Hollywood parties was because he brought back memories of Estelle, and she wanted him to think only about Dawn, the fantasy woman she’d become, so dull mediocre little Estelle would slip back into nonexistence.  But after he identified himself to her mother as the man who had married and loved Estelle Anlic (as he had never loved Dawn Devayne), she just had to write him out of existence as well.

Why did Westlake give Ordo Tupikos a Greek name, even though he’s only one-fifth Greek at most?   Because simple and uneducated a man as he is, he’s a philosopher.  He looks beneath surface appearances, at the way things really are.  His first name means ‘order’, ‘rank’, or ‘class’ in Latin.  His last name can mean ‘shape’ or ‘type’ in Greek.   Like another laconic sailor man of fiction, he is what he is and that’s all that he is.   And like that fabled spinach-eater of yore, he’s perpetually confused by the airs the people around him put on (well blow me down, I finally got an Elzie Segar ref in edgewise).

And why is this story a good companion piece for A Travesty, after all?  Aside from the fact that its hero actually does solve a sort of metaphorical murder mystery?  Because Ordo is the polar opposite of Carey Thorpe, a man who ran as fast as he could from self-knowledge, who defined himself by his work, his women, his social position, his possessions, and yet had an identity so poorly rooted that he slipped effortlessly into detective work without even thinking about it, and committed murders just as thoughtlessly, one identity blending into another, until the whole confused structure collapsed on itself.

And as I’ve said too many times already, the only real crime in the world of Donald E. Westlake (under any of his many names) is the crime of not knowing yourself.   That’s the crime that gets you caught.  Keep it simple, stupid.  Only is Westlake practicing what he preaches, when two such fundamentally different stories of his appear at the same time, in the same book?   He might have asked himself that same question.

This is a very existentialist piece, isn’t it?   Ordo, I mean, not A Travesty (or this review).   That’s probably why the French took to it–short as it is, Ordo seems to have had at least two solo editions in French translation, and as you can see up top, one translator was Jean Patrick Manchette, a rather eminent Serie Noire author in his own right.   I’d guess that would have pleased Westlake even more than the French film adaptation made about five years before his death, which I haven’t seen, but which is reportedly quite faithful to the original–except it’s not set in Hollywood.   Much as I admire Le Cinema Francais, much as I know its many great stars are self-creations just as much as the American screen idols (if not more), is there really a French equivalent to Hollywood?   The Riviera, perhaps?  Cannes?  ::shrugs gallically::

Westlake was no Ordo Tupikos, and well he knew it.   Neither was he Carey Thorpe.  But both men existed within him, and many others, and that’s the enduring mystery of human identity–that in containing multitudes, we are still ourselves.  And one of the most outstanding citizens of Westlake’s inner metropolis is next on our agenda–Mr. Dortmunder himself, in his fourth outing.

And overall, the least distinguished to date (it’s probably my least favorite installment), but a pivotal work in the canon, not least in that it introduces a rather looming figure to the ever-enlarging list of usual suspects in the Dortmunder-verse.  Later described as an ICBM with legs.   Let’s just set out a glass of vodka and red wine to propitiate him, and hope he doesn’t notice us gawking.  Though really, how can we help it?

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Enough, Ordo, Uncategorized

Review: Enough, Part the First–A Travesty

“It’s so hard to keep track of an individual death, isn’t it?” she said.  “There are so many deaths, so many injustices, they all blend together.”

“Well, that depends how closely they affect you.”

She smiled; she had bad teeth.  “That’s right,” she said.  “It isn’t morality at all, it’s personal convenience, personal emotions.  None of us really care how many strangers get killed.”

Well, if you’re going to a cocktail party you have to expect cocktail party conversations.  I said, “Naturally, it affects you more if it happens to somebody you know.”  And even as I was saying it, I knew I was giving this girl an irresistible opportunity to quote John Donne.

Which she took.  I received the tolling of the bell with my best glazed smile, and she said, “But the point really is morality, isn’t it?  People are liberal or conservative these days, they believe in women’s rights or property rights or whatever, some of them are even still ethical, but nobody’s actually moral any more.  Nobody hates sin.”  Then she nodded, looking amused at herself, and said, “See?  People smile if you even use the word sin.”

Was I smiling?  Yes, I was.  Wiping it off, I tried another catch phrase: “The only sin is getting caught.”

Nobody knew what to make of this book when it came out, and to the extent anyone remembers it, they still don’t.  It isn’t a novel.   It isn’t an anthology of previously published material; short stories, essays, whatever–it contains two stories, neither of which had ever seen the light of day before.   A farcical novella about a critic/murderer who turns detective (while still committing murders), followed by a longish short story about a sailor who finds out his ex-wife is a movie star, goes to see her, then goes back to being a sailor.   They’re both written in the first person by Donald E. Westlake, and that’s about all they have in common, aside from being in the same book.  Or so it seems, anyway.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still writing his pseudonymous crime fiction column for the New York Times that he inherited from Anthony Boucher, was baffled.  He liked the first story a lot–it was what he and most people expected from Westlake–a funny mystery.  But the second story, which he admitted was well-written, had no murder mystery in it (well, no dead body, put it that way), no heists, no illegal activity of any kind.  It’s not crime fiction by any accepted definition.  “What it is doing in this book is anybody’s guess” he wrote.  Well, we’re anybody, so let’s guess.

Westlake’s work for M. Evans & Co. was eclectic, to say the least.  You really never knew what was coming next.   He published ten books with them (not including the western/crime hybrid he co-wrote with Brian Garfield).   Except for the two Dortmunders, no one book much resembled any of the others–but they were all  at least nominally in the genre he was known for,  with the exception of the political thriller Ex Officio, his first book for them, which he published under another name, so nobody got confused by that.

Westlake was producing much less by this time, and the previous year he’d come out with Dancing Aztecs, a sprawling comedy epic, which must have taken longer to write than his usual thing, and had perhaps depleted his energies somewhat.

He’d finished with Parker, Grofield, Tobin–couldn’t really write as Stark or Coe anymore, at least for the time being. He was probably enjoying the novelty of just being one person for a while.  But it was perhaps harder for him to write as much as he used to with only one voice, and the publishing industry still didn’t like putting out too many books by the same author in one year.

He’d just about run out his string with the ‘Nephew’ books–only so many viable variations in that story.   His personal life was more complicated than ever, with two ex-wives, four growing sons, and a new relationship that was heading towards a third and final marriage.   It has to have cut into his writing time at least a bit.

You could say that he simply owed M. Evans a book for that year (1977), so he foisted some odds and ends on them–but he gave them a Dortmunder later that same year.  Hard to believe this was a mere contractual obligation volume–particularly since he published nothing with them in the next two years, only to finish off with one last rather head-scratching heist story set in Europe.

Westlake’s relationships with publishers often seem to have soured towards the end, and he’d head off to the next one.  You get a shift in personnel at the top, a change in priorities, and all of a sudden the rapport isn’t there anymore.  Or maybe his agent got him into another bidding war.  He’d had an amazing run there, but it was winding down, along with the 70’s.  The 80’s would be–problematic.  But we’ll get there.

The title itself is odd–Enough what?   The first story isn’t really long enough for a hardcover mystery, so maybe the second is just to pad things out, so the book buyer would feel it was worth the $7.95 pricetag.  I love the cartoon-strip artwork on the cover of the first edition, but it says absolutely nothing about the contents.

None of the covers ever managed to address both stories, which demonstrates an underlying problem of the book.  How many people looking for a nice little comic crime novel really want to stick around for a somber, poignant, and impossible-to-pigeonhole story about a sailor and his starlet ex?

The dedication reads “For Avram Avakian, fondly, this two-reeler.”  Avakian being the guy who made a workmanlike but rather uninspired film from Westlake’s screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which Westlake later turned into an excellent novel.  Westlake felt that Avakian was a brilliant film editor who didn’t really have the full skill set to be a successful director.

The opening quote is from Ambrose Bierce (a favorite writer of Westlake’s, which is an interesting coincidence, since I was mildly obsessed with Bierce as a kid, and didn’t know Westlake was similarly afflicted until well after I started reading him)–it’s from The Devil’s Dictionary–“Enough: too much.”  (Or perhaps, two much?)

And then there’s a quote from Thomas DeQuincey  (who I keep meaning to read), specifically geared towards the first story, which basically says if a man commits murder, this may lead to worse sins, like bad manners.

Allow me to theorize (like anyone can stop me).  He normally gave M. Evans two books a year–maybe they didn’t insist on it, but he wasn’t getting paid for books he didn’t produce.  Dancing Aztecs had, of necessity, been his sole contribution for ’76.  He had a Dortmunder for ’77, but he needed something else.

He had an idea for a mystery novel, but it wasn’t ‘enough’ for a full-length book.  And at some point in time–maybe recently, maybe years before–he’d turned out a short story, that he liked, but couldn’t find a buyer for, because it wasn’t what people expected from him, and it was too long for a magazine.  He talked M. Evans into publishing them both in the same volume.   That way with the Dortmunder published shortly afterwards he’d have two books for ’77–not much, for him–but enough.  And then he published no books at all for over two years.  Well, I didn’t say it would be a flawless theory.

We can’t discount the possibility that Westlake did think there was a link between these two stories, different as they are.  That one served as counterpoint to the other, and of course they’re both about identity, because that’s what he writes about.  Probably a few years earlier, he’d have published the second story under a pseudonym, but he was fresh out of pseudonyms.  Maybe he wanted to remind people yet again that Westlake wasn’t just the comic caper guy.

And maybe I’ve speculated long enough about Enough.   I debated about whether to review the two stories in it together or separately, and mainly decided on the latter because in subsequent editions they were often published separately, particularly overseas.

The second story actually got a film adaptation, many years later, in France–which must have come as a surprise to Mr. Westlake.  It would have come as a surprise to ‘Newgate Callendar’ as well, but he’d died the year before.  Really no surprise a part-time mystery reviewer and full-time music critic liked the first story better–the protagonist is, after all, a critic who solves mysteries, while bedding luscious ladies, and outsmarting (and cuckolding) befuddled homicide detectives.   Seriously, show me a critic who’ll give that story a bad review.

Carey Thorpe is another of Westlake’s unapologetic cads–in many ways reminiscent of Art Dodge in Two Much.  But he has a somewhat more conventional profession–he’s a film critic, moderately successful, who writes semi-scholarly articles for various obscure film journals, as well as reviewing recent releases for a small Manhattan weekly called The Kips Bay Voice (for those who are not Gothamites, Kips Bay is a neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, just below 34th, and since the British used it to land their invading forces during the Revolutionary War, has never been known for much of anything other than absurdly high rents).

As we meet him, he is standing over the dead body of one of his two girlfriends, Laura Penney.   They had quarreled, and he hit her, and she hit her head on her own coffee table, and is no more among the living.  If this were the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham writing this, he’d say the manner of her passing was almost like a cliche, but this is a murder mystery novel, let’s remember.

Thing is, nobody knew he and Laura were sexually intimate–they were seen at various social events, screenings and such, but because he has a somewhat more serious girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, and he wanted to date both of them at once without either of them knowing, he’s created the illusion that when he’s seen with the other it’s only for the purposes of having somebody on his arm at the aforementioned social events.  The quarrel that led to Laura’s death was a byproduct of this deception.

Carey, who is separated from his wife Shirley (only an offstage character in this play), doesn’t sound to be all that much of a hunk, but he’s clever and charming enough to talk his way into bed with any number of desirable females, though talking his way out again is a more challenging proposition, as many a rake has learned.

He’s been under a lot of stress from work and multiple bedmates and insufficient funds and an estranged wife who wants his head on a platter (which ties neatly into the insufficient funds thing), and he’s been taking a lot of valium, which allows him a somewhat more abstracted view of his increasingly dire situation (maybe a bit too abstracted).

But even when he’s not popping pills, he’s never going to be the soul of compassion.  His main agenda here is going to be to make sure he doesn’t take the rap for Laura’s death, so he tidies up the crime scene a bit, and makes his exit.   When two police detectives greet him at Laura’s apartment (he’s keeping the date he knows she put in her appointment book, because it would look suspicious if he didn’t), and inform him of her demise, he is suitably horrified–and rather surprised to find that as the investigation proceeds, neither of them seriously suspects him.  They’re nothing like the police detectives in the movies he reviews.

Carey thinks of everything in terms of movies–when somebody buzzes him into Laura’s apartment, and just for a moment he thinks she’s alive, he starts envisioning Gene Tierney.  The first detective, named Bray, reminds him of Dana Andrews–he wonders if that makes him Clifton Webb.   The second detective, Fred Staples, doesn’t remind him of anybody, but he, surprisingly, is a fan of Carey’s reviews in the Kip’s Bay Voice.    He says his wife loves them too.  This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For a short book, this one has a lot of plot twists, and I don’t have the patience to cover them all.   I’ll list a few–there’s a blackmailing private detective (working for a company called Tobin-Global, and let me just say, this book makes me miss Tucker Coe very badly), who was tailing Carey on behalf of his wife, and wants ten grand to keep quiet.   Carey liquidates every asset he has, then actually robs a bank to get most of the rest–then realizing the detective has set himself up as an ideal suspect that Carey could finger in turn, makes him give the money back.

As if things weren’t complicated enough already, Carey is rather effortlessly seduced by Fred Staples’ outwardly placid and domestic blonde wife Patricia, while Carey is screening Gaslight for her (Gaslight becomes their code word for sex).   Contrary to his first impressions, she turns out to be a total narcissist, and a really incredible lay.   He knows this is a bad idea, screwing the wife of a detective investigating a murder he himself committed, but he just can’t seem to stop acting on bad ideas.

In the meantime, the private detective (who reminds Carey of Martin Balsalm in Psycho), unwilling to play the patsy, refuses to go away quietly, and you know that recurring line from the Parker novels about how you shouldn’t make murder the answer to everything?   Seems like Carey never read any Parker novels, and that line never made it into any of the movie versions.   And private detectives rarely come off well in Donald Westlake novels.

So is that the end of his problems?   Alas, no. Because the detectives suspect his favorite girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, of murdering Laura in a fit of jealous rage.  She doesn’t have an alibi, and once they question her, the indignant Kit decides to play girl detective–she even throws a party (with Carey’s help) where she invites all the potential suspects.

That’s where the little exchange up top occurs, Carey talking to a woman who showed up with two gay male friends–who just got married in San Francisco–interesting little bit of social data there, we tend to forget that gay marriage was going on for decades, with varying degrees of legality, long before it became a major national issue.   The dialogue rather reminded me of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which only goes to show that Carey is not the only one out there who is constantly making connections with movies.

God is a luxury Carey can’t afford either, not that he ever brings up religion.  Unfortunately for Kit, she turns out to be a pretty good detective after all, and she figures out who the killer is–and rather inexplicably, chooses to tell him that in private.

Now this is a major problem with the story.   Are we supposed to believe the otherwise bright and perceptive Kit is so engrossed in her role as detective that she thinks Carey will simply turn himself in, or the police will break in just in the nick of time–or that she’ll have a hold on him, to keep him from straying in future?  None of the above happens, and he feels just terrible about what he does next, but in for a dime…..

So this is all entertaining enough, but frankly it’s rather sub-par Westlake, full of characters that are intentionally tissue-paper thin (this is a farce, after all, but Westlake doesn’t normally use that as an excuse for poor characterization).   And yet for all that, it’s still worth reading, and it’s worth asking why.

The central gimmick, what sets the story apart, is that in the midst of trying to avoid being identified as the murderer, and committing two further murders (and a minor bank heist) towards that end, Carey finds out he’s a far better detective than he ever was a film critic.

Fred Staples is just delighted to pal around with (as he sees it) a celebrity, and Carey wants to keep an eye on him and his partner to make sure they don’t get the right idea about him.  So he accompanies them on another case, and he just happens to solve it–in that way that fictional detectives in bad mystery stories so often do.  Just spots something the professionals missed.

It’s not something he particularly wanted to happen, it’s not something he ever aspired to do.  He just wants to attend film screenings, write articles, go to bed with pretty girls, and live a generally shallow meaningless pleasure-filled existence, like any civilized man who reads Esquire.

But having done it once, to Fred’s awestruck delight, Carey finds himself in demand as a consulting detective.  And over and over, he spots that one little clue that cracks the case.  He has a gift for both committing murders and solving them.  Go figure.

Now if he actually wanted this to happen, it would be impossibly contrived and far-fetched (like most detective novels), but because it’s just something Carey finds himself doing reflexively, more or less because it’s so damned obvious to him that he can’t keep from speaking up, and because, after all, it’s what detectives are always doing in the movies, you sort of let him slide, because you want to see how far Westlake can stretch this gag out.  And he can stretch it pretty damn far.

First he solves the mytery of a murdered director, shot while he was screening his own film.   Turns out the killer was an aspiring screenwriter whose work was used without attribution.   He immediately confesses, as fingered killers so often do in mystery stories, because trials are so messy and time-consuming for dramatic purposes.

There’s this leitmotif of otherwise sensible people behaving like cheap genre cliches, when they really ought to know better, because they, like Carey, think that’s how you’re supposed to behave in this type of situation–the movies have programmed them.  Life imitating bad art, badly.

Then there’s another murder, this one a gay travel writer murdered by a lover–Carey realizes the man put a coded message into what he was writing at his desk when he realized he was in danger.   See, the murdered copy-writer refers to Antigua as being right next to St. Martin.  They check a map.

When he removed his finger, I bent to read the lettering: “Anguilla.”

“Anguilla, Antigua.” Staples shrugged, saying, “He was upset from the argument, that’s all, he just got mixed up.”

“Does that make sense?”  I studied Ailburg’s writing again, shaking my head.  “No, it doesn’t.”  This was his job, he knew what island was where.  And look how he broke that sentence, starting a new line after the word ‘charming.’  It looks awkward.”

Staples said, “I don’t see what you’re driving at.”

Only because you’ve never read Under An English Heaven, officer.

Then there’s a seeming suicide that Carey realizes was a murder (see if you can spot the clue), but he decides not to finger the killer for personal reasons (this one’s a bit of a reference to The Sincerest Form of Flattery, a Westlake short story that appeared in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

And finally, a classic locked door mystery at the consulate for some tiny obscure nonexistent Eastern European nation, and I have to confess, Westlake plays fair with all these mysteries, puts in enough information for the reader to solve them all, and I didn’t solve any of them–even on the second reading.   Well, I remembered whodunnit, but I didn’t remember how Carey figured it out.

(All the chapters in this book have mystery novel titles, even when they don’t have an actual mystery in them–The Adventure of the Missing R–The Problem of the Copywriter’s Island–The Chainlock Mystery–The Death of the Party–see if you can guess which of these features Carey solving a murder mystery, and which is just him dealing with the complications attendant to his own personal murders).

So Carey’s rather enjoying being the criminal sociopath’s answer to Ellery Queen, but he’s gotten so wrapped up in playing detective/murderer that he misses the obvious denouement.  Fred finds out Carey’s been diddling the missus.  So he frames Carey with planted evidence.  For murders Carey actually committed.

Fred does not know, nor will he ever, that Carey actually is the murderer–nor does he care who actually did the killings.  He thinks he’s just being petty.   Being framed for something you actually did is an old obsession with Westlake, ever since The Affair of the Purloined Microscope (see The Getaway Car).  It’s just so–unprofessional.   Detectives should care about their craft.  Carey rubs it in just how much better a detective he is, by pointing out an obvious (to him) clue in that one case he’d decided not to solve–something Fred missed entirely.  Fred is most admiring of Carey’s sagacity, but what’s that got to do with the fact that the man had sex with his wife?

So Carey is in Fred’s car, going to the inevitable Station House, knowing that he’s going to prison, because the only way he can prove he was framed is to admit his actual guilt.  He’ll have to plead guilty, get the lightest sentence possible, and hope to rejoin the civilized world someday.  And there’s every indication in the book that he will do that, and he might be a more successful film critic than ever–notoriety will bring him a wider readership.  But it’s still so unfair.  All he did was kill three people, and he didn’t mean to kill the first one, and the other two were just–loose ends.  He’s guilty, but he’s not the least bit guilt-ridden. He’s only sorry he committed the sin of getting caught.

Westlake was experimenting with a very detached yet whimsical tone in this novel, and it doesn’t entirely work.  And it doesn’t entirely fail.   It’s one of those middling efforts, cleverly worked out, fun to read, and easily forgotten.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the very detailed knowledge of film that Westlake reveals–he probably could have been a fairly successful film critic, but I have this feeling he wouldn’t have been a very enthusiastic one.   He can’t really make Carey live and breathe the way his best characters do, because he can’t identify with somebody who’d spend his life writing about movies–even writing smutty greeting cards would be more creative, because they’d at least be your smutty jokes.  Movies are fun and all, but are they worth all that analysis?   Is anything?   (Yes, I do seriously wonder what he’d have thought about this blog).

In his capsule review of this same story, Ethan Iverson quoted a passage I surely would have used myself if he hadn’t beaten me to it–it’s an interview Carey does with some aging Hollywood director, one of those guys who made a bunch of classic films and never wrote the scripts for any of them, but he still gets the credit, and the money, and a gorgeous young thing to keep him warm in his declining years, because that’s how it works in Hollywood.

And it really sums up that mixture of affection and disdain Westlake always had towards the movies–how well a good filmmaker can tell a story, and how helpless he is without a good script, and yet look who gets all the worship and acclaim in that business.   How can you say it’s your work when so many other people contributed?   And how could somebody who has decided to just live in the reflected glow of that unreal medium ever know himself?  Carey Thorpe got caught up in unreality, captured by it, and was ultimately undone by it.  And yet it really doesn’t matter, because there doesn’t seem to have been much of a person there to start with.   That’s the weakness of the book.

I think Westlake might have been influenced in the writing of this one by Charles Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, which is about an art critic, and which is roughly ten times the novel this is (and Westlake would have agreed).   Willeford wrote a lot less than Westlake, and he had to make his shots count more.  Westlake, having so much more ammo, could afford a few misses.

But while it’s not the kind of story we remember him for, the second part of this two-part tome was by no means a miss.   It’s a palpable hit, and ‘Newgate Callendar’ should have seen that, but let’s just say Westlake had a point about critics.  Yes, me too.  It’s a fair cop, Mr. Westlake.  But being a mere amateur, typing all this nonsense for absolutely no monetary compensation at all, I can always plead insanity.  I’ll be out in two years, tops.

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Filed under A Travesty, comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, Enough, Uncategorized