Category Archives: High Adventure, novel

Review: High Adventure, Part 2


Tommy Watson and Luz Coco were the only South Abilenians fluent in English and, so far as Kirby could tell, the only sophisticates in the crowd, whose conversation and manner betrayed a wider knowledge of civilization.  With their half-mocking existential hip form of the traditional Indian fatalism, they looked like a couple of Marx brothers wandering through a Robert Flaherty documentary.  They were so total a contrast, in fact, that Kirby would have loved to know their story, but they insisted he tell them first how it happened that he had bought the farm.

“It looked great when I saw it,” Kirby said.  “St. Michael was just representing the real owner, some big aristocrat up in Mexico.  The aristocrat couldn’t take back a mortgage on account of taxes, so the price was right because I could pay all cash.”

“Fat man?” Tommy asked.  “Happy with himself?”

“That’s Innocent St. Michael,” Kirby agreed.

“It was his land,” Tommy said.  “He’s been looking for a first-class fish for years.”

“I appreciate that information, Tommy,” Kirby said.

“So you’re a rich man, right?” said Luz.  “You can afford a mistake.”

“Rich men,” Kirby told him, “don’t risk their ass and twenty years in jail flying pot to the states.  That’s how I got the money.  Oh Jesus,” he said, remembering.

Tommy swigged home-brew and puffed pot and said, “Something else, huh?”

Kirby swigged and puffed and swigged and puffed and said, “I just gave the rest of my money to a guy in Texas for some cows.”

Luz laughed.  Tommy tried to look sympathetic, but he was grinning.  Kirby swigged and puffed, and then he too laughed.  “I guess I’m not as smart as I think I am.”

“Nobody is,” Tommy said.  “But what the hell, we can still enjoy ourselves.”

So, having abruptly decided to make this review a two-parter, breaking it off at what seemed to me an appropriate juncture, I was then informed by one of my comments section kibitzers that I had failed to explain or justify my contention that this book is, in some ways, a reworking of Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which I consider the very worst novel Donald Westlake ever published under his own name (unless there’s a worse one he never published, and seeing as the two ‘lost’ novels published after his death were both really good, I doubt that).  And of course it was too late to fix my error by then, but I appreciate that information, Mike.

Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is about Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, a tall lean sullen disgruntled young adult from a rich dysfunctional family that more or less disowned him, who then blackmailed his rich dad for the money to buy a yacht, which he named the Nothing Ventured IV.  (What happened to the first three? Oh right, because the yacht is an extension of Kelly’s personality, and he’s a IV. Missed that last time.)

He has a scheme to make his own fortune (or at least the operating capital to make his own fortune), by kidnapping a movie star.  He recruits two sardonic offbeat chums of his (one of whom is a hip young black guy, and the other does impressions) as henchmen, and makes his pitch for the caper, and they hesitantly agree.  Partly for the money, but mainly because it sounds kind of fun, albeit risky.

So they grab the movie star, but it doesn’t go as planned, and they end up also grabbing Jigger Jackson (I still don’t know where the hell Westlake got that name from), a spicy young redhead who wants to be a film star herself, but not so much because she really wants to do the work involved in being an actress (it’s not clear if she’s even studied acting), but rather because she, like Kelly, aspires to become independent, to not have to bother with people she doesn’t like, and for that you need money (while we the readers are shown that becoming really famous is not necessarily the best way to avoid dealing with people you don’t like).

It’s hate at first sight between the two of them, which of course really means they’re meant for each other, because that’s the kind of story this is, heavily derived from the work of P.G. Wodehouse, but lacking the master’s fine control (in a short time, Westlake himself would be the master).

Jigger wanted to somehow become the titular Sassi’s protege, and is convinced that she has to save her from these dastardly kidnappers, but in fact Sassi is delighted to take a break from her movie star life, and just get to be a person for a while.  Jigger sees herself as the spunky heroine in some sort of Nancy Drew-ish adventure–she projects her youthful empowerment fantasies onto the world around her, and for her to be the heroine, somebody has to be the bad guy, namely Kelly.

But as the story winds on (drags on, really), she realizes she’s in love with Kelly, that they are in fact soulmates, that she’s badly misunderstood the situation, and that movie stardom was never what she really wanted, and she and Kelly sail off into the sunset on the Nothing Ventured IV, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms.

That’s all the synopsis I can bear to type.  Notwithstanding some very clever writing, it’s a terrible book.  But you can see the potential for something better, if not necessarily something brilliant.   And so could Westlake.   And this book is it.  Not brilliant–but a whole lot better.  And much more rooted in reality, while still very much a fantasy.

Westlake seems to have spent some time in Jamaica before writing Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and he tries to incorporate his impressions of that island nation and its people into the book, as he also did with Mexico (The Damsel), Puerto Rico (The Dame), and the Lesser Antilles (I Gave At the Office, but also the nonfiction Under An English Heaven).  The book after this one has a final chapter set in Aruba.  Under any name, he likes to write about tropical settings and the people who live there, and he likes to visit them first.   If you were raised in upstate New York (as Kirby Galway, the male lead in this book was, after being orphaned at a young age), you’d want to get someplace warm too.

But he must have known his descriptions of these places and their inhabitants were superficial–perhaps necessarily so, but he wasn’t satisfied with them.  He’d gone to a lot more trouble getting Kenya and Uganda right for Kahawa (even though he couldn’t safely visit Uganda when he was in Kenya), and as we’ve seen, he’d made such an extensive tour of Belize in 1984 that he and his wife wrote a long authoritative travel piece for the New York Times about it.

So he’s had a great deal more experience of life, of love, of the world, and of writing comic novels with a serious core to them, by the time he gets around to this one.  And Belize is a very small country–and very safe to venture around in then.  These days, travel advisories tell you to avoid certain areas in Belize City because of drug-related crime, but it’s still a very friendly open welcoming place, at least according to The Peregrine Dame.  (And I believe everything sexy brunettes in bikinis tell me.  It’s a rule.)

High Adventure is dedicated to Westlake’s wife Abby, who explored this brave new world with him, but also to five prominent citizens of Belize they had clearly spoken with; Emory and Elisa King, Stewart and Lita Krohn, and Compton Fairweather, who sounds like he could be a character in this very novel, but definitely not Innocent St. Michael.

An abridged passage from Emory King’s book, Hey Dad, This is Belize! serves as a sort of preface to the novel–the strange but true story of what happened to a traveling circus there, which demonstrates both the generous hospitable spirit of Belizean people, and the unpredictable and often chancy nature of daily life there.  It contains a warning for those who go there with ambitious plans: “Bigger circus than this come to Belize and broke up.”   In retrospect, seeing as this book is long out of print, perhaps a warning for ambitious novelists as well; but what the hell, he still enjoyed himself.

Westlake did his homework and then some.  And if my prefatory remarks frequently run on too long, it’s only because I try to follow his example.  The synopsis resumes.

So having come across Kirby Galway’s fake Mayan temple, exactly where she thought there would be a real one, and seeing Duluth-based museum curator Whitman Lemuel there, and remembering that she’d seen these two men talking at a party in New York, idealistic young archaeologist Valerie Greene correctly assumes Lemuel is engaged in the illicit purchase of Mayan artifacts, but also incorrectly assumes that Kirby is selling him real ones.  DESPOLIATION!!!

Lemuel, to whom the six foot Valerie now greatly resembles the protagonist of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (he feels almost Lilliputian in her presence), flees in terror, fearing both professional disgrace and criminal prosecution.  Fledgling con man Kirby, who was just reeling in his fish only to see him scared away by this pestilence of a woman, starts swearing profusely, and waving his machete around with wild abandon.

Valerie departs in some haste, intending to inform the proper authorities of this outrage, but her driver, supposedly working for Innocent St. Michael (who in this specific instance actually is innocent), but covertly working for Innocent’s treacherous assistant Vernon, who is in the employ of the Guatemalan military for some sinister agenda not yet revealed (even to Vernon), spirits her away to an isolated cabin, where the terrified Vernon reluctantly orders her death to avoid exposure.

As the days pass, and Valerie fails to resurface, Innocent St. Michael presumes her dead, and not knowing of Vernon’s treachery, believes Kirby somehow bribed the driver to kill her–and having somehow fallen in love with a girl he just took to bed for a lark (because that’s what you do with girls when you’re Innocent St. Michael), he swears he will find some way to make that murdering bastard pay for his crime.

Meanwhile Kirby and his Mayan partners in crime dismantle their fake temple, leaving no evidence of their confidence scheme, and are blissfully unaware of Valerie’s disappearance, or the various intrigues going on around them, being so very caught up in their own.  I think that catches us up.  We’re about 174 pages in as Part 1 (The Famous Plane) concludes, and Westlake calls for an intermission, before resuming with Part 2 (Tings Bruk Down).  Phew.

So before I resume, you see that scary-looking fellow up top?  That’s an artist’s impression of the evil Mayan bat god, Zotzilaha, only reimagined as Batman.  Or it’s Batman reimagined as Zotzilaha.  Either way.  While rereading the book, in which ‘Zotz’ plays a rather key role, it occurred to me that Westlake sometimes references The Dark Knight, having once nearly ended up writing for one of his venues  (I don’t know which one, maybe Detective Comics?), so he probably made that connection, and I googled, and he’s not the only one.  So that’s worth knowing.  I guess.  Got your popcorn?   Okay, I’ll start the projector rolling again. Somebody dim the lights.

So as Part 2 begins, Kirby is back from a smuggling run to the states in his Cessna aircraft, Cynthia.  What happened with Valerie and Lemuel was unfortunate, but nobody can prove anything, maybe the fake artifact business can be revived later, there’s still pot to be smuggled, he’s got his Mayan chums to hang with (including a girl named Rosita he’s taking horrible advantage of, sick wife in America, yeah right), things will work themselves out.  Kirby tends not to make long-term plans.

And as he returns to the remote village of South Abilene, where Tommy and Luz live, and where the faked artifacts are made  (Kirby lives closer to town with a somewhat more civilized Mayan couple), he starts hearing weird stories about how Sheena Queen of the Jungle has come to live there. You know, this girl. Only not blonde.  Probably a printer’s error.


Well of course it’s Valerie.  She heard Vernon order her killed, and strapping lass she is, was able to break through the wall of her prison, and run out into the jungle, where she spent several harrowing days, finding out that living on roots and berries is something best left to comic book heroines.

And then she found the village, where she was given shelter and succor and a cool nickname, and I totally believe all of this.  It happened to a birder friend of mine, years ago.  Only he came across a documentary film crew in Columbia, several hours after escaping from a guerilla camp, after they captured him and his companions, thinking they were CIA, and you think I’m making all this up, don’t you?  Well hah!

(Everybody else was eventually released as well, but it took a while.  Thankfully it worked out more like a Westlake than a Stark, but there were some Starkian elements in the plot at various points, based on what I heard).

Valerie has come to love these people as much as Kirby does, albeit not in quite the same way–to him, they’re just his buds, as much on the bend as him.  To her, they’re a dream made real.  She thought she was an archaeologist, out to preserve the ancient past from greedy collectors, but she’s really more of an anthropologist, out to understand and learn from people who are still here, and to protect them from people far more evil than greedy collectors.

And she still thinks Kirby is one of those people they need protection from, but Westlake still isn’t ready for them to talk, so Kirby just figures his friends have been smoking too much gage again, and she figures Kirby will try to have her killed again.  Kirby does see a tall white woman running for cover, while flying overhead in Cynthia, but he just sort of shrugs it off.

Skipping ahead a bit, that happy go lucky trickster, Innocent St. Michael, still distracted with grief and rage nigh-Shakespearean in proportion, finally gets a gun and tries to shoot Kirby dead with it.  He has no idea how to use a gun, so he misses, repeatedly (this would never happen in a Richard Stark novel).  Kirby’s friend Manny holds a shotgun on him, while Kirby and he finally talk with something resembling honesty.

Kirby finally realizes ‘Sheena’ is Valerie, and needing to convince Innocent she’s alive, they all go to South Abilene, where Valerie, believing she’s been betrayed by everyone, runs into the jungle.  As she flees, she grabs a handful of tortillas Rosita baked for her (she’s been giving relationship advice to Rosita, and this may be the most absurd thing that happens in the whole book).   Rosita wanted to share the joys of cannibis with her new friend Sheena, but Valerie didn’t want to get high   She also didn’t want to offend anyone, so she said she couldn’t smoke anything.  Rosita, generous soul, made up some edibles for her.  The tortillas are heavily laced with you-know-what.  Valerie does not know this.  So we’re back to the adventures of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, but they are sure as hell high adventures now.

And after a period of increasingly psychedelic wanderings through the rainforest (where some deity is clearly looking out for her, because there are no fewer than eight dangerously venomous species of snake there, including the Fer-de-Lance), she runs across a patrol of Gurkha soldiers (I know, this is three happenstantial jungle meetings in one book if you count Valerie barging in on Kirby and Lemuel, but remember what happened to my friend?).

Ah, the mighty Gurkhas, still protecting Belize on behalf of the British Empire (what’s left of it)–she’s saved!  Again!  Only for some reason these Gurkhas speak Kekchi, one of the Mayan languages–which she understands, but instinctively does not let them know she understands, because shouldn’t they be speaking Nepalese, or whatever?  (It’s Nepali, but I had to look it up.  I don’t know everything.)

So assuming she’s just some dumb white woman they’ll rape and murder once they get around to it, and obviously does not understand their language, they let the evil plan slip (hey, these guys don’t have the internet, they haven’t read that Evil Overlord List of things not to do when you have an evil plan).  Long story short, they aren’t Gurkhas.  They’re Mayans as much as Valerie’s friends are, but they are also brutalized ruthless Guatemalan soldiers disguised as Gurkhas, which is why Vernon was paid to get photos of Gurkhas in uniform.

Their mission is to wait until Vernon, under orders from his paymaster, brings a group of western journalists into a small village made up entirely of Guatemalan refugees, Indians who fled the horrible oppression of that country’s military dictatorship into Belize, where they have been welcomed and sheltered.  The Faux Gurkhas will slaughter the entire village before the horrified eyes of the reporters (who have cameras), and this scandal will  be a huge propaganda victory, discouraging more people from leaving Guatemala for Belize, and maybe forcing Britain to withdraw its small military force, which will allow Guatemala to move in and reclaim what it considers its lost province.

(Kind of curious to know if this book got any bad reviews in Guatemalan newspapers, but hey, the New York Times didn’t review it at all.)

So Valerie runs back into the jungle.  It’s getting to be a habit with her.  She’s coming down off her high, and she knows she has to find some way to save these people–who she hasn’t met, remember, it’s a different village.  Like that makes any difference. Sheena Queen of the Jungle protects all innocents in her primeval realm from nefarious evildoers.  It’s like her thing.

So meanwhile, back at the village (the one that isn’t going to get slaughtered), Kirby and Innocent have started ironing out their misunderstandings, hampered somewhat by the fact that Kirby can’t easily confess to a government official that he was committing fraud.  But Innocent, still doubting Valerie is alive, accepts Kirby did not kill her, and is thus forced to blame himself, which is what he was trying to avoid by blaming Kirby, of course.  She reached something in him he didn’t know was there, with her honesty and goodness–she was the magical lozenge that changed his personality, but he knows it won’t last.

Innocent said, “Kirby, did you ever visit someplace that was really nice, a place that made you happy, so you started to think maybe you’d just like to stay there forever?”


“But then after a while you realize it isn’t your place, you don’t fit in except as a visitor, you don’t belong there and you never will.  So you go home, where you do belong, and where you’re happy most of the time because it’s the right place where you ought to be.

“Okay, Innocent.”

“From time to time,” Innocent said, “you remember that other place, and how nice it was to visit, but you don’t make the mistake of thinking you can go back and live there.  So that’s what’s happening now, Kirby.  I’m visiting some other me, a real nice me that I never knew before,”  That lazy smile softened Innocent’s features once more.  “But don’t worry about it,” he said.  “I’ll go home to the real me when the time comes.”

“In that case,” Kirby said, now completely sincere, “I’m glad I was here to meet the other fella.”

(Westlake was typing this at home, of course.  Wistfully, I’d think.  Getting ready to go back to the heists and murder mysteries.)

So Valerie,  having finally figured out who the real bad guys are, enlists Kirby’s aid, and the aid of the South Abilenians, and Cynthia’s aid for that matter. There’s no time to bring in the real Gurkhas–Vernon is driving the journalists to the other village right now, not knowing why he’s been ordered to do this, but he knows it’s something bad, and he is filled with a sense of some horrible destiny overtaking him at last.  They have to somehow stop the slaughter, and Kirby has an idea.

The South Abilenians have, with great reluctance, made up a bunch of little Zotzilaha statues for him to sell in America–now they make little parachutes for them.  Kirby and Valerie fly over the doomed village in Cynthia, buzz it a few times, then bombard the false Gurkhas with a host of tiny caped crusaders, and this is just going to make them laugh, right?   Well turns out there is at least one place on earth where the image of an anthropomorphized bat does strike fear in the hearts of criminals.   Who are, as you may have heard, a cowardly and superstitious lot.

The false Gurhkas had been brought up in Christian homes.  They had been taught to know and to love God and the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.  They had been taught to despise Satan and all his works.  They had risen above such education, and had struck out to live their own lives by their own rules.

No one had ever told them they had to believe in the Mayan gods and the Mayan devils.  Those beings were there in the stories, that’s all, there in the drawings, and the cloth designs and the carvings, there in the rites and ceremonies that a minority of their older relatives sometimes engaged in. Nobody had ever told them they had to believe in Zotzilaha Chimalman, and yet none of them had ever in his heart doubted that the cave of bats existed, the forked road to eternity existed, the evil hater of mankind was there in the darkness just waiting the opportunity to drag them down to eternal death.

He flies, Zotzilaha, he comes out of the sky like a bat.  He is full of tricks and malevolence.  If he catches you when your heart is black, you’re doomed.

They run screaming into the jungle, dropping their rifles.  Their leader tries to stop them.  He is shot dead by his own men.  Two of the villagers had already been killed, the rest survive.  One annoyingly witty Australian journalist is non-fatally wounded (he’s clearly a prototype for some fellows we’ll be meeting in a later book, but there’ll be time for that later).  Vernon is shot several times, and to his deep despair, he survives–he’s not getting off that easily.  It’s over. Good has triumphed.  In the form of evil.  Irony!

So what’s left is mainly just tidying up a bunch of dangling plot threads, which Westlake does fairly well.  Kirby gets his money back from Innocent, but Innocent, back to his old trickster self, has one more joke to play.  Kirby and Valerie have sex, and it’s an anticlimax, but no doubt a very pleasant one.  Rosita is just plain out of luck, but she was sleeping with a married man whose wife was dying (or so he told her), so what do you expect?

Alan and Gerry remain a happy gay couple, still not entirely understanding what the hell happened, but it was an adventure, wasn’t it?  And they got high, didn’t they?  Their journalist friend, who was there in the village when the false Gurkhas came, has a hell of a great story to write when he gets back.  And I’ve shamefully neglected their subplot, because that’s what it was.  If there was ever a movie, most of it would probably end up on the cutting room floor.  And don’t you think maybe Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively for Kirby and Valerie?

Though Innocent wouldn’t spill the beans on Kirby for anything, admiring a good scam as much as anyone, there’s no way the fake temple or the pot smuggling can be kept quiet in the furor that’s going to stem from the narrowly avoided massacre.  Kirby’s a hero of Belize, but he’s also going to be a wanted criminal there for a while (Belizean law tends to have a short memory for such things; he’ll be back someday).

One assumes life returned to normal for the residents of South Abilene, which isn’t saying much.  Manny and Estelle Cruz, who he’s been living with, are saddened to see him go, but they get to keep all the modern improvements he bought for them, such as they are.

So he and Valerie just get into Cynthia, and fly away to a secluded tiny island off the coast of Central America, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms, and it looks like they’re settling into a long-term thing as we leave them, each somehow correcting for the flaws in the other, and it’s a bit contrived, sure, but no more than Shakespeare’s romances, and a lot less than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?  I have left out a whole lot of ancillary characters, by the way, but you could just read the book.

Oh, and Kirby frames Whitford Lemuel, the curator from Duluth, for pot smuggling.  He does this, believe it or not, in a spot called Trump Glade, in Florida.  I’m 100% sure that’s just a freaky coincidence, and I’ve lost count of how many of those I’ve come across in Westlake’s fiction.

If Vernon’s crime was betraying his country, Lemuel’s was betraying his calling, as a preserver of man’s ancient past.  He wasn’t saving those artifacts for science, or cultural preservation–he was doing it for his own self-aggrandizement.  I’ll say it again; the only true crime in a Donald Westlake story is betraying yourself. The only salvation lies in in better understanding yourself, and what you’re here to accomplish.

And as our story ends, I can see Zotzilaha himself, the evil bat god of the Maya, grinning down with malevolent humor on the infernal chaos he has spawned for dark unknowable purposes of his own.  Let those mortals who have proven their worth be happy a short time, but he shall someday have his–eh?   It’s his other line ringing.  Aw geez, not the Catholics again!  Don’t those people ever let up?   Ah well, better change.  They scare easy.

And suddenly he’s a skinny white man in his fifties, balding, glasses, sitting in a small office, maybe in an apartment somewhere.  Now what’s the problem?   Imprisoned nun, evil father, office tower, mercenary army, uh huh, got it.  Okay, who’s available to handle this job?  The wolf guy?  No, he always makes a mess, bullets flying everywhere, and he hasn’t been answering his phone lately.  The actor?   Can’t trust him anywhere near the nun.  The ex-cop?  Can’t listen to another of his long-winded guilty confessions afterwards; that guy needs to mellow out, try some of the latest pharmaceuticals.

“John, I guess this falls on you.  It’s a local gig.  Don’t fuck it up this time.  I’ll make it worth your while.   Anyway, I owe Otto something commercial.  Even God needs a publisher.”

Sitting down at his desk, he fits a sheet of foolscap in his celestial Smith-Corona, and begins to shape the world around him.

Brothers and Sisters: Let us Prey.

(One of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, High Adventure, novel, Uncategorized

Review: High Adventure


It was now a little past midnight, and he had nearly 800 miles to travel, most of it over water.  Depending on winds and weather, the trip would take between five and seven hours; in any event, it would be before dawn when he landed.  Stowing the last parcel, he yawned and said, “You get the temple put away?”

“Oh yeah,” Tommy said.  “The hill’s a little scuffed up, that’s all.  You can see there’s been digging.”

Luz said “I’m looking forward to those assholes.   They’ll shit when they get here and don’t see any temple.”

“Just so that ends it,” Kirby said, and yawned again.  “I’ll see you guys next week some time,” he said.  “When I get back from this trip, I’m just gonna hibernate.”

Innocently, Tommy said “What’s hibernate?”

Kirby said “What bears do in winter.”

Tommy said, “What’s winter?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Kirby said, and flew away with the music of their laughter in his ears.

Actually, for Valerie, these days marijuana would be superfluous.  She was high already, high on just being alive and high on this wonderful village in which she found herself.  Her initial fears that she might be sexually mistreated faded rapidly when she saw how thoroughly this was a family village; life here was too open and monogamy too ingrained for any hanky-panky.  (Had a few of the boys first met Valerie away from town it might have been a different story, of which she remained happily ignorant)

But the point was, these were Mayas, true Mayas.  Unlike the other archaeologists Valerie had known, her teachers and her contemporaries, she had gone through the time barrier, had actually entered into the ancient civilization the other scholars only studied.  It is true these people were no longer temple builders, were merely the decayed remnant of a once-flourishing culture, but their clothing (apart from the inevitable blue jeans) bore echoes of ancient themes, ancient designs, ancient decoration. The faces of the people were the same as the faces on bowls and stelae a thousand years old.

You know that thing I do where I complain about how some New York Times reviewer didn’t properly appreciate this or that Westlake novel that didn’t fit what was considered his proper niche?   I can’t do that this time, because the New York Times does not seem to have reviewed this book.  At all.  Ever.  The online Times Archive shows neither hide nor hair of a review–the only mention of it I can find is in a much later review of a much later book (and I’ll be complaining about that critic’s shortcomings in due course, won’t that be fun).

I did find this lovely travel piece, contributed by Donald and Abby Westlake (credited as Abby Adams) back in 1984, within which the proximate source of this book’s genesis can be easily divined.  Sounds like exceptionally enjoyable research.  Busman’s holiday, Mr. Westlake?  Say no more, nudge nudge.

The admiring blurbs on this book’s beautifully rendered dust jacket (Westlake never had better art for a hardcover–Otto Penzler was clearly determined to prove to Westlake that he’d found a real home at last) are primarily from fellow writers, lending a comrade a hand.  Pretty sure no film studio ever called his agent about optioning it.  There don’t seem to have been a lot of foreign editions (you can see the Italian one up top).

It did get an American paperback reprint from Tor, a publisher Westlake was then developing a relationship with–that would soon end very badly–even by the standards of Westlake and publishers, and you’ll remember what he said about publishers in our last book. Tor’s rather banal attempt to fool readers into thinking they’re getting an Indiana Jones rip-off should perhaps have come as a warning, but I guess it was too late by then.

This one really fell between the cracks–even though it was published by The Mysterious Press, and was certainly sold as a crime novel (there are crimes committed in it, people do die, there’s plenty of adventure, high and otherwise).  It’s another of Westlake’s Problem Books–hard to pigeonhole, harder to sell, but we can be sure Mr. Penzler bravely refused to say he did not know how to sell it.  It certainly does have elements of some of Westlake’s more popular comic crime novels, but arranged in such a way as to create a very different effect.

It’s also one of those books I liked a lot better the second time through.  In fact, as the plot began to pick up pace, I found myself rather loving it, while seeing its failings even more clearly –love doesn’t necessarily have to be blind.  Much like the lighter and more cynical Castle In The Air, it may not be Westlake’s best work, but it’s still good work, well worthy of a second look.  It’s also something of a lozenge play.  Yes, I’ll explain.

W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert & Sullivan fame, had this idea about a magical lozenge that would change people’s personalities, leading to various comedic complications, and he wanted to make it the basis of an operetta–and it never worked.  He could never once make it work, at least not to the satisfaction of his normally adoring public (or Mr. Sullivan).  He kept trying to reintroduce it, in one form or another, and nobody liked it.   But he did, and he refused to give up on it, probably to his dying day.  And it is my personal theory that every professional storyteller has at least one lozenge play tucked away somewhere in his or her trunk, if writers have such things as trunks anymore.

This is not really such a lozenge play in the literal sense–a narrative hinging entirely on the premise of an identity-altering plot device ingested orally (that would be Smoke, and amazingly enough, Westlake actually did make it work)–but it is a collection of ideas Westlake had used earlier, in books that never did catch fire with the public, or the critics, and he may have felt they were worth another try–and this probably didn’t catch fire either, but it is a much better book.  Maybe good enough that Westlake felt like he could let some of the old lozenges go, and move on to greener pastures.

What previous Westlake books contributed to this one?–well, self-evidently, Under An English Heaven, that work of nonfiction about the proud independent multi-racial people of Anguilla, their quest to remain an independent nation, and to avoid oppression by perfidious St. Kitts  by remaining under the flag of the British Empire, while still getting to do whatever the hell they wanted most of the time.  Anguilla is briefly referenced here by the narrator, but the influence would be obvious regardless.  Belize had just recently become independent of the United Kingdom in the time period this book is set in, but was still under its direct military protection, a rather key element in the story.

Then there’s Westlake’s recurrent obsession with Latin America, and his boundless affection for its people, which has been touched on in many books by now.  Usually he made it an imaginary Latin American country to give himself more freedom as a storyteller, but having spent an idyllic time in Belize, and realizing to his delight that there was a real country that was equal to his wildest imaginings–where people of many cultures and skin hues all got along fine most of the time, the democratically elected government helped its citizenry without getting in their way too much, people had all kinds of fun beneath the tropical sun, and there were even Mayan temples to boot–and they spoke English!–he was not going to pass it up.

You might suspect he cleaned it up a little–there are occasional hints in the novel that not everything there is so perfect all the time–but essentially he and Belize were of one mind with regards to how life should be lived, and perfection is dull, anyway.

However, these things I mention are not lozenges, per se–just enduring interests of the author that crop up throughout his work.  Where’s the failed idea he tried to turn into a successful one?  On second reading, I was rather appalled to realize that the underlying foundation of this enjoyable book was Westlake’s worst book ever, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?–cunningly disguised, to be sure.  No kidnapped movie stars here.  No crime-plotting computer.  No wacky sidekick who does impressions.  But the outlines of the prior narrative and its thin but likable characters are unmistakable.  He knew that book he’d made out of a rejected screenplay was an awful dud, but he still wanted to make the damn lozenge work the way it was supposed to.  And be damned if he didn’t pull it off here–up to a point.

There are also many elements from Kahawa present–the closest thing to a central protagonist this book has is a pilot, and something of a soldier of fortune. There’s quite a bit of sex, though much less than Kahawa.  It’s one of his foreign adventure books, and those are never his absolute best books, but they’re something he enjoyed doing, because he was interested in the world around him, in different cultures, different races, different modes of identity.  It’s part of who he was as a writer.  Like excessively long intros is part of who I am as a reviewer. Synopsis, please.

Kirby Galway is a pilot who owns his own small plane, which he has named Cynthia.  Cynthia and he have been engaged in various semi-legal and outright criminal enterprises for some time now, and having saved up a bit of cash, Kirby wanted to try cattle ranching in Belize.  He bought some land from a local functionary, Innocent St. Michael, who is described as a happy mingling of African, Mayan, Spanish and Irish influences, and has somehow managed to combine the most roguish elements of his ancestry into one charming (if chunky) 57 year old package.  He is, in short, an affable con man, as well as a ladies man with few peers, and Kirby was one of the many pigeons he’s plucked in his colorful career.

He sold Kirby a parcel of real estate out in the jungle, that looked ideal for grazing cattle, but because of an oddity of the local landscape, there’s no water there for half the year, and therefore no grass to graze upon–then when the rains come, it springs back to life for a few months.  The land is worthless, but Innocent made sure to only show it to buyers when it was lush and green, as opposed to arid and dusty.  Kirby was looking with disgust at this white elephant of an estate he’d sunk all his capital into, when he met some of the local Mayans–descendants of the people who created one of the world’s great civilizations, then for reasons that are still not  well understood, abandoned it, and went back to a simpler mode of living.

Two of them, Tommy and Luz, did a lot of their growing up in the U.S., speak perfect if idiomatic English, and they and Kirby quickly form a fast friendship, aided in part by Kirby being engaged in smuggling marijuana (the locals call it ‘gage’) on the side (this is where the ‘high’ part of the adventure comes from, and I suppose you could say it does constitute a sort of personality-altering lozenge for some people, but more on that later).  Kirby and the entire village get wasted together on high-grade pot and homebrewed beer.  It’s a bonding experience. Well yeah, I guess it would be.  Not that I’ve ever inhaled.  The beer thing I’m more familiar with.

Kirby realizes that he genuinely likes these people, lives happily with a Mayan couple, using the proceeds from his smuggling operation to make their lives more comfortable–they become family to him, maybe the first real family he’s ever known.  He’d been a loner up until then, since his father was a movie stuntman, and his mother a little-known actress, and they were killed in Spain while shooting a scene on a roller coaster, when he was just a kid.  Kirby was raised by his aunt in upstate New York.   But he inherited the wander lust from both his parents.   He’s been a rolling stone for most of his life, and now he wants to gather a little moss.

So having been swindled out of his moss by Innocent, Kirby suddenly hits upon a brilliant idea for a con of his own–to turn this worthless land he bought into a goldmine.  Or rather, an archaeological dig.  See, some of his newfound friends are experts at creating the very artifacts their ancestors made.  It’s not fake Mayan art, because they’re real Mayans.  But it’s not ‘authentic’, because it’s not old.  It’s only valuable if some Mayan who lived many centuries ago made it, in between human sacrifices.  Only suppose it was found strewn around a heretofore undiscovered Mayan temple in this country that has still not been thoroughly explored?

All you have to do is build the temple and bait the trap.  So that’s what they do. Making stone whistles, and stone figures of Zotzilaha, the malevolent bat god of the Maya, who conveys unwary souls to Maya hell.  That’s him up top, left of those grinning kids.  Nasty cuss.  Very popular with collectors.  Kirby’s accomplices are reluctant to make the little statues of him.  Well, of course they don’t really believe in him.  Just like modern Irish people in rural areas don’t really believe in the sidhe.  Sure they don’t.

Kirby’s idea is that he strikes up conversations with suckers, I mean enthusiasts, back in the States, let it slip that he owns this land with an undiscovered temple on it, and he’s tried to get the authorities interested, but they keep telling him there’s no temple there, and these amazing objets d’art are just lying around, with no one to appreciate them (modern-day Mayans don’t count), and if only someone with the necessary expertise could come and find them a proper home, and you get the picture.  He’s currently working on a museum curator from Duluth and a gay couple from Manhattan.

Unbeknownst to him, the gay couple, Alan and Gerry, are actually collecting information for a journalist friend of theirs named (also gay, but much less self-consciously so) who wants to do a piece about the illegal trade in Mayan art–which of course Kirby is not engaged in, since nobody worries about the illegal trade in faked artifacts–that’s an entirely different area of criminal endeavor, namely fraud, and to report it, you’d have to admit you were trying to engage in the illegal purchase of real artifacts.

It’s very confusing, yes.  Intentionally so.  This is a comedy of errors, after all.   Which is to say, a comedy that revolves around people constantly misunderstanding each other, coming to false conclusions about the identities and motives of other people they’re dealing with, because we’re always making up stories in our heads about people we interact with, but don’t really know. Most of the time, we don’t even know ourselves.   And this is always the kind of story Westlake wants to tell.

Example: Kirby has to entertain both the curator and the gay couple in Belize City at the same time, then show them both his fake temple, and he can’t let them know that they aren’t the first and only persons he’s made privy to this great discovery.  He can’t pretend not to know any of them.  So he tells the curator that the two other men he’s talking to are drug kingpins he deals with. And he tells Alan and Gerry the same thing about the curator.

And these are three of the most meek and mild-mannered men you could imagine–but they look at each other, with Kirby’s none-too-subtle innuendos in their heads, and they project the qualities such a person is supposed to have onto each other, and in no time at all, as was Kirby’s intent, they’re in mortal terror of each other.  The great thing about being a con artist is that people are so damn good at conning themselves.   You just plant the seed, and they do most of the tilling.   You don’t have to go to Belize or some other exotic locale to see this happening.  Just watch cable news.  (I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with ‘T’.)

In the meantime, Innocent St. Michael, himself a con man of high renown, is wondering why his hapless victim Kirby is looking so chipper these days, and why he’s showing these people that worthless land, and did the con man somehow get conned?   He must know.  But he’s also a ladies man, and the ladies man must score.  Which is where Valerie Greene comes in.   Well, technically he comes in her, but we’ll get to that.

Valerie is an impressive sight–all of six feet tall, pleasingly proportioned, with ‘hair colored hair’ (a phrase Westlake took to using when he didn’t feel like going into detail about someone’s hair color–some perfectly nice and unremarkable shade of brown is what he means), and a piercing forthright gaze of unflinching virtue and honesty and almost unfathomable naivete in her eyes.  The ingenue, in other words.  But what an ingenue.  The Xena Warrior Princess of ingenues. Though since that isn’t a thing yet, she gets called Sheena Queen of the Jungle, which works about as well, even though she isn’t blonde.

Valerie is a trained archaeologist, whose passion is Mayan art, which she believes should be properly maintained and studied in its original setting–with regards to the illegal trade in Mayan artifacts, she is prone to saying things like “Despoliation!”  Kirby met her while he was romancing the curator at a party in New York, and in spite of her considerable feminine appeal, his main reaction was that she was a pest getting in the way of his spiel.  She didn’t think much of him either.  So obviously they’re going to end up together.  So obvious, in fact, Westlake doesn’t get around to hooking them up until the the story is nearly over.  Well, Shakespeare did that sometimes as well.  And we are, in case you hadn’t noticed, deep within the Tropical Forest of Arden here.

Valerie’s first hook-up (in Belize I mean, not ever, she’s no prude, sex simply wasn’t at the top of her to-do list for a while) is with Innocent St. Michael, who seduces her almost too easily, and a good time is had by all–her best to date, and maybe his too.  He’s married, but that’s rather beside the point–his marriage is a mere domestic arrangement, on both sides–his daughters want him to act his age and stop being such an old lech, but that’s daughters for you.   He likes Valerie very much–in fact, he likes people in general.

And women are people to him, strangely enough.  In post-coital mode, she expresses concern that he’ll be bragging of his conquest (he was telling her, as part of his seduction routine, that he’d had an affair with their waitress at the restaurant, engaging in sexual banter with the woman, right in front of Valerie–consciously advertising his abilities as a lover, and it worked)–well, you realize suddenly there’s more to him than you realized.  He’s many many things one might deplore, but he’s no misogynist.  Quite the contrary.

Alarmed, concerned, almost shocked, Innocent bounded to his feet with a surprising agility.  “Valerie, Valerie!”  he cried, holding her elbows, his manner totally serious for the first time since she had met him.  “We aren’t enemies!  I would never embarrass you, humiliate you!”

“But you tell everybody everything, don’t you?”

Releasing her, he said, “You mean Susie, at the restaurant?”  He grinned, relaxing, a happy bear, shaking his head.  “When I have lunch there with a businessman,” he said, “or someone from the government, do you think I tell him, a man, “I had that waitress”?  What would Susie do to me?”

“Pour your lunch on your head,” Valerie suggested.

Innocent laughed.  “You misunderstand Susie,” he said.  “She would stick a knife in my neck.”

Take notes, guys.  This is good stuff.   And well worth reviving, in the era of Facebook and ‘slut shaming.’   Men and women don’t always have the same precise interests.   Does that mean we must always be at war?  Can we not enjoy each other as nature intended without guile or subterfuge or vicious retribution? Is the question our feminine-admiring author is posing.  In point of fact, Valerie is co-protagonist with Kirby (and Innocent), but the demands of the plot force her to spend rather little time with either, as she’s off on her own journey of self-discovery.  Down the rabbit hole goes our Alice.

See, she’s there because her study of aerial photography of Belize has convinced her there’s an undiscovered temple there–on Kirby’s land.   She wants Innocent to get her out there to investigate, and he wants her to investigate so he can know if Kirby somehow got one over on him, so he arranges through his assistant Vernon to have this rather unsavory operative of theirs drive her to the site.

Vernon has his own agendas, and he’s the closest thing this book has to a villain–but a comic villain.  He’s not cut out for the role, it’s not who he really is, but he’s tired of living in Innocent’s generous shadow (I detect an echo of something Westlake said about a secretary of an editor he once knew, and you can refer to my review of A Likely Story for that if you like).  So he’s taken to spying for the Guatemalan military, Guatemala having long been of the opinion that Belize is its lost province, wrongfully stolen by the British, always looking for some way to reclaim it (still true, though it seems to be nothing more than a vague aspiration at present).

Belize, with its tiny population and basically no military at all (its policemen don’t even carry guns), would be quickly reabsorbed by that less happier land on its border, were the British to withdraw the small force of doughty Gurkha soldiers from Nepal they left behind them to keep the peace, after Belize became independent in 1981.  Yes, Guatemala is to Belize as Saint Kitts was to Anguilla in Under An English Heaven, very good, you picked up on that.  So did Westlake. Patterns can recur in reality, as well as in fiction, you know.  He’s not making this shit up, just shaping it to his purposes.

Guatemala is not pleased that many of its aboriginal inhabitants (Maya and other tribal groupings), somehow not appreciating the way they are treated by the military (which herds them around like cattle and occasionally slaughters them like same), are making their way over to Belize, where they are, almost unbelievably, greeted like long lost relations, left alone to farm the under-utilized land, and offered whatever assistance they ask for, including schools for their children.

The befuddled Indians don’t quite believe it either, but they aren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, not that they have horses, since they’re not that kind of Indian.  The Gurkha patrols who show up now and again don’t speak their tribal languages (everybody’s getting by with English, I guess), but they look just like the Indians, and they are so much more professional, so much less angry and erratic, than the soldiers these people knew in their old home.

So Vernon has been getting various things to this rather menacing Guatemalan officer who he suspects would shoot him as soon as look at him–photos of the Gurkha soldiers, maps, data on local Indian villages, nothing they could possibly use to overthrow Belize, so he’s not really doing anything wrong, he’s just earning some extra pocket money, making connections–he’s not really a traitor. Of course not.  A man’s got to get ahead in this world, right?

So when Valerie gets to Kirby’s land, sees the ‘temple’, recognizes the curator from Duluth (who cowers before this towering virago), starts shrieking “DESPOLIATION!!!” to the high heavens, while Kirby curses and waves a machete around in frustrated rage–well.  It’s too much.  She’s going to ruin everything.  She thinks everybody, including Innocent and Vernon, is in on it, whatever it may be.  She’ll run to the authorities.  Who will then find out what Vernon actually is in on.  Namely spying for a foreign power.  So Vernon’s accomplice, a skinny black man named Fred, takes her to a small cabin, where Vernon reluctantly gives the order to kill her and dispose of the body.  Then leaves, before the deed is done, cursing his fate.

Everything was coming together at once, in the most terrible way.  He had murdered Valerie Greene, yes he had, he had murdered her just as surely as if he had done it himself with his own hand.  But he was not cut out to be a murderer; too late he understood that.  He wanted to be a man with no conscience at all, and he was riddled with conscience as another man might be riddled with leprosy.  The sting of his petty treason was as nothing to the savage burn of his guilt as a murderer.

Innocent as well comes to feel the unfamiliar and entirely unwelcome sting of that pestering bee, conscience.  He doesn’t know what happened, but he knows Valerie didn’t come back, the driver she was assigned has fled the country, and Vernon is behaving strangely.  He increasingly comes to believe she is dead, and he finds himself grieving for her–he had deeper feelings for her than he would have thought possible, particularly given that they only had sex once (well, probably several times, but just one tryst).

He only pretended to care about her imaginary temples and her concerns over cultural despoliation as a means of getting to despoil her, but her damned sincerity got to him more than her lush womanly attributes did (though those certainly didn’t hurt).  She begins to become a sort of private saint to him (Westlake the Catholic boy knew too well how easily those raised in that outwardly patriarchal religion can succumb to goddess-worship).  Not suspecting Vernon at all, he assumes somehow Kirby Galway is behind her death, and he vows revenge on that murdering bastard.  And the Comedy of Errors continues.

And Valerie, of course, is not dead.  Not in a Westlake comic novel.   That should go without saying.   And you saw that quote up top, so you know damn well where she is.    Down the rabbit hole, in Wonderland.

I hadn’t meant to make this a two-parter, and I’ve got a Dortmunder coming up next, but I can see no way to finish this review in less than nine or ten thousand words, which is awfully long for a single blog article, wouldn’t you say?   It’s a 326 page book, and it’s not all travelogue.   I did my best to be brief, and as is usually the case, I fell short of the mark.  I will try to get Part 2 done very swiftly, because I hope to get Part 1 of my Dortmunder review done by next Friday.  No, I won’t say why.  I’ve got my reasons.  That’s all you need to know for now.  Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bat god bite.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, High Adventure, novel, Uncategorized