Category Archives: Good Behavior, novel

Review: Good Behavior, Part 3 (God help us)

“Lie down with wolves, you get up with toothmarks.”

Frank Ritter sat at his desk in the corner office suite of Margrave Corporation and studied this addition he’d just made to his commonplace book.  Was that truly an aphorism?  Possibly it was merely a low-level epigram, or even, God help us, just a joke. Ritter didn’t like crossing things out in his commonplace book, it made for a sloppy appearance, but this particular statement, well….

In his dream, Dortmunder walked a tightrope between two tall towers.  Instead of a balancing pole, he carried a long heavy lance, tipping first to the left, then to the right. And the tightrope itself was made of long blonde hair.  In the arched window at the top of the stone tower out in front he could see the girl whose hair this was, still attached to her head, long and braided and looped between the two towers; from the strained and painful expression on her face, she didn’t much like what was going on.

The tale is well-known of the Spartan who said to her son as he was going out to battle ‘Come back with your shield–or on it’: for to throw away one’s shield was the ultimate disgrace.  But Archilochus could write cheerfully–setting a literary fashion that Horace followed more than five hundred years later:

Some lucky Thracian has my noble shield:
I had to run; I dropped it in a wood.
But I got clear away, thank God! So hang
The shield! I’ll get another, just as good.

There is something very attractive about Ionian life.

From The Greeks, by H.D.F. Kitto. 

This book has been one long exercise in creative anachronism, and the same could be said of many another Westlake novel, and arguably Westlake’s entire literary career (conducted as it was on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century).

But his anachronisms of choice were typically more out of Dashiell Hammett and Warner Brothers gangster movies than medieval ballads and romances.  Seeing as he does that we are sliding inexorably back towards feudalism, all over the world, something he hopes can still be forestalled, he’s chosen feudal figures (like robber barons), and feudal institutions (like convents) to tell this story.

And for his champion, to take the place of We The People in the lists, he’s chosen John Dortmunder, a smalltime thief and (let’s face it) a devotee of practical cowardice, who wants no part of this fight, has no discernible politics or beliefs of any kind (other than that everybody but him is nuts, and can you blame him?).  Because he’s an individualist, sure.  But also because sometimes you need to see through the eyes of someone normally standing outside the scrum of a social conflict, to see that fight clearly, distinguish its outlines.

I said last time that maybe this is the Dortmunderian equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (the only other book to date I’ve done a three part review of).  Unquestionably Parker’s greatest epic, and his greatest triumph–where he is, basically, going up against a feudal institution, namely a branch of the Mafia that controls an entire midwestern town, with well-placed vassals everywhere along the lines of power–but still needing to be wary of the looming if often ineffectual forces of law & order, as a medieval baron would need to be wary of incurring the wrath of a  distant king or emperor, who might assert what would otherwise be mere nominal authority at any time, given enough of an opening.

And Parker basically finds their weak spots and exploits them–if they really did have absolute power, he couldn’t win.  But in any society, no matter how seemingly monolithic, there are always struggles going on beneath the surface, fissures in the lines of power. If you are not strong, you had best be cunning.  He sees that he can strike at their sources of revenue, and they can’t effectively strike back without making themselves vulnerable to the law, right before an election they’re out to fix.  Then, as they huddle in one place, trying to wait him out, he can finish them off.

But for all that he needs allies, and that’s the crucial scene in the book–where Parker has called in some fellow wolves to serve as his army of the night, drawn by the smell of an easy kill (lots of badly guarded cash), but he has to convince them to help him with an additional goal–the rescue of Alan Grofield, being held prisoner at the home (this is America, so redundant to say castle) of the local mob lord.

The assembled uber-heisters don’t see why they should stick their necks out for Grofield, who most of them don’t even know, but somehow Parker shames them into it.  They’re not doing it out of nobility, or altruism, or even professional courtesy.  They’re doing it because to do otherwise would be–disappointing.  There are times when you have to stand up and fight the bastards, if you’re going to respect yourself in the morning.   It’s not Quixotic, because Don Quixote picks fights where no fight exists, sees enemies where there are no enemies.  There are real giants in this world, you know.  They’re not all windmills (though damn, there are a lot of actual windmills lately).

Dortmunder is akin to Parker in many ways, not least in his caustic view of humankind, but he’s not Parker.  Parker is of the old Doric strain, simple, unadorned–stark.   A Spartan, you might say, except a Spartan is a cog in a machine, a servitor of the state–Parker is not so constrained, being a polis of one, answerable to no one but himself.  A wolf in human form has no government (though he may still pay taxes to one, just to blend into the herd).

Dortmunder is likewise unique, a coyote in human form as I see him, but no Spartan he.  No, I’d say Dortmunder is clearly Ionic, not to mention ironic.  He’d drop that shield and run in a New York minute.  There is something very attractive about his view of life.  And his deep attachment to it.   But the real Ionians were not opposed to fighting on general principle; simply much less anal about it than the real Spartans, who left us great stories of their martial valor (told by other Greeks) and pretty much nothing else.

Archilochus, the Ionian poet, was a citizen soldier, a hoplite–he wrote that poem I posted up top from hard experience.   He fought when he had to, and he ran when he had to, and if he left a shield behind sometimes (those things were damned heavy), that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d leave a friend–or someone he owed a favor.  Honor may have no skill in surgery, but it does make life more tolerable at times.  We all draw the line in different places.  (Yes, I know this isn’t remotely medieval–Archilochus or Shakespeare–but I can be anachronistic too, can’t I?)

So out of what I suppose we’ll have to call a sense of honor, pricked on a bit by the profit motive (and the fear of May’s disapproval, because seriously without the need to impress women, men would never have gotten anything done), Dortmunder has led his merry band of heisters into the Avalon State Bank Tower, to grab some loot and rescue a nun, in that order.

Wilbur Howey has disabled the alarm systems, Tiny Bulcher has kicked down some doors, Andy Kelp has learned how to make a bouquet appear out of a trick cane he got from a magic shop, and honestly I don’t know why Stan Murch is even in this one, since there’s basically no driving, but he’s always good company.  And Dortmunder, the only one with a debt of honor to pay, has ventured up to the restricted topmost floors of the tower, where a heavily panting Wilbur (lots of stairs) has gotten him past the main door, and Dortmunder figures he can handle any lesser locks easily.

What he didn’t figure on was that there’d be a meeting of mercenaries Frank Ritter is hiring for the purpose of overthrowing a pesky Latin American dictator who wouldn’t play ball with him.  Dortmunder gets mistaken for  one of them (coyotes can easily be mistaken for wolves if you don’t look closely), and is forced to sit in a small auditorium with this horde of ravening beasts of prey, eagerly anticipating the sweet joys of rapine, and the whole scene is mightily reminiscent of one from The Spy In The Ointment, but never mind that now.

The gist is that he’s terrified but he does his best to pretend like he belongs there, making light conversation with the heavily tattooed psycho with the Soldier of Fortune subscription who is sitting next to him, and he prays not to be discovered, and of course he is.   And then the lights go out, and he runs like hell for the door, and the mercenary comandante, fellow named Pickens (and he ain’t slim), fires a Finnish-made automatic rifle in his direction, but only succeeds in slightly wounding him with some splinters created by the bullets, and in creating holy hell inside the darkened room full of trained killers.

(If this were a Parker novel, I’d most definitely post an image of the gun in question now, which is an M-60 Valmet, basically an AK-47 only not, but this is a Dortmunder, and I’d feel silly doing that, so I won’t.)

So this is where we left off–with Dortmunder learning that the nun he’s here to rescue, Sister Mary Grace (nee Eileen Ritter, Frank’s daughter, and she pretends to vomit every time someone reminds her of that filial relationship), has in fact rescued him, by turning the lights off, and leading him eventually to her room, which she’s not supposed to be able to get out of but she can anyway.  But now they’re both trapped, and as soon as the chaos they’ve unleashed subsides, there are going to be search parties of mercenaries and Ritter’s security men looking for them, and they have nowhere to run.

And cutting ahead, Dortmunder is eventually found hiding in a dishwasher.  Don’t ask.  Seriously, don’t.  You shouldn’t even be reading this if you haven’t read the book yet.  If you have, you know better than to ask. Suffice it to say Archilochus would be proud.  Though he might have a hard time finding a rhyme for dishwasher.

All is lost.  Dortmunder will be interrogated and disposed of.   Sister Mary Grace, having resisted the gentler methods of a cult deprogrammer, will be placed under the care of an Eastern Bloc expert on what might be politely termed behavior modification, along with what I believe is now called ‘Extraordinary Rendition’ in certain intelligence circles (Westlake must have loved that), until she renounces everything she believes and swears fealty to her father, and if she’s still breathing when it’s over, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll still be alive.   When Frank Ritter talks about how he’s bringing back feudalism for a return engagement, he’s not talking about some sissy Renaissance Fair.

And Dortmunder’s summer soldiers and sunshine patriots down below, having turned J.C. Taylor’s office into something that looks like the mail-order equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave, are disinclined to intervene on his behalf, as they watch squads of security men and soldiers with automatic rifles running back and forth looking for him and the nun.  If any of them were to entertain any brief tender feelings towards their absent chum, Tiny Bulcher stands ready to remind them how permanently tender he could make them feel if they risk his freedom and this beautiful score over a guy who should have stuck to what he knew, namely stealing.

Now.  You remember what Professor Kitto, that erudite Cornishman, said about the Spartan mother who famously told her war-bound offspring “With your shield or on it.”  Tiger-mom indeed, but there are even more formidable females to be found in the annals of legend, and one of them is entering the office right now, and it happens to be her office.   Even she’s a bit impressed by the piles of treasure being prepared for shipping, but she covers it well, and she wants to know where ‘the guy with the worry lines’ is.  She can’t remember his name.  Tiny wants to know what she’s even doing there over the weekend.

“I wanted to check on things,” she said, and shrugged.  Monsters didn’t intimidate her, she’d worked with them all her adult life.  “Where’s the other one?” she repeated.  “Dort-whatever.”

“Munder,” Kelp said.

“Gone,” Tiny Bulcher said.  “Like you.  We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Gentle down, big fella,” she told him, and turned to Howey, the most malleable of them.  “Where is he, Wilbur?”

“Well, say,” Howey told her, and threw a worried glance at Tiny, “he’s gone, you know?”

“No, I don’t know.”

Tiny said, “He went upstairs to get the nun and he didn’t come down, so that’s it.”

“Nun?”

Kelp said, “It’s very simple,” and then proceeded to tell her a story that wasn’t simple at all.  For some strange reason, there was a nun imprisoned at the top of the tower.  For some other strange reason, Dortmunder had to go rescue her.  The whole robbery business was to pay for partners to help in the rescue of the nun.  Last night, Dortmunder went way to rescue the nun, and so far he hadn’t come back.

J.C. said, “And?”

Everybody shifted around uneasily.  The others all glanced at Tiny Bulcher, who said belligerently, “And nothing.  He’s on his own.”

Slowly she looked him up and down.  “So that’s why they call you Tiny,” she said.  With a graceful sweeping gesture of the arm that she’d learned in ballet class at the age of four–J.C. Taylor was not always as we see her now–she indicated the king’s ransom strewn helter-skelter around the room. “Dort-whatever brought you all this, she said, voice dripping with scorn, “and now you’re going to just leave him.”

She could care less about some stupid shield.  But without your friend?  Without your partner?  Walk away from somebody who led you to a good score?  Maybe this is just that frustrated romanticism in her I referred to, some remnant of an earlier life, before the world got hard and mean for her–or maybe something older, and colder–maybe she’s the Parker in this story.   There are things you just don’t do.   When you’re working with somebody, certain things are expected of you, certain unwritten laws must be observed.  If you want to go on thinking of yourself as a man or woman to reckon with.  And when a woman like Josephine Carol Taylor implies that you’re not, what wouldn’t you do to prove her wrong?

So yeah, this is very much an alternate universe version of Parker’s speech in Butcher’s Moon (which is why I quoted it at length).  I’ve no doubt Westlake recognized it as such.  And it has much the same effect, only J.C. Taylor isn’t Parker, and she doesn’t have some perfect plan of attack worked out in her head–the planner is being hauled out of a dishwasher upstairs, and held for interrogation.

So they have to do it on the fly, improvise.  Wilbur’s lock-magic gets them into the hidden private elevator leading to the penthouse suite Dortmunder is being held in.  J.C. doesn’t really need to come along, but she wants to, and who’s going to tell her no?  Tiny has surrendered any attempt to pretend he’s not utterly in her thrall.  The beauty has tamed the beast (who will never seem quite so beastly again).  And now she’s leading him and his friends to the top of a Manhattan skyscraper where there are many machine guns waiting.  Hopefully this works out better than the last time.   Well, that was a different gorilla.  And J.C. is no Fay Wray.

While all this is going on, Pickens is getting ready to resort to various extreme persuasive measures to get Dortmunder (who is calling himself Smith, because hey, there are people named Smith) to talk–and if you’re not the romantic type, here’s an actual pragmatic reason for the crew to come get him.  He might just crack under torture, and spill the beans about their location, and they’re not ready to make their getaway yet–they’d have to leave the boodle behind.  So this really is the smart move, as well as the right one.  And since when does the Dortmunder gang ever think that far ahead?

But somebody up there likes them (and we know who)–as they come out of the elevator, they meet up with Sister Mary Grace.   She tells them where Dortmunder is, and that there are ten armed mercenaries in there with him.  More than even Tiny could handle all at once, but he’s going to try anyway for J.C.’s sake  (man’s in love).  Sister Mary Grace, still bound by her oath of silence, writes them a note.  She’s got a plan.   A very un-nunly plan, you ask me.

As Dortmunder’s hand is about to make the acquaintance of a hot stove, one of the mercenaries says he just saw a topless woman in the doorway.  It’s not the nun.  Others say they saw her too.  Then a little old man moons them.  Okay, Pickens humors them, sends out scouts.  The scouts do not return.  Then one, named Ringo, does return–as a hostage, only his captors remain outside.  He’s bringing terms of surrender.  Pickens’ surrender.  Dortmunder, now pretending to be the black sheep of the Ritter family to buy time, is feeling suddenly encouraged–bewildered but encouraged.

In warfare, morale is everything–even the best soldiers are worthless when confused, off-balance, scared.  And these mercenaries are not the best soldiers by a long shot, just the most unscrupulous and crazed, which is decidedly not the same thing.  They don’t know what’s happening, their nerve is cracking, and Pickens figures he’s got to set an example to restore order in the ranks.  He issues a most medieval challenge.  Seems there’s a little romantic in everybody.

“One-on-one,” Pickens shouted, and started pulling handguns out of his clothing and slapping them down on the butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen; three guns in all.  “A fair fight, goddamnit,” he yelled, “like the old days, like the knights!  Send out your best man, damn you to hell and back, no guns, no weapons at all!  I’ll met him one-on-one, and if I beat him, you surrender to me, whoever the hell you are!  But if he beats me, I’ll surrender my entire company!”

Ringo moved backward, and from around the corner came Tiny Bulcher, stepping into the doorway, filling it, arms at his sides, carnivorous eyes on the blanching Pickens.  “You called?” Tiny asked.

(Myself, I would have gone with “You rang?” but maybe Tiny never watched that show.)

Thus endeth Pickens’ charge.  Westlake doesn’t show us the fight, or even tell us if there was one.  But we can guess.  The whole free company threw down their weapons and wet their khakis, with perfect military precision.

And elsewhere in his besieged citadel, Frank Ritter’s certainty is beginning to crack as well–first the chaos of this search, the unleashed dogs of war he’d hired humiliating and beating up his security men, then the disappearance of his daughter from what was supposed to be her cell, and now suddenly the police are there responding to a call from some woman named Hannah McGillicuddy (I wonder if that’s J.C.’s real name?) saying there’s mercenaries running around with illegal guns in an office building, crazy story, right?

Ritter, still seeing himself as the Lord of the Manor, employs his usual intimidation tactics on them, the ones that work so well with browbeaten underlings.  You can say a lot of things about New York City cops, good and bad, but no one could ever say they respond well to intimidation tactics from civilians.   The cop in charge looks at Ritter, and you can guess what he’s thinking.  Amateur.

So that could have been the end of the story, right there, cut to the epilogue.  The mercs are led away in handcuffs, Ritter’s South American scheme is going to be exposed, and probably even he doesn’t have enough friends to get him out of this one.  What’s more, he’s on the hook for all the stuff Dortmunder & Co. stole from his tenants.  (Meaning that no honest people were hurt by the robbery, how come this wasn’t a movie?)   The lesson from medieval history that he forgot was that feudal barons themselves often ended up imprisoned in towers, when they overestimated their importance within the overall scheme of things.  Lucky for him the headsman hasn’t made a comeback yet.

Dortmunder and the rest are addressing packages full of booty (not that kind of booty, shiver me timbers, dueling slang definitions can be irritating), to be sent to various locations where it can be claimed later.  J.C. is going to take Sister Mary Grace dressed in Wilbur’s clothing (ew) and a false mustache out the front door.  J.C. and Tiny are suddenly quite chummy–he’s calling her Josie.  And she seems to like it.  Well, a tame monster is a useful accessory for any woman in her line of work, and he did prove himself to her.  All’s well that ends well, right?  Dortmunder is confused.  Isn’t something supposed to go wrong now, so they don’t get the money?

His suspicions are well-founded.  Westlake isn’t quite done with the gang yet.  See, the police are searching the tower, floor by floor, and they can’t get out, or explain their presence, or hide the loot well enough to foil a determined search.  They made too much noise–unavoidable, to be sure.  But now it looks like they’re caught.  Tiny is backsliding into I Told You So mode.  And here comes the scene that really makes me wonder how this wasn’t a movie.

Dortmunder still hasn’t actually saved anybody, you know–that’s the problem, and that’s why the story isn’t over yet.  He’s got to come up with a plan for the Exodus.  He does.  They call in the nuns.   Turns out that even though this isn’t Thursday, and the oath of silence is in force, there’s always one nun on phone duty at the convent, in case of emergencies.  The sisters pile into a rickety bus, and head for the tower.  Maria’s Messenger Riding.

J.C., in music mogul mode, passes them off as a religious choir making a recording for her.  They are rapturously reunited with their beloved Sister Mary Grace, who is once more wearing her habit, restored to her true self.   But they brought a lot of extra habits with them, in all sizes–even Tiny Bulcher’s size.  Do you believe this?  Seriously?  A convent has a nun’s outfit that can fit Tiny Freakin’ Bulcher?

Here’s where I think maybe Westlake loses his fine control–the ending is what, for me, keeps this from being in quite the same league as the very best Dortmunders.  It’s maybe a bit too cute, too busy.  But that’s what happens when you send in the nuns.  Comes with the territory.  And it worked fine up until this point.  But just a little too much mass appeal, pardon the pun.  I have this suspicion Westlake never stopped wondering why there wasn’t a movie.  But two movies of Two Much.  You can go nuts trying to figure Hollywood out.  Many have.

So nobody notices there’s a few more nuns leaving than entering.  Inspector Francis Mologna, still in disgrace after his last encounter with Dortmunder in Why Me?, is officially in charge of the search operation, as well as talking to the media (he hates talking to the media).  If he knew Dortmunder was passing right under his nose in a nun’s habit, no telling what he’d do, other than it would involve Dortmunder falling down a lot of stairs.  But of course the Inspector’s too busy ogling J.C.

Westlake can never end on a purely sentimental note.   Sister Mary Grace certainly believes her saviors deserve to profit from their efforts.  Her father will have to pay for it all anyway, and the laborer is worthy of his hire.  That’s in the bible.  Somewhere.  But you might say she tithes them a bit.  While helping them address boxes and envelopes, she redirected some of the treasure to the revolutionaries in Guerrara, via the U.N.  So the gang still gets a nice payday–but quite a bit less nice than it would have been.

And Dortmunder is still brooding about that small betrayal, as he and May soak up the sun in Aruba, months later.  (It’s not the Ionian Aegean, but it’ll do.) Dortmunder is lying on a towel with a picture of Elmer Fudd on it.  May is reading in Newsweek (remember Newsweek?) that General Pozos has been ousted, packed off to exile in Miami, without any help from Frank Ritter, so the people there will have a shot at building a real democracy of their own, instead of a corporate client state.  Ritter isn’t jailed yet, but he’s too tied up defending himself in court to do much of anything else.

You’re a hero of the people, John Dortmunder!  Conqueror of warlords,  liberator of nuns, restorer of justice!  What are you going to do now?  Later, we know you’re going to blow all that money on slow horses at the track–May asks you about that, and you make evasive noises. But having started all this by trying to rob an importer of fancy delectables that you fully intended to sample yourself before delivering them to a crooked wholesaler, what would be your pleasure at this rare moment of triumph, champion of the downtrodden, defender of the meek?

Dortmunder lay back on Elmer Fudd, with his hands under his head.  Through the dark glasses he looked at the blue sky.  The lines of his face shifted themselves around, making accomodation for a smile.  “I think I’ll have caviar,” he said.

Caviar!  Caviar for the champion!  And a Daily Racing Form!   Because a rich Dortmunder is no fun at all.

So granting the thesis that this is Dortmunder’s equivalent of Butcher’s Moon (and much as I like it, I like Butcher’s Moon better, even without the nuns and the more overtly medieval metaphors and J.C. Taylor), did this mean Westlake was hitting a wall with Dortmunder too, searching, perhaps not entirely consciously, for a fitting way to end the series?

This much we can say for sure, there were no more Dortmunder novels for five years, and the next one is certainly a lot more dark and serious, and a whole lot less fun for the gang.  It’s also really long and convoluted, and I will not make that review a four-parter, I swear by all that’s holy.

With the exception of the final Levine story, I doubt Westlake ever wrote any book about one of his series characters with the express intention of never writing another one about that character.  (The series I’m reviewing next may prove the exception, but that had nothing to do with the character.)

I think he did sometimes aim to sort of temporarily exorcise a character from his head, so he could concentrate on other things, and sometimes he just didn’t return to that character, because there was nothing left to say with him or her. But even if there was, he needed a break, a time-out, and so he felt like he had to put a bit extra into the book to tide everybody over until the comeback.  Call it an act of propitiation–to the character and to his readership.

Given half a chance, a big part of his audience would cheerfully badger him into writing nothing but Dortmunder novels for the rest of his life, and that’s not what he wants.  So he put Dortmunder aside, as he put Parker aside, the difference being that when he tried to return to Parker later on, he found that he couldn’t write effectively in the Stark voice anymore.  The comic voice remained active, so he could return to Dortmunder at will, once he’d found a story–but the next Dortmunder is by far the most Starkian of the bunch, mingled with other and maybe even darker influences.

Now I was mean to Newgate Callendar in Part 2 (fellow never did me any harm), and I’ve often been a bit dismissive of professional reviewers in general, and gee I wonder why?  But let it be said that America has produced some truly great critics, who look deep below the surface of our various entertainments.  I’m going to conclude with a passage from Tragedy and Comedy, a book by Walter Kerr, husband of Jean, one of the finest drama critics of his or any generation.   He also wrote The Silent Clowns, probably the best book ever written about the first cinematic comedians, who I’ve mentioned before have much in common with Dortmunder, and I’ve never thought that a coincidence, but it’s much more than an homage.

Kerr said that tragedy and comedy are linked–two sides, one coin.  Comedy was a reaction to tragedy.  We told dark stories of bloody retribution and catharsis before we invented the clown to take the edge off.  The clown sprung from the tragic hero, only to mock him, cast doubt upon his validity.  But without the hero, there is no clown, and true heroes–even anti-heroes–are getting dangerously thin on the ground, while clowns proliferate ceaselessly, which made Kerr worry that the balance between the two was being lost.  And now I’m going to type out an outrageously long quote:

Pain is common to both forms and is so far from being a distinguishing mark between them that it actually attests to their close relationship.  The contest that is going on in a play–its agon–is an agony whether in a comedy or a tragedy.  It so happens that the theatrical use of the term agon derives from comedy rather than tragedy.

But the pain of comedy is possibly more protracted and more frustrating than that of tragedy, because it does not know how to expel itself.  Tragedy’s pain is productive; it comes of the abrasiveness of moving forward toward transformation.  Comedy, making capital of the absurdity of seeking transformation, must forever contain its pain.  By denying freedom it denies release.  Tragedy uses suffering; comedy can only live with it, that is to say, against the possible day when tragedy, in an ultimately successful transformation, frees them both.  Comedy, hugging the fox to its breast, stays close to tragedy against that possible, eternally doubted, day.

But this interior anguish of comedy, this intense impatience and exasperation with self, in itself becomes an energy.  Dissatisfaction with self is a goad, perhaps the most powerful goad man knows.  The tragic hero courageously, sometimes presumptiously, even wrongly, takes up arms to advance the self; the clown, holding back as he must if he is to be a clown, retains the dissatisfaction as a canker which can neither be expelled nor quieted.  Impatience kicks and thrashes inside the clown, like a violent baby in the womb that cannot bring itself to term.

It is just this powerful agitation that is, in the end, comedy’s strongest assurance of survival.  Detesting its work while half despising itself for being so good at it, finding its limited situation intolerable even while it is being applauded for the hilarity it provokes in so accurately describing the situation, comedy burns with a fever that may prove unquenchable.  Transforming anger into laughter abates the anger temporarily, slightly; it does not remove its causes.  The causes fester, seek expression in any which way, generate activity.  If we have seen comedy cropping up on all sides in all hues in our time, willing to offer itself as a sacrifice to seriousness or to paint itself black where it was once too carelessly thought to be a painter of rainbows, it is because it can never be content to lie fallow in the face of the contempt it feels for itself.  Comedy may keep kicking, because it cannot help kicking out at itself.  And because it owes everything to tragedy, both the original gift of a thing to be parodied and also the only ultimate promise of a new state of being in which all private exasperations and secret despairs will be melted away in the annealing passage through time and space, it must keep kicking to see if it can kick tragedy awake.

The clown screams at his sleeping companion.  He wants him up and on with it.  Once he has got him up, if he ever succeeds, he will of course tell him his activity is absurd.  But he wants it to be absurd.  Only the tragic absurdity is capable of transcending itself.

What a good man the clown is, to endure so much, to survive so relentlessly, to keep us company in all weathers, to provide us with a way of looking at the worst that enables us to take a temporary joy in the worst!  For that is what he does: he stands horror on its head to keep us tolerably happy against the day when tragedy will look horror straight in the eye and stare it down.

What a good man John Dortmunder is, to keep us company, yes.  But the day will come, and not so far away, when he will succeed in kicking Parker awake, and then they shall briefly pull together in the traces, coyote and wolf, as a writer of many seemingly conflicting voices, his final moments approaching fast, prepares to stare down death itself.

But in the meantime, that writer is going to try creating yet another voice, an endeavor that will ultimately fail, but the question for us is whether that was entirely his failure, and whether there is something worth salvaging from the wreckage.  Let’s talk about it.

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Good Behavior, novel, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized

Review: Good Behavior, Part 2

 

“Couldn’t anybody stay awake?” Dortmunder demanded of the room at large, and Andy Kelp shifted on the folding chair, his elbow brushing the piano and producing a quote from Wozzeck, which in turn made Tiny rumble and change position, knocking a phone book onto the floor.  Stan Murch sat up straight, clutching for a non-existent steering wheel, crying “I’m awake, I’m awake!  Stay in your own lane!” Kelp then jolted up, wide-eyed and glassy-eyed, attempting to stand without disentangling himself from the folding chair, which meant he toppled over onto the piano–excerpt from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos–before tumbling to the floor.  All of this racket aroused Tiny, who reared up like a walrus, flinging his arms wide, clearing the desk of everything that had been on it, before lunging away in astonishment, causing the swivel chair to over-balance and tip him backwards onto the floor, huge thick legs waving in air.  Meantime Stan, desperately trying to make a left turn, hurtled out of the leather chair and into the side of the desk just under where a lot of staplers and pens and desk calendars and memo pads were falling.

There then followed a brief silence, with dust motes.  Dortmunder looked around. “Are you finished now?” he asked.

“Say!” shouted Howey from the other room, followed by a crash that was probably a full rack of metal shelves going over, with several thousand books.

“Hand-picked,” Dortmunder commented to himself.  He looked at his own right hand with dislike.  “Hand-picked,” he repeated.

When you write a Dortmunder book, be prepared to lead a Dortmunder life–assuming any other kind is on offer.  Famed Dallas department store Neiman-Marcus commissioned a special limited edition of this book, one thousand copies, signed by the author.  Westlake autographed each and every copy like a lamb, only to learn that on the flyleaf Neiman-Marcus had somehow been mis-transcribed as Nieman-Marcus (wasn’t his fault), and he was going to have to sign each and every copy all over again.  With his own right hand, unless he was a southpaw, which I would think he’d have mentioned somewhere.

Fortunately for him, given all the books he had to sign in his life, Westlake went to Catholic schools, where I trust he was drilled relentlessly in the cursive arts by nuns and/or brothers–perhaps the Sisters of Mercy, who taught the elementary classes at the Vincentian Institute in Albany (where he got his high school degree).  There were nuns somewhere in his early life, bet on it.  And perhaps some of them were armed with rulers, like the ones Dortmunder knew as a youth, and used them perhaps a touch over-literally to impose their authority upon their young charges.  And others perhaps used kindness and patience and a much-needed sense of humor.  And I really wish he’d completed and published those memoirs of his, so I wouldn’t have to type the word ‘perhaps’ so often.

This book didn’t get a limited edition from Nie–Nee–from that store without being a crowd pleaser, and that’s just what it is.  I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the very best of the Dortmunders (at this point in the series, the first three are still unquestionably the top three, in my estimation), perhaps precisely for this reason–the elitist in me.  And for all its many virtues, this is not one for the elitists.  I think Westlake consciously wrote this one to sell big, because he’d given Otto Penzler two challenging literary properties in a row (A Likely Story and High Adventure), and he wanted to hit one out of the park for his new coach.

It’s not like he wrote the other two not to sell, but he was writing them more to please himself, stretch out a bit, do what people didn’t expect from him.   This book is precisely what people expected from him.  Only more so.  ‘Newgate Callendar,’ writing in the Times, so often disparaging of Westlake’s more unconventional stuff, was practically having multiple orgasms over it.

The ensuing events are in Mr. Westlake’s usual manner. He has a wonderful feeling for the absurd, revels in farce and slapstick, piles complication upon complication and throws things at poor dazed Dortmunder that even Hercules did not face in his various tasks. At one point Dortmunder has to take on, single-handed, a company of man-eating mercenaries.

Yet Mr. Westlake, through the farce and nonsense, manages to create characters who are a curious mixture of stereotypes and archetypes. If he is a master of the comic crime caper, and he is, he also does what the best comic writers throughout history have done – make a comment on society. One does not want to make too much of a book like ”Good Behavior.” It is an entertainment, brilliantly done in its way. But it also does have a strong cutting edge.

As flatteringly condescending (condescendingly flattering?) as ever, but fair play to Mr. Callendar, one of the shallowest professional book reviewers I can think of (he must have saved the deeper ruminations for his classical music gig under his real name).  He’s seeing past the hijinks and hilarity here, and in fact, Westlake can never write a story that’s nothing more than hijinks–he might start one, but he’d never finish it.  He’d fall asleep at his Smith-Corona without something to keep that agile mind of his occupied.

He can’t write a good book if it doesn’t engage him intellectually at some level–but he can shape the material to be more audience-friendly, when he wants to.  This is a book you could hand to anybody who isn’t a militant atheist of the more humorless variety (or perhaps one of those equally humorless evangelicals who think the Pope is antichrist and nuns the handmaidens of Satan), and be assured of an enthusiastic reception.   Entirely possible even the Richard Dawkinses and Bob Joneses of the world would enjoy it–privately.

My mom loved the large type edition I sent her for Mother’s Day (she loathes Kindle).  Then she gave it to a local lending library, because that’s what she does with the books I give her these days after reading them (no collectible signed editions for you, mom).  She’d never read a Dortmunder before, and may never read one again–can’t find a large-type edition for any of the others–and the fact that there was one for this book is more evidence that it was seen as having a broader readership.

(The other Westlake I found for her in the appropriate typeface was Trust Me On This.  And I could have gotten her that Parker novel that opens with a naked girl pinned to a bed with a sword, but then I thought nah.  Though she’s probably read worse. But not as a Mother’s Day gift.  Hell no.)

The fact that she’d never encountered these characters before made no never-mind–the Dortmunders in general are extremely  user-friendly, but this one more than most.  No advance knowledge of the characters and their past exploits is required.  Though you certainly enjoy it more if you’ve read the ones that came before it.  Having stuck with Dortmunder & Co. through the bad times, it’s somehow especially rewarding to be with them now, at one of their rare moments of triumph.  A hard-fought victory, for battle-scarred protagonists and loyal readers alike.

And now let’s just enjoy it, character by character.  No lengthy synopsis–having thoroughly covered the set-up in Part 1, I’d just as soon focus on individual story elements in Part 2.  I think I’ll go with titled subheadings followed by quotes this time.   I  like that format.  Possibly you don’t, but since I’m doing this for free….

I’m Gonna Get Medieval on Your Ass!

“It’s more than exciting, Garrett,” Ritter said.  “It’s real.  The truth is, the pendulum has swung all the way back, several hundred years, and we are today entering upon the next great era of feudalism.”

Garrett blinked.  Feudalism was something that had wafted by once or twice in college days, leaving no residue.  Doubtfully, he said “You mean, King Arthur and like that?  The Round Table?”

Ritter laughed, a sound that always had a threat in it.  “I don’t mean myth,” he said.  “I mean reality.  Feudalism is a system based not on national citizenship but on loyalties and contracts between individuals.  Power lies not in the state but in ownership of assets, and all fealty follows the line of power.  Very sensible.”

“I guess so,” Garrett said, blinking slowly.

Frank Ritter is the central villain in this story, and just possibly the most despicable character Westlake ever created–even if you include the sociopathic sickos and murderous mafiosi Parker routinely dispatched in the Stark  novels.  They’re small time.  Frank’s major league.

And like many another Westlake villain, he has a prototype–Jaekel Grahame (Jack to his friends, if he had any), from I Gave At The Office.  Not one of Westlake’s better books, as I mentioned when I reviewed it.   I did however find Mr. Grahame’s philosophy, as enunciated to the protagonist, to be of considerable interest.   He said that the gun was the cornerstone of civilization, and also that the multinational corporation was going to come to see itself as the true governing power in the global society, superseding and ultimately warring with the nation-state.

He also said that there was nothing inherently immoral about armed robbery (take whatever you can from whomever you can), but armed robbers would be foolish to take on a vastly superior force, such as himself.  And to some extent, Frank Ritter’s fate in this book is Westlake’s way of saying “Oh yeah?” but we’ll get to that.

Ritter, like Grahame, fancies himself a philosopher, jotting down pithy little axioms in a notebook (“The real world is just beyond the visible world”), presumably to be published someday as a testament to the wit and wisdom of a founding father of the (so old it’s) new order.  He, like Grahame, believes that the common people always have an outdated notion of what kind of society America is–they went on thinking it was an agrarian rural democracy after it had become an industrial urban republic, and now they think it’s still a center of industry when it’s actually about services and technology, and is ruled by the multi-nationals that link it to the true industrial nations that make all our stuff.  Not formally ruled by them, of course.  Work in progress.

He can’t control everybody’s life yet, but he can sure as hell control his own daughter’s.  She became a nun in no small part as a rebellion against him, but not a childish rebellion.  An act of adulthood, young as she is–something her siblings, bought off by all the pleasant accoutrements of wealth, will clearly never be capable of.  She wanted to reject without qualification this devil and all his works, and to in some way try to negate them, stand in opposition to them.  She saw how her mother basically drank herself to death, her spirit broken, all sense of purpose gone, and she won’t let that happen to her.  She would rather die.  That is not a figure of speech.  But she is afraid, for all that.  She knows too well that there are no lines her father will not cross to get what he wants.

And the former Miss Elaine Ritter is being quite medieval in her own right–for in fact, many a rebellious daughter of some medieval baron took the veil to find her own place of power, a sanctuary from what was expected of her from her patriarch and feudal lord (to be sure, convents could also be convenient dumping grounds for discarded spouses and elderly relations, but we have our own modern equivalents).  People tend to forget that aspect of medieval history.  I bet Frank hasn’t.  I know Westlake didn’t.

Did you know the word Margrave means a military commander assigned to maintain the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a Kingdom?  If you’d read the Wikipedia article I just clipped that from, you would.

Ritter said, “Think of it this way.  I am the baron.  Templar International and Margrave Corporation and Avalon State Bank and so on are the castles I have built in different parts of my territory, for defense and expansion.  The subsidiary companies we’ve bought or merged with owe their allegiance not to America but to Margrave.  We reward loyalty and punish disloyalty.  When necessary, we can protect our most important people from the laws of the state, just as the earlier barons could protect their most important vassal knights from the laws of the Catholic Church.  The work force is tied to us by profit-sharing and pension plans. I don’t expect national governments to disappear, any more than the British or Dutch royal familes have disappeared, but they will become increasingly irrelevant pageants.  More and more, actors will play the parts of politicians and statesmen, while the real work goes on elsewhere.

“With us, you mean,” Garrett said.  His puffy face lit up with excitement.  He thought about buying new skis in Scandinavia.

Ah, Garrett.  Seemingly one of the brighter of Frank’s children who is not currently a Catholic nun–one can only imagine the rest of them.  The great flaw in the feudal system, and its ultimate downfall–hereditary authority.  Your kids are either too stupid and weak to emulate you, or too smart and tough to live in your shadow–either way, your legacy is an illusion.  The stronger you are, the more you try to dominate and shape them, the more you either destroy what’s good in them, or else turn it to some end you had not anticipated.  Well, that’s what boards of directors are for, I guess.  And who ends up on those?  Other entitled children of rich men.  You taken a good look at the progeny of Donald Trump?  Not that he’s anything more than a low-ranking vassal with delusions of grandeur.  Frank’s more in the Koch line, I’d say.

So Frank is a dangerous man, but also a dangerously self-deluded one.  Powerful and brilliant, but his power has made him myopic, and his brilliance has become too inward-looking.  He sees a great many things that are unquestionably happening in the world, then and now (because his creator sees those same things happening, and hates them with an infernal fury), but he can’t see past his own ambitions, and he has absolutely no self-understanding.

If he understood himself, he wouldn’t have denied Elaine–the only one of his children to inherit his force of will–the chance to seek her own path.  But in fact he understands very well that she’s striking directly at the core of his ideology, and much as he may regret the necessity of it, he will break her down to nothing, as he broke her mother, rather than let her go on defying him.  “The sharpest thorns are in your own roses” he writes in that little book of his, and he somehow thinks that’s original. And he sees himself as a fine man.  Obviously.  He’s doing all this for the greater good.  Elaine will thank him someday.  And I am Marie of Romania.

And is there no errant knight out there, no band of heroes to scale that tower, free the maiden (perhaps not literally, nobody asks) from her dismal if well-appointed cell, and slay this vile robber baron?   We’ll settle for metaphorical slaying, but the rescue operation has to be quite literal, as well as dangerous.  And this modern tower has many a locked door in it, many a brazen alarum bell.  Were any of you good at analogies on those standardized tests?  I was a wiz at them.  See how you do with this one–

As Drummers Are to Spinal Tap–

“This is Wilbur Howey,” Tiny said.

Dortmunder looked at the doorway to see if there was any more to him, but apparently not.  “How are ya?” he said.

“Terrific,” Wilbur Howey said, and cackled.

Dortmunder led the way to the living room, where May was reading the latest issue of Working Woman.  Howey tossed a salute in her direction, winked, and said “Hi, Toots.”

“Hi,” May said, putting the magazine down and getting to her feet. “Hi, Tiny.  Anybody want coffee?  A beer?  Anything?”

“Just an hour with you on a doubledecker bus, Toots,” Wilbur Howey said, and cackled again.

“Shut up, Wilbur,” Tiny said.  “They ain’t no more doubledecker buses.”

“How about bunkbeds, huh, Toots?”

(–so lockmen are to Dortmunder.  Yes of course I knew you’d get it, but  I had to type it out for the ones who aren’t good at analogies like us.)

Specialists are always a problem–so incredibly good at one thing.  So incredibly bad at everything else.  That’s the trade-off.  You can’t push a human mind to know one area of expertise really well, and still expect it to function adequately in all the other areas.  Not that this necessarily applies to all specialties.  Like off the top of my head, people who blog incessantly about the same writer. Competely different, huh Toots?

So Dortmunder is, as he himself puts it, a good utility infielder in his profession (though a genius in the area of planning), but for some jobs he needs a first-rate lockman–somebody who can open any door in front of him like it was a doggy door and he was a Labrador.   And this means he’s had to put up with the idiosyncracies of the specialist, as any professional will sometimes have to do.

And so he has had to deal with Chefwick, a slightly cracked model train enthusiast, who ended up somehow riding a train to Cuba, then running a Chinese railroad in California (don’t ask).  Or Wally Whistler, an absent-minded fellow who would sometimes go to the zoo and let lions out of their cages, just because he couldn’t resist fiddling with the locks, and then he managed to end up in Brazil because he was robbing this pier at the waterfront, and he just kept going until he was on the ship, and the ship sailed away with him on it, and now he’s trying to get to Uruguay so he can confess to some crime he did not commit to get extradited back home.  Did I just type that?

Or Herman X, a black bisexual revolutionary gourmet (it says something for this series that he’s the most relatively normal of the bunch), who we learn in this book has actually become part of a successful revolution in Talabwo (the fictional African country that Dortmunder was working for in The Hot Rock), and now he’s their Vice-President, so not available for the tower heist.

So Tiny suggests Wilbur Howey, who is available, and local, and just got out of prison after serving forty-eight years of a ten year sentence that should have only run three years with good behavior.  Wilbur basically is not capable of good behavior, which makes him the ideal lockman for this book.  He kept breaking out of jail, more or less out of boredom, and they’d find him very easily, and drag him back, and tack more years onto his sentence until they just decided enough was enough, and let him go.  He’s a cracker-jack lockman, make no mistake, and he’s kept up on his trade while he was in stir (when you think about it, there’s no better place to keep in touch with the latest advances in locksmithing).

But he was very young when he went in, and obviously not terribly well-experienced with the opposite sex, and there’s really no worse place to keep up with that aspect of life.  The poster boy for arrested adolescence, full of randy pick-up lines that were old when Bob Hope was young.  After making pass after pass at May, who does not receive his advances in good humor, we next see him standing outside the Avalon Bank Tower, winking and saluting at every skirt that passes, including some pretty obvious transvestites, but a skirt’s a skirt, right?

Dortmunder finds him the most irritating co-worker yet, but he must admit, when the guy gets down to business, he’s all business.  It’s only when he’s focused on his work that his fey mannerisms fall away, and the professional comes out.  He means absolutely no harm at all with his endless come-ons–and he’d never hurt a fly, even if he could.  You like him, but you can’t help but nod in agreement when Dortmunder, taxed beyond words, mutters that the only thing that gives him any satisfaction is that Wilbur Howey is about to meet J.C. Taylor.

And I kid you not kid, nobody in this book affords the discriminating mystery reader deeper satisfaction than–wait for it–

Josephine.  Carol.  Taylor.  

J.C. Taylor was being the receptionist again, typing labels.  Today she was in a plaid shirt open halfway to the waist, and designer blue jeans.  Glancing up when the door opened, she said “Hail hail, the gang’s all here.  There’s three guys already inside.”

“Good,” Dortmunder said.

Meanwhile, Wilbur Howey was inhaling.  He’d been inhaling steadily ever since he’d set eyes on J.C. Taylor, slowly rising  up on his toes as though the volume of air he’d taken aboard was turning him into a balloon.  Finally, he released a bit of that air: “Tooootts,” he said, half sigh and half croak.  His hand moved up to his hat, moving like part of a mechanical figure, and raised it clear of his wisp-covered scalp.

Now she became aware of him.  Her fingers slowed and then stopped on the typewriter keys.  Her left eyebrow raised, and the corners of her mouth wrinkled in amusement.  “Well, look at this,” she said, like somebody finding a really good prize in a Crackerjack box.

Westlake always did a good job writing good girls.  He excelled at writing bad girls.  But to him, you see, there are no bad girls, at least not in the conventional sense of the term.  They’re just drawn that way.   Or rather, they draw themselves.  His most intriguing ladies are invariably tramps, in the Rodgers & Hart mode.  Because that way lies freedom, and individuality, and self-actualization.  It’s not really about sex at all.  But sex certainly comes with the package.

And something in him resisted this–I don’t know why.  He played at creating female protagonists here and there, and they were classy blonde ingenues, pouting prettily, with a touch of Nancy Drew, and they’re fun to read about–but somehow there’s always something a bit lacking–not enough there there.

If he really wanted a female lead for a series, I strongly believe he should have given J.C. Taylor a ring, but he never did.  If he were still around, I’d ask him why.  But I don’t know if he’d have had an answer.  A writer is his or her choices, good and bad.  When he chose to make J.C. Taylor nothing more than a recurring peripheral character in the Dortmunder-verse, he made a bad choice. But nobody else could have made her at all.

J.C. comes into the story because she runs a somewhat shady mail-order operation in the Avalon Bank Tower, on a lower floor with no security.  She’s not worried about being robbed–she’s not worried about much of anything.  She’s just about an inch away from the wrong side of the law, and that’s just where she likes to be.  Bent enough to be open to a crooked proposition; not so bent that the law is taking a good look at her–too bad for the law.

At first glance, she’s just the receptionist in an office hosting a music company, a correspondence course for aspiring detectives, and a business offering aid to couples looking to improve their sex lives (by way of a pornographic manual featuring her own sweet self in many a revealing photograph).  She’s just some office girl, “a hard-looking brunette of about thirty,” but that’s merely one of the masks she hides behind–once she’s sure Dortmunder and Tiny are who they say they are (and not process-servers), she unveils the dominatrix within.  Like Frank Capra said about Barbara Stanwyck, when she turns it on–everything stops.

On the way up to see her, Dortmunder and Tiny ride the elevator with some Japanese businessmen, and one of them looks at Tiny, muttering something that sounds like “Godzilla.”  That’s the effect Tiny has on most people (when we first see him in this book, he’s hoisting compact cars with Stan Murch–not a typo–he’s actually hoisting them onto a flatbed truck, with his bare hands.  The real Godzilla might want to bring back-up.

She just sees another man–she knows men.  They hold no mysteries for her.  She was, as she matter-of-factly lets drop, a call girl for a while; long enough to raise the capital to start her own business, be her own boss, and she makes it very clear to them both that the two things she will never do for money are kill somebody or fuck somebody.  Wants no part of the former, had all she cared to of the latter.  Whatever damage was done is her business, and she doesn’t want to talk about it.

And in no time at all, Godzilla is eating out of her hand, figuring she’s the kind of girl who puts out (since he’s been reading the sex manual she appears in with a glazed expression).   But she won’t give him the time of day, and he starts uttering the not-so-veiled threats he typically resorts to when he perceives rudeness of some kind–threats that would intimidate a suicide bomber–and she could not care less.  She has his number–when she finds out what his nickname is, she smiles and says “I wonder why?”  She knows every weak spot in the masculine ego, and she herself has none.  And yet–there’s more to her than money and put-downs.

When she sees Howey, stimulated almost to the point of meltdown by his first encounter with Femininity Incarnate he’s had since–probably ever–you think she’s going to hurt him somehow, punish him for being a sexist pig–and she doesn’t.  Not really.  She’s seen sad cases like him before, and what she feels isn’t exactly pity, but it’s not hostility either.  Because this is the female H.L. Mencken.  Remember?  He said if anybody wanted to pay him homage after he was gone, they could forgive a sinner and wink at a homely girl on the street. Can she, a sinner herself, do any less?   In fact, she can do a whole lot more.

With a little reflective half smile on her lips, Taylor reached out her left hand and touched the tip of her first finger gently to the side of Howey’s jaw, just beneath the ear.  Eye to eye, leaning just a bit toward him, breathing deeply and regularly, she slowly moved the fingertip and just an edge of fingernail lightly along the line of his jaw.  Howey’s bobbing grew more spasmodic, he vibrated all over, and by the time her fingertip had reached the middle of his jaw he was just standing there, spent, mouth hanging open.  “Very nice,” she told him, patted his cheek, and said to Dortmunder, “He’ll be all right now for a while.”  And she sat down, turning back to her typewriter.

Marry me.  What?  I didn’t say anything.  I think I had a point to make–oh yes. Saints and Sinners.  I talked about that last time.  J.C. Taylor has sinned, and she fully intends to go on sinning, and yet there is something about her that suggests that her external cynicism is just a cover for a wounded romantic–she’s come down in the world, but she’s also risen in it by her own mischievous machinations.  And in spite of herself, she likes these wacky heist-men, and finds something appealing in their quest.  And that will figure heavily into the climax, but meanwhile back at the ranch–

The Trusty Brunt of May.

“I wouldn’t work for you,” May told him, “for a million dollars an hour.”

The clipboard man gave her a surprised look.  “Then you’re crazy, he said.  For a million dollars an hour, you could put up with certain things.”

“Not rudeness,” May said.  “I have an aversion to rudeness.”

May gets her own subplot in this one, and given how much happens in this book in the course of only 244 pages, that’s astounding–that the subplot is there, and that it works so well.    Dortmunder is dumbfounded to find he is being sued by the client he was burglarizing a gourmet food importer for–he got three hundred up front, and then the job, as already mentioned, went to hell, and Dortmunder opted not to give the money back, since it’s not his fault the guy didn’t give him enough information about the alarms and such, and he’s owed something for time and labor and falling through a convent roof and all.

Dortmunder can’t believe it–what kind of a man sues a burglar for not burglarizing at his own criminal behest?  Are there any sane people left in this crazy world?  But Chepkoff, the sleazy wholesaler he had the arrangement with, figures Dortmunder has more to lose than him, and will give back the money rather than show up in court.

May knows this Avalon Tower job is the toughest one her man has ever tackled, and she firmly approves of his saving that poor nun, so she wants him focused on that, so he comes home to her in one piece.  Without telling Dortmunder, she goes to the warehouse, and beards this food lion in his den.  He brushes her off, and that, you should know, is a very serious error on his part.

Because May works in the food service industry herself–as a slightly larcenous check-out girl at a supermarket.  And properly motivated by his extreme rudeness, she does a bit of digging, and comes back at him with indisputable proof that he’s been stealing from her employer on a much larger scale than she ever did, and unless he drops the suit, he’s going to have more to worry about than three hundred dollars he should have known he was never going to see again.  He folds like a cheap suit.

This is one of the joys of the Dortmunder series–much as I may complain that J.C. merited more than a supporting character gig, the fact is, being a supporting character in the Dortmunder books is no mean avocation, and Dortmunder should stop acting like he’s been cursed by fate–professionally, perhaps.  Not personally.   The Great God Westlake was in a giving vein when he made Dortmunder walk into that Bohack supermarket where May was working, and charm her with his failed attempt at shoplifting.  A pearl beyond price I called her back when I reviewed Bank Shot, and if anything I was undervaluing her.

And this subplot very much fits the overall theme of the book–bad behavior–namely blackmail–that is somehow good behavior.   Right and wrong are not so easy to distinguish in this fictive world, any more than they are in our world. Context is everything.  Universal laws don’t function well in a universe of endless variety.  Somehow, I don’t think Immanuel Kant would have been a fan of these books.  But I could be wrong.  Even prissy German philosophers like to laugh sometimes.  But Dortmunder doesn’t feel much like laughing when he finally makes it to the top of the tower and encounters–

The Wolves of War.

“Freedom fighters,” Garrett echoed, and couldn’t prevent a slight expression of repugnance to curl his lip.  Coming through the Margrave offices to this meeting he had seen them lolling about in the various rooms, telling one another hair-raising anecdotes, nearly sixty hard-bitten mercenaries, merciless veterans of uncounted wars in Africa and Asia and Central America, assembled by Frank Ritter to spearhead the “liberation” movement that would repay that upstart South American dictator Pozos for becoming an annoyance.  Garrett considered himself manly, God knows, but he was also civilized, and these “freedom fighters” were nothing but timber wolves in human shape.  You could smell the testosterone.  He said, “I just don’t understand why you’re assembling that bunch of thugs here.”

General Pozos, decadent dictator of Guerrero (Guerrera in this book), Westlake’s Latin American answer to Ruritania, was a character who was introduced in the first Grofield novel by Richard Stark, figured obliquely in the next two, and had never appeared in a Westlake novel–and he does not physically appear in this one, but he still clearly exists in Dortmunder’s world.  And that somehow makes sense, even though Parker has been established as a fictional character there in Jimmy the Kid, created by the very real (and litigious) Richard Stark.  Because after all, Grofield himself had somehow jumped over to Dortmunder’s world in somewhat altered form, so why couldn’t Pozos and an entire country make the jump with him?

Westlake is recycling again–the main plot point of The Damsel is that a very wealthy and powerful American politician is trying to have Pozos assassinated, so he can take over Guerrero and reshape it to his liking, using his close relationship with Pozos’s son and heir to make that happen.  But in the end, the politician realizes that Pozos Jr. is really more his son than the dullard who sprung from his loins (who worships Pozos).  And he chooses that personal relationship over his political ambitions.  Well, we already know this story is going another way with that premise.   No personal relationship means much of  anything to Frank Ritter.  The political always comes first.

So he’s just going to use mercenaries and money to hijack an already-existing revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow Pozos.   Completely illegal, of course.  But he’s grown accustomed to thinking of the Federal government and its laws as a ceremonial gloss on a world he and his kind already control.  And he figures nobody will even notice these guys assembling in New York.  And they just happen to be assembling right at the moment that Dortmunder has Howey get him past the locked door leading to the suite Sister Mary Grace is imprisoned in.

His colleagues are downstairs, robbing several lucrative businesses blind–his own rather ingenious plan (even for him) is that they’ll just mail the swag from J.C. Taylor’s office (superbly equipped for that end), and walk out the door on Monday, unburdened by evidence.  But since he’s the only one who owes the nuns a favor, he’s got to do that part of the job himself–only as soon as he gets inside, he gets mistaken for a mercenary, and forced to join a sort of general assembly of mayhem.  A gathering of wolves.

Yeah, ‘timber wolves in human shape.’  You noticed that, did you?   They’re not like Parker, of course–but don’t ever try to tell me the idea of a wolf in human form didn’t cross Westlake’s mind on a regular basis, only he wouldn’t actually come out and say that’s what Parker is, because that’s actually what Parker is, and that would take all the piss out of it.  He can say it about these guys because it’s only a metaphor.  But to Dortmunder, the cowering coyote, at risk of being exposed as a ringer at any moment, to a roomful of men who are being armed with assault weapons, it’s a nightmare made real.  He uses a still-meeker animalian analogy.

Dortmunder’s mouth was dry.  His hands were wet.  So far, the seat was dry. He was up here looking for a nun, and all of a sudden he’s in this absolute army of killers.  Attila would be happy to come back and hang out with these guys; all Dortmunder wanted them to do was disappear.

They were an excitable crowd, too.  Almost anything might set them off; disliking the weapon they were supposed to use in their upcoming slaughter, for instance.  There was no telling how excited they’d get if they found out there was a noncombatant among them; a sheep, in wolf’s clothing.

A Lamb of God, you might even say.  You caught that reference in the opening quote up top, right?  When he chides his disciples for not staying awake with him?  Westlake has done this before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–twelve men on a mission of robbery and (in the latter book) murder.  Can we make this twelve as well?  Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, Stan, Howey–that’s five.  I’d say J.C. Taylor is the Mary Magdalene of the bunch–and never mind if the real Magdalene was a prostitute (historians demur)–the metaphor still holds up nicely.  Six.  May is certainly part of the gang, and they also serve who only stand and wait–seven.  Sister Mary Grace makes eight.  The Guatemalan housekeeper acting as a secret emissary could make nine if you want to stretch a point.  Well, it was worth a try.   Where two or three are gathered in my name….

So Dortmunder escapes the wolf pack, due to a fortuitous blackout in the conference room, very slightly wounded by a stray bullet, and as the chaos he invariably unleashes erupts around him, he finds himself gripped by a small firm hand, and guided to a place of relative safety, and of course it’s Sister Mary Grace–slipping around quietly within the office complex, she interceded on his behalf, but it’s not Thursday, so she can’t talk to him.  And if you ever wondered if John Dortmunder is familiar with the work of George Lucas–

“I’m uh,” Dortmunder said, but what the hell, might as well admit it.  “I’m John Dortmunder.”

She nodded again, patting the air: She too had figured things out.

Dortmunder sighed; it had to be said.  “I’m here to rescue you.”

She raised an eyebrow, grinning ever so slightly, but otherwise refrained from comment.

We’re way over six thousand words here.  I would have sworn I could do this one in two parts.  I know, I got sidetracked a lot, but there’s a whole lot of sidetracks here.  Maybe this really is the Butcher’s Moon of Dortmunder, short though it be.

We are now through the first three parts–GenesisNumbers, and Acts.  For reasons that are beyond my ken, Westlake chose not to reset the chapter count after each part concluded, so Part 4–Exodus–begins with Chapter 34.

It’s not looking good.  The crew downstairs has been made aware of the ruckus upstairs, and is feeling disinclined to come up and join the crucifixion party. Kelp, deathlessly loyal as he is to his friend, can hear the cock crowing in the distance, and sighs to himself, thinking what a pity it is–then he goes back to figuring out how this gizmo he lifted from the magic shop works.

Tiny, learning of Dortmunder’s predicament, is going to utter the starkly Nietszchean commentary, “There is no Dortmunder.”  Well, he could have just said Dortmunder was dead to him.  Well really, that’s what he said.

We’ll see what Mary Magdalene has to say about that.

Mind the rocks.  Go with God.  (Flann O’Brien).

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Filed under Good Behavior, novel, Uncategorized

Review: Good Behavior

 

It is no small pity, and should cause us no little shame, that, through our own fault, we do not understand ourselves, or know who we are. Would it not be a sign of great ignorance, my daughters, if a person were asked who he was, and could not say, and had no idea who his father or mother was, or from what country he came? Though that is a great stupidity, our own is incomparably greater if we make no attempt to discover what we are, and only know that we are living in these bodies and have a vague idea, because we have heard it, and because our faith tells us so, that we possess souls. As to what good qualities there may be in our souls, or who dwells within them, or how precious they are — those are things which we seldom consider and so we trouble little about carefully preserving the soul’s beauty. All our interest is centred in the rough setting of the diamond and in the outer wall of the castle – that is to say in these bodies of ours.

From The Interior Castle, by Saint Teresa of Ávila

Dear Sister Mary Grace,

Wonderful News! God has seen fit to put us in the way of being helpful to a man who has just the skills needed to effect your rescue.  He is a burglar by profession, which means he has studied the art of going in or out of difficult or locked places. (He came to us through our roof!)

Before we cast the first stone, my dear, we should remember St. Dismas, crucified with Our Lord, a common criminal who repented at the very end.  “This day you shall be with Me in Paradise,” Our Lord promised him.  So it was St. Dismas, the thief, who was Our Lord’s chosen companion on his first momentous journey back to His Heavenly Father after his earthly travail, not one of the Apostles or Disciples, a fact we would do well to remember.

In any event, it is our hope, and our constant prayer to the Almighty, that this association with us and rescue of your own self may be the beginning of the path of reclamation for this latter-day Dismas, whose name is John.  Even now he is studying the best way to reach you and bring you out of your imprisonment. If you happen to have any advice or suggestions you might want us to pass along to John, concerning the physical details of your incarceration, I am sure he would be most pleased.

Praying for your early release, long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory and the conversion of Godless Russia, I remain, as ever,

Mother Mary Forcible

Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena

The sixth of the Dortmunder novels, this marks a real turning point in the series, and maybe the last of any significance.  Westlake had been assembling this world, piece by piece, book by book, character by character and it would never be 100% finished, but neither would it ever get much more developed after this one. The wildly inventive experimentation of the first three books, the fumbling around for a way to go on in the next two–over and done with.   And another thing is over and done with–Dortmunder’s four book losing streak.

The Hot Rock ended with him at least half-victorious–he’d finally stolen that emerald that didn’t want to be stolen, and he got revenge against the employer who had tried to cheat him, and he was supposed to get a sort of finder’s fee for returning it to its original owners.

But in the next four outings, he somehow always ended up with the short end of the stick–to the point where the introduction in the next book of his true love May, with her supermarket clerk gig and her light-fingered penchant for (literally) bringing home the bacon, was the only explanation of how he hadn’t ended up going on relief.  It sometimes seemed like Dortmunder wasn’t so much an armed robber as a smalltime burglar who occasionally planned a heist for some deep-pocketed client, and was lucky to just avoid going back to prison.

The heist would always come off (because we the readers want to see stuff get stolen), but he never profited from it, at least not directly.  The god of his universe kept him on a much shorter moral leash than Stark kept Parker on. And he didn’t appreciate that one bit, but he bore his humiliations with a stoic wounded dignity.  He really is a master thief, a brilliant planner, just like Andy Kelp keeps telling him, but because he does not, like Parker, live in an amoral universe (with an amoral audience), his destiny is always to end up holding an empty bag.  Or is it?  Can he find a loophole somewhere?    Get time off for good behavior?

The first of the two images up top, beneath the book covers, is St. Teresa of Ávila, also called Teresa de Jesus.  The granddaughter of a Jewish converso in Spain, she was raised in a wealthy family, dreamed of going on a crusade to the Holy Land, joined the Carmelites as a novice, and being a beautiful girl with a passionate nature, may not have been strictly faithful to her vows of chastity and poverty for a time, something church and state often winked at, since noblemen found certain convents a good place to find willing partners.

Depressed by what she saw as her failure, she then experienced a true vocation, and vowed to create a new reformed Carmelite order, devoted to both worldly service and otherworldly contemplation, a goal she attained (with a little help from her friends), and it still exists today.   She also began having intense haunting religious visions.  She also wrote some truly great books.   She also nearly got burned by the Inquisition once or twice.  She lived her life.

Then she died, and was interred in such a way that when her body was dug up some time later, it was found in a state of preservation that was deemed miraculous (it probably wasn’t), and she was eventually declared a saint–not for what she’d achieved in life, but for not decomposing normally after death.   If she’d married some grandee’s son, as might well have been her fate, she would have had children, died, and been forgotten.  Her strange genius for self-understanding–for plumbing the depths of the human spirit–would have been lost to the world.   In losing herself, she found herself.

The second image is of St. Dismas, the penitent thief, who belongs entirely to the realm of myth.  His feast day on the church calendar is March 25, which this year happens to be Good Friday.  A whole host of extremely dubious stories have been told about him since he first popped up (without a name) in the Gospel of Luke. In art, he is usually depicted crucified with his hands pointing downwards, his arms sometimes hung backwards over the crosspiece of the crucifix, or else tied to it by his elbows, like so–

                                                                                            “Come here often?”

                                                                                            “Nah.  Just hanging out.”

Not a fellow professional whose career path John Dortmunder would wish to emulate.   And yet–looking at the picture of him up top–there is something oddly familiar about the world-weary expression on the larcenous saint’s face, and that diffident gesture he makes with his left hand as he shoulders his cross, isn’t there?  You can almost hear him asking–“Why me?”   Why anyone, pal?

Donald E. Westlake was born a Catholic, raised a Catholic, schooled a Catholic, and for all I know he died a Catholic, but if you’re going to get persnickety about it, he was a lapsed Catholic for most of his life (two divorces is precisely two more than a practicing Catholic is ever allotted in life).

It meant something to him, but precisely what is never easy to discern.  The Roman Catholic Hierarchy is one of the world’s oldest and most stratified authority structures, and you know how he felt about those.  He wrote most sympathetically of monks and nuns, I’d say, because they were at the very bottom of that structure–holding the rest of it up.  And because in at least some cases, their primary mission statement is self-knowledge.

I would think he saw Catholicism as part of his identity, but identity is a house with many rooms, and he spent most of his time elsewhere in the manse.  But now and again, he’d stray back in and revisit that room–or observe with great interest those who had chosen to live there exclusively.  What did they know that he didn’t?   What could be learned from them?  What stories did they have to tell?

And why is it that there’s always this strange affinity between saints and sinners? Jesus himself is said to have spent much of his time in the company of morally questionable persons. The scum of the earth is how most upstanding citizens saw them–to him they were just people, like everyone else. His followers have often (granted, not often enough) chosen to emulate this odd behavior.

Pope Francis (long life to him, seriously) visits prisons, washes the feet of inmates.   Maybe the point is that there’s really not such a huge difference.  The current pontiff says he might have been a criminal himself, had things gone differently–and has pointed out that many clergymen have themselves committed horrible crimes.  The line between saint and sinner is a fine one indeed.  By their works shall ye know them.   I think that’s enough sermonizing, don’t you?   Time for synopsizing.

Dortmunder is pulling yet another ill-fated burglary–this time on behalf of a food wholesaler named Chepkoff, who wants him to steal some high-end delectables from an importer in Tribeca.  Oh yeah, about that–

This building was on the corner of two streets in a southwestern area of Manhattan recently rechristened Tribeca, which means “The Triangle Below Canal Street,” and whenever any section of New York get a cute new name–SoHo for South of Houston Street, Clinton to replace the honorable old name Hell’s Kitchen, even NoHo for North of Houston Street–it means the real estate developers and gentrifiers and condominiumizers have become thick as locusts.  It means the old handbag factories and sheet metal shops and moving companies are being replaced by high-ticket housing.  And it also means there’s a long transition period of years or even decades when the plumbing supply places and the divorced advertising executives coexist, uneasy neighbors, neither entirely approving of the other.

And so it remains to this day, in neighborhoods most people never even knew existed until the real estate people started touting them as the next big thing. Gowanus, anyone?  Say this much though, they’re not doing the cute hybrid names so much anymore–“It’s a neighborhood built around a toxic canal, you wanna buy or rent?”   I think Westlake would approve.  Then again, I would have sworn he’d have disapproved of a word like ‘condominiumizer,’ so what do I know?

So Dortmunder is doing this job with a guy named O’Hara, and any hopes the latter had of joining the regular cast vanish when an alarm goes off, and the cops start closing in.  O’Hara gets nabbed below, the cops ascend, and Dortmunder is off and away over the rooftops, looking for a way out.  Any port in a storm, right? No atheists in foxholes.

So he winds up dropping in to visit a local convent (and I don’t have to say literally, do I?)  He is discovered clinging to the chapel rafters by its denizens, the Silent Sisterhood of St. Filumena, which I presume to be as fictional as the Crispinite Monastic Order invented for Brothers Keepers, and perhaps even more eccentric–the sisters have taken a vow of silence, which they can only break on Thursdays, and it’s not Thursday.  So what follows is a lively game of charades, and everybody’s having fun, until Dortmunder asks them why they can’t just write notes, at which point they look a bit embarrassed.   Killjoy.

(Parenthetically–hence the parentheses–if you read that Wikipedia article I linked to, you’ll see that St. Filumena has turned out to be something of a fiction herself, or at least of rather questionable historical veracity, and her sainthood was more or less revoked, quietly, in 1961–and you can bet Westlake knew that. But he didn’t like it.  No takesie-backsies, Vatican!)

So he’s wondering why they haven’t called the cops.  Obviously it never occurs to him to take a hostage and bluff his way out.  Leaving aside his badly sprained ankle, Dortmunder is still somewhat intimidated by memories of having been raised as an orphan (abandoned at three minutes of age, which is more data than we had before) by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery.  His memories of them are not fond (they swung a mean ruler), but he was well-programmed to do whatever nuns tell him, at least when they’re looking right at him.  Force of habit, you might say.  Oh please, you knew that was coming.

So then Sister Mary Serene, who first discovered him, has a duel of notes with Mother Mary Forcible, over how this fugitive felon might be the answer to their prayers (again it seems redundant to say literally); a solution to the problem of Sister Mary Grace (they can’t sing either, so no Rodgers & Hammerstein sextet, more’s the pity).  By the bye, there’s also a Sister Mary Chaste, a Sister Mary Lucid, a Sister Mary Amity, etc. and so forth.  They don’t make nun names like that no more. 

And the problem of Sister Mary Grace is this–she’s a prisoner.  In a tower.  How medieval.  (Seriously, it is.  We’ll get to that.)  Her birth name was Elaine Ritter. She had come to them as a novice, their first new recruit in ages, and her youth and spirit had won their hearts, you’ve seen the movies (so many movies).

But then her ogre of a super-rich father, a godless despot who controls the lives of all his children (and aspires to control much more) had her grabbed by his goons, and she’s being held on the top floor of his office tower, where a guy who deprograms cult members is working on her.  Hendrickson is his name.  He’s a minor character, and he walks out well before the story is over, but he’s there for a reason–to inform us that Elaine Ritter didn’t become Sister Mary Grace on a whim.  Some people might join a cult or religious order to give up their identity, and those are the people Hendrickson can reach.   She’s not one of those people.

The fact is, Elaine Ritter was not at all the sort of person he usually contended with.  His clients were almost always vague and confused, with very poor self-image and only a scattering of half-remembered education.  Generally, they had left their homes and gone off with Swami This or Guru That mostly because they were looking for a parent other than the parents they’d left, feeling some need for a parent who was more strict, or less demanding, or more attentive, or less cloying.  Different, that was the point.  Different parents, a different tribe, the growth of a different self who would be so much more satisfactory than the miserable original.  Religion and philosophy had little to do with those kids’ actions and decisions, and Hendrickson’s task, really, was not much more than to wake them up to the world around them and hold a mirror to their potential for selfhood.  Easy.

Elaine Ritter was something else.  No self-image problems for her, and religion and philosophy had everything to do with her decision to renounce the world and join that convent down in Tribeca.  On the religious side, she firmly believed in God and the Catholic Church.  Philosophically, she just as firmly renounced the world that men like her father had made.  Vocation was a fabulous beast as far as Hendrickson was concerned, but if the beast ever did live, it was in this girl.  She knew her own mind, and she would take no shit from Walter Hendrickson.

Too bad.  Shit was all he had for her.

(And as Hendrickson takes his leave, later in the story, having conceded failure, he warns her that her father is conceding nothing–he’s hired a different type of deprogrammer.  One who made his living in the Eastern Bloc nations, whose methods are somewhat more–intrusive. He’s broken Cardinals.  He’ll break her. Unless someone breaks her out.)

Frank Ritter is very influential, has more lawyers than Disney, and can block any legal action the Sisterhood may take indefinitely.  They know there isn’t much time for them to act, if they want their Sister back in one piece, mentally speaking.  Possibly not just mentally speaking.

They can communicate with her through Enriqueta Tomayo, the Guatemalan housekeeper (Westlake still remembering downtrodden Guatemala from his last book), who loves the little sister, is furious about the way she’s being treated, and will happily smuggle letters on her behalf.  But the security on that floor is tighter than hell (which is about how Sister Mary Grace sees it).   Which is why they need a professional.  Like Dortmunder.

So he says he’ll help them, and he goes home to May, and tells her what happened, and he has no intention of risking his neck for some nun he’s never met.  Dortmunder’s not a bad guy, but he’s never cherished any heroic fantasies. It’s not who he is.  This is high-risk, low-reward. He has enough troubles with jobs that are low-risk high-reward.

Kelp comes over, Dortmunder tells him about it, and Kelp laughs.  What suckers, these nuns, letting him go with nothing more than a pledge they can’t enforce, because they don’t even know his name.  Then Kelp looks at May, whose face is very stern and set.   “Now you see the problem,” Dortmunder says.

Here and there in the Parker novels, Claire Carroll would try to serve as Parker’s conscience, steer him to use his powers for good, and Parker would humor her, and do just as he pleased with his powers.   That’s how it works in the Stark Realms.  In the Duchy of Dortmunder, women have a lot more power (in part because more women are following Dortmunder than Parker.  At least that’s what the publishers think).

Dortmunder may not want to be a hero, but he’s got to at least put in a good faith effort here, or May will walk out on him–the sisters kept him from going back to prison for the rest of his life, he made a promise to them, he has to keep it.   His relationship with May is the only thing in Dortmunder’s life that doesn’t seem like an endless practical joke being played on him.  And he can’t live without her tuna casserole.  So he and Kelp start scoping out the job.  What the hell.  How bad can it be?

Bad.  The most advanced locks and alarm systems money can buy.  Hosts of armed security men.  They can’t even find the private elevator that goes up to that floor.   Now on the good side, there’s a lot of rich targets they could hit in that building–dealers in jewelry, antiques, and (to Kelp’s delight) a magic shop. If they could figure out a way to get into those places, and get the swag out undetected, they could maybe get some of their colleagues interested.  This is definitely not a two-man job.

But Dortmunder just doesn’t have enough information about the security, and May’s research at the library makes this Ritter sound pretty intimidating–the guy effectively owns whole countries in Latin America (Dortmunder doesn’t understand how that’s possible, and May has to explain about national debts and stuff).  He’s nobody you want to piss off.  And as matters stand, if Dortmunder gets picked up for so much as jaywalking, he’s going away for life as a repeat offender.

May doesn’t like it, but she’s ready to concede that it’s not looking like a good idea to pull this nun-heist, promise or no promise.  She doesn’t want to visit John in the joint for the rest of eternity.  She’s grown accustomed his face (such as it is).

But see, while Dortmunder may be more hen-pecked than Parker, he shares one very key aspect with him–once he actually starts working on a job, he has a hard time letting go of it.  A dog with a bone.  He’s proud of his larcenous skill set.  “I don’t like to believe there’s a place I can’t get in and back out again,” he tells her.  And something in you sings a little bit when he says it. He’s our guy.

But he’s May’s guy too, and she reluctantly says she’ll go with him to the convent, and explain his dereliction of duty to the Silent Sisters (on Thursday, so they won’t have to do the charades thing).  May wasn’t raised by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, so she’s not so intimidated by nuns.

Now as Dortmunder and May enter the convent to break the sad news–you see that letter Mother Mary Forcible sent Sister Mary Grace up top–where she mentioned that maybe there was some information about the place of her confinement that she could share with the latterday Dismas?  Sister Mary Grace is no wilting violet–she’s a rose with many thorns.   She figured out the internal security code that gets her past some of the doors in her fairly capacious cell.

She still can’t escape, but she can go places she’s not supposed to go, and she got her hands on something she’s not supposed to have–the security manuals for the entire building.  Specs and schematics for all the alarm systems.   A list of all the tenants–including the businesses Dortmunder & Kelp have it in their minds to rob, and how much security each has opted to pay for.  Everything he could possibly have asked for and more.  The Idiot’s Guide to Heisting The Avalon State Bank Tower.  Is what gets dropped right in his lap, before he can say a word about quitting.

And his eyes shining, the path before him now clear, his vocation fully engaged, Dortmunder says to Mother Mary Forcible, “Let us prey.”  He’s not passing her a note, so she doesn’t have to know how he’s mentally spelling it.

So that’s how Part One ends.  Entitled Genesis.  Part Two is Numbers.  Yes, it’s a theme.

And this is a very short Part 1 (for me), but it seems like a good spot for a break (Part 2 will be arranged somewhat differently), and I wanted to get this kicked off before The Feast of St. Dismas concludes.  I did not plan to reach this book around the time of that feast day, let alone Good Friday, in case you were wondering.   Call it divine intervention.   And now comes the divine intermission.

Happy Easter, all.  Praying for the early completion of Part 2, long life to the Pope (if Benedict hadn’t resigned, I’d be more lukewarm about that), forgiveness of the Souls who go see that Batman v. Superman movie (my idea of purgatory), and the conversion of godless Ray Garraty, I remain, as ever.

Fred Fitch

Brotherhood of the Mock-clever Review Segue.

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Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Good Behavior, novel, Uncategorized