Category Archives: Jimmy The Kid

Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2

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When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back th way he had come.  He and Angie waited in the Dodge while Henley took the ROAD CLOSED–DETOUR sign out of the trunk and set it up blocking the numbered country road, with the arrow pointing toward the smaller blacktop road leading off into the woods to the right.

Kelp went over and set up the sign.  It was a three-by-four piece of thin metal that had once advertised 7-Up, and the shape of the bottle could still be seen vaguely through the yellow paint.  Kelp had also thought to bring a triangular arrangement of sticks to lean the sign against, a detail not  mentioned in Child Heist.  He put the sign in place, trotted back to the Caprice and said, “How’s that?”

Dortmunder looked at it.  It said ROAD CLOSED–DETURE.  He said “Jesus H. Goddam Christ.”

“What’s the matter?”  Kelp looked all around the intersection, worried.  “Did I put it in the wrong place?”

“Do you have that goddam book on you? ”

“Sure,” Kelp said.

“Take it out,” Dortmunder said, “and find the page where they set up the sign.”   Turning to May, he said, “I’m following a book he read, and he doesn’t even know how to read!”

Kelp said, “I got it.”

“Look at it.  Now look at the sign.”

Kelp looked at the book.  He looked at the sign.  He said, “Son of a gun.  Detour.  I thought sure you–”

“You can’t even read!”

Between the film adaptations, foreign editions, and reprints, I think this book got as many different covers as anything Westlake ever wrote–more than I feel like featuring here, but I am bemused by how many of the first edition foreign covers prominently featured that well-known rodentine leader of the club that’s made for you and me.  Do I have to spell it out?  The American covers mainly didn’t go there.  And I assume that’s because the Disney legal department has a lot less clout overseas, and couldn’t be bothered to chase down every last little trademark infringement.   Surprised Ballantine Books risked it for the paperback reprint, though it’s pretty clear that’s just a kid in a mask.  The Japanese cover makes it look like Mikki-san is actually in the book.  Nefarious.  And delightful.

But if you want true pop cultural sacrilege–

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Much as I agree Kelp and Dortmunder have a sort of hardboiled Stan & Ollie vibe going on a lot of the time, this is just wrong.  I mean, clearly Dortmunder is the Ollie in that relationship, but he’s the skinny one.  And somehow I just can’t imagine Kelp getting all weepy and squeaky-voiced when Dortmunder admonishes him.  And Stan & Ollie with guns?  Pointed at a child’s back?  It’s very very wrong.  I’m surprised at you, Sweden.  You’re supposed to be setting an example here.

So last time I mentioned Lionel White’s The Snatchers.  His second novel, published by Gold Medal in 1953.  I now have a copy in my possession (they’re thin on the ground these days), and the first thing I have to say is that it sucks as a novel.  As a rough blueprint for a kidnapping executed by two French criminals, it seems to have worked very well.  So the kidnappers in that book get away clean, right?  Of course not.  Every last one of the kidnappers are dead by the end of that book.  I’m not sure any of White’s criminal protagonists are ever alive and free at the end of his stories.  Nobody was doing that in the early 50’s.

Patricia Highsmith didn’t publish The Talented Mr. Ripley until 1955, and that was an extreme outlier in the genre until at least 1962, when The Hunter came out.   Writing in the early 60’s, Westlake originally had Parker cut down by police bullets at the end of The Hunter, and was persuaded to change that ending by Bucklin Moon.  Westlake later said he didn’t want to kill Parker, but that was just how you were supposed to end that kind of story, with that kind of protagonist.  He would have assumed the book wouldn’t sell otherwise.  Highsmith was much better established when she wrote the first Ripley book, having had Strangers On A Train adapted by Hitchcock.  And she still makes you feel at the end like Ripley’s going to get his someday.

I doubt any crime writer of that general period, even Highsmith, would have shown a gang of kidnappers grabbing a small child, getting their money, and walking off into the sunset.  That would be a hard sell today–certainly for anything published as popular entertainment.  Highsmith did write a book about a well-off couple’s little dog being kidnapped and murdered by a low-life sociopath, who pretends the dog is alive to get money out of the couple.  Virtue is rarely rewarded in her books, nor is evil always punished, but Highsmith loved animals (people not so much), and she made damn sure the bastard got what was coming to him.

The kidnapping in White’s book is planned by a cool calculating fellow named Cal Dent, looking to score big and retire.  His gang are a mixed bag of misfits and psychos, he being the only solid pro in the group (a pattern White returned to frequently)–and there’s one really hot blonde who’s along for the ride to provide sexual tension.  It’s told mainly from the POV of the kidnappers, the kidnap victim, and the victim’s lovely young red-headed nursemaid (Irish, of course), who got snatched as well, which leads to more sexual tension, of course.  The kid and the nursemaid both survive in the end, thanks partly to Dent having a change of heart, making a noble sacrifice.  Hey, I didn’t say it was Richard Stark.

Cal Dent is extremely reminiscent of Parker, though–a forerunner, you might say.  This is a Dortmunder review, so I can’t go into much detail about it, but the similarities are striking.  The blonde looks at him and thinks he’s not even human, he’s like a lean tawny cat.  She wants to hook up with him, even though her current boyfriend is another member of the gang, and Dent tells her maybe after the job–no sex while he’s working (but he breaks that rule).

He has a conscience, much as he doesn’t want to admit it–the redhead isn’t like any dame he’s known before, gets under his skin, makes him regret he’s such a bad seed, arouses his bestial lust, and you’ve seen this movie before.

The kidnap plan is clever enough, the people executing it not so much, and there’s some strokes of bad luck nobody could have foreseen.  So the Peugeot kidnappers would have thought “Okay, we’re not crazy like those people, and we were born lucky, so we’ll do it the way it was supposed to be done, get the money, give the kid back, and no blondes or redheads until afterwards.”  It worked fine until, as Westlake said, they ran out of book, and did the usual stupid things people tend to do when they suddenly have a lot of money.  Quite possibly involving blondes and redheads.  I wouldn’t know.

The Snatchers has got some good ideas in it, and a nicely atmospheric Long Island setting.  But that aside, it’s mainly tawdry ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama, which makes sense given White’s professional background as a crime reporter (he can’t resist showing off his insider knowledge a bit).

White unquestionably was an important pioneer of the heist novel (once described as ‘The Master of the Big Caper’ in the New York Times, which can be annoyingly inconsistent in its literary standards).  But as anybody knows who has read Carroll John Daly–then compared him to Dashiell Hammett–getting there first isn’t everything.

I could easily see Westlake reading this book and finding Dent’s mindset interesting.  The other members of the gang feel like shopworn stereotypes.  Westlake would look to writers like Hammett, Himes, and Rabe to show him how to craft a good crime story, how to make characters jump off the page at you, how to avoid getting mired in cheap cliches.  That being said, you can get ideas from anywhere.

Westlake later went to some pains to identify White as the indirect inspiration of Jimmy The Kid–if he did draw some inspiration from White’s work when creating Parker, he might have felt a certain sense of indebtedness–and caution, since White was still alive in 1978, when Westlake wrote that piece for Brian Garfield’s anthology in which he told the story of this book’s genesis.  He once said that he didn’t like talking about his influences until the copyrights had expired.  Never give another writer an opening for a lawsuit, particularly if he’s not a buddy of yours, and your career is going better than his.

If White’s work was one inspiration among many leading to the creation of Parker, that means it also led to the creation of Dortmunder, since the latter began as an attempt to write a funny Parker novel.  So in a way, it all ties together in this one book.

One thing I can say with certainty now is that the kidnapping in Jimmy The Kid owes nothing to the one in The Snatchers.  Entirely different plans, entirely different crews.  And as I remarked in Part 1, it doesn’t seem like anything at all goes wrong with the plan in Child Heist, the ‘Richard Stark’ novel Kelp has become obsessed with.   Everything unfolds with clockwork precision in those three chapters we get to read from that book-within-a-book.

Briefly, Parker and his string identify a rich kid being regularly chauffeured to and from the city, and make sure the limo has a phone in it.  They follow the car, scope out the route in advance.  The next time the limo is heading back, they put up a fake detour sign, and lay a rather involved trap involving multiple vehicles (this is the part of the book Murch likes). They wear Mickey Mouse masks so the kid won’t be scared (it’s impossible to imagine Stark ever letting his people look that ridiculous, or for Parker to give a damn whether the kid is scared or not, and I’d be terrified if I saw armed men in Mickey Mouse masks–why not clown masks?).  There are two women in the string to look after the kid, keep him from panicking (and provide a pretext for May and Murch’s mom to be in on the action this time).

They make contact with the father, tell him to get the money, put it in a suitcase, and get on a highway of their choosing, to await further instructions.  They expect the father to have contacted the Feds, and for the Feds to be keeping a close eye on the limo, but they call  the father en route (that’s why they needed the car to have a phone).   They tell him to stop at an designated overpass, heave the suitcase over the guard rail, and leave.  They’re parked down below.  By the time the Feds figure it out, the gang has absconded with the loot.  We never find out how they were going to return the kid, and maybe that’s where something went wrong, and Kelp papered it over in his mind, like the French guys did in real life.

That’s Child Heist, and I don’t think we need mourn the fact that three chapters is all we get.  Westlake wrote it for ironic counterpoint, and that’s all you get from it.  Still better than The Snatchers, though.

And as you may gather from the quote up top, every last little thing that works perfectly in Child Heist falls to pieces in Jimmy The Kid.  But not all for the same reasons.  Kelp misspelling ‘detour’ isn’t a major problem, but it’s a bad omen.  The fact is, life is never as simple and stripped-down as it is in a Parker novel–that’s one of the allures of those books.  Yes, Parker has a lot of bad luck, but he never has any bad luck that makes him look silly.  When you read a Richard Stark novel, you get to watch a perfectly executed plan, then you get to watch some unforeseen complication sour it, then you get to see Parker find some way to salvage something from the wreckage.

But in a Dortmunder, there are no perfect plans, the bad luck never stops coming, and yet there’s always these odd strokes of good luck to counterbalance it, and keep Dortmunder from going back to prison, so we can laugh at him again later on.

Part of the problem is that Dortmunder and his string, while seasoned pros, are still clay-footed bumblers at times, because we all are.  They’re maybe a bit too nice for the business they’re in, a bit too easily distracted, a bit too (for want of a better word) Runyonesque.  Not only could they never harm a kid, no kid in his right mind would ever take a good look at them and think they could.  Another part of the problem is that the kid himself, Jimmy Harrington, is much smarter than any of them, and has his own agenda that they never figure out until it’s too late.   Mainly, the problem is that the God of their universe is Donald E. Westlake.

Right after they grab Jimmy (who is rather insulted they think he’d like something as babyish as Mickey Mouse) the phone in the limo rings–and it turns out a local Sussex County radio station–the exact part of New Jersey Parker and Claire settled down in, and I seem to recall Westlake lived there a while as well–has picked this exact moment in time to call Jimmy, because he wrote  to them about one of those those phone quiz contests radio stations love to do for promotional reasons that have never made any sense to me.

And the gang, caught off guard, can’t think of an excuse for Jimmy to get off the line.  So he sits there inside the limo, which is halfway inside a truck, answering every question perfectly, while the gang of desperate kidnappers waits breathlessly to see if this filthy rich  kid wins 500 bucks worth of prizes.  The last question is in astrology, and Jimmy doesn’t know that subject, but Kelp gives him the correct answer (that he knows, but not how to spell ‘detour’).

Now you can’t call that realism–there’s no way that would ever happen in an actual kidnapping, and they’d just disconnect the call if it did.  But it illustrates the sheer perversity of existence that afflicts us all.   Maybe you’d never get a call like this when you were kidnapping somebody, but if you got a call like this, it would happen at the worst possible time, bet on that.

Parker’s setbacks are usually related to human weakness in some way–that he can’t understand our confused identities, his own being so sure and settled.  But Dortmunder’s problem is that the universe itself conspires to make him look ridiculous–to undermine his self-image, his identity as a tough competent heist planner.  His cohorts will never betray him, as Parker’s routinely do–they’re more of an extended family than a gang, really–but that just makes things harder in many ways.  For one thing, it means he can’t just do what Parker does when his colleagues thwart him in some way–shoot them.  That’s a nice perk, you must admit.

They’re supposed to finish driving the limo into a truck Murch obtained, but the limo doesn’t fit, and the planks they put out to drive it up on won’t hold it, and this is something we’ve seen in so many heist novels and movies, driving one vehicle into another to confuse the law, and it always works flawlessly in stories–Dortmunder says fuck it, it’s too complicated, they’ll just drive to the hideout in their own car–anyway, doesn’t the father have to have the limo with the phone in it in order to carry out the rest of the plan?  What was the point of taking the limo to start with?   (And yes, Dortmunder did plan a job that involved driving a car into a truck in The Hot Rock, but in that case the car was a lot smaller, and the style of the series is changing.)

It took Murch a long time to find an abandoned farmhouse, like the one Parker’s string uses in their book, because they’ve all been converted into country houses by city people with more money than brains, so they can be featured in those hoity-toity magazines you see at your doctor’s office and never bother to read.  He finally found one, with absolutely no amenities of any kind, other than a roof and walls.

It’s really well-hidden.  The cops will never find it.  We know this because Murch himself can’t find it for quite a long time.   They just keep driving up to one converted farmhouse after another, and then get driven off by a seemingly endless succession of Great Danes and German Shepherds, all well aware their job descriptions include keeping the riff raff off the property   You ever think maybe Westlake had mixed emotions about country life?

Jimmy isn’t scared at all, now that he’s had a good look at these clowns, but he is determined to get back to his life as soon as possible (he’s got a film career to pursue), and he quickly escapes the locked room he’s in, finds a handy toolbox in the attic,  and uses it to rig the nails fastening the boards over the window in his room, so he can leave anytime he wants–they won’t even be able to figure out how he did it.  Which seems a mite sadistic.  But I don’t think it’s meant that way.  He’s just acting out a different kind of story, and we all read those stories as kids, right?  “Daring boy adventurer outwits dimwitted criminals using ingenious methods.”   Those were cool.   Now if he was trying to scalp them in their sleep, that would be sadistic.

Now we get to meet Jimmy’s father, Herbert Harrington, and he may be the funniest character in the book.   He is genuinely (if distantly) fond of his son, who he had with his second (now-estranged) wife, relatively late in life, and Jimmy is turning out much better than his older brother, who we’re told is living on some hippie commune or whatever.  But Harrington Sr. is not one for big emotions, you might say.   He’s the rich guy in the book, and we’re well familiar with Westlake’s reaction to that class of human, but he’s not super-rich, and he earned his money doing something he genuinely enjoys (corporate lawyer), and Westlake is a dad himself, so Herbert gets off relatively unscathed.  Accent on relatively.

He’s just gotten off the phone with Murch’s Mom, and the whole thing was taped by the FBI, and they’re playing back the tape–he’s shocked that his voice sounds like that.  Is that really him?  The man has probably taped hundreds of memos for secretaries to type up, and he never listened to one.

He knew Jimmy had been kidnapped, because they let the chauffeur go back with the car.  He’s more confused than worried.  This is all so unexpected.  Anyway, Murch’s Mom tells him not to call the police, and he immediately tells her he already did (because they forgot to tell the chauffeur to tell him that, probably because the book didn’t mention it).   It’s a good thing he’s dealing with nice kidnappers here.

Murch’s Mom is confused as well, because she’s reading from a copy of Child Heist, and it doesn’t match up to the conversation that well, but she adapts the material as best she can.   They want Harrington to get one hundred fifty grand in cash.  He says that will take some time–would eighty-five thousand be okay?  No, it will not (Murch’s Mom is a bit shocked he’d even bring this up).   Afterwards one of the Feds asks him if he was actually haggling over his son’s ransom, like this was an ordinary business deal, and he realizes he was–conditioned reflex.   Man doesn’t know himself at all.

The head FBI man says this is a cunning gang of professionals, and there’s something oddly familiar about their MO, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.   Well, I doubt the Harringtons would have those kinds of books in their library, anyway.  Herbert says it’s interesting that Modus Operandi and Method of Operations have the same initials.   He’s taking all this rather well, you must admit.

That night, Jimmy escapes while the gang watches TV on a battery-operated set.  It’s easy.   Almost too easy.   But then he realizes that it’s cold, and it’s raining, and he can’t see even see the dirt road leading to the main road, and maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.   Whatever kinds of stories he’s been reading, it seems they have their drawbacks in terms of practical application as well.

So he walks back into the house–he was supposed to be sleeping upstairs–in a locked room.  Everyone is startled, and they start grabbing for their Mickey Mouse masks, because he’s not supposed to see their faces.  Dortmunder is more concerned with how he got out, but when he starts interrogating the kid, May immediately takes Jimmy’s side, starts fussing over him like a mother hen, and the mystery of his Houdini-like escape remains forever unsolved.

Their cover has been blown now–the masks were really uncomfortable anyway–but in exchange for getting to stay up and watch a movie, Jimmy promises he’ll never identify them to the police.   It’s The Bride of Frankenstein–when I was twelve, I’d have promised anything to stay up and watch that, though Channel 9 usually showed the Universal horror pics on Saturday mornings, anyway.   Jimmy starts telling them about James Whale’s innovative use of camera angles–I probably wouldn’t have done that at age twelve, but I did know who James Whale was, because I read a lot of monster movie books–it was very sad that he drowned in his pool–the books were a bit vague about that part.  I digress once more.

Kelp, still stuck in his book, keeps his mask on a lot longer than the rest, but finally relents.  This living out a fictional story in reality thing is not as easy as he thought.   But all that’s left is getting the money–that should be a cinch!

So they tell Mr. Harrington to get on the road, with the notion of course being that they’ll call him and have him drop the money the way it happens in the Parker book.   But there’s a small problem.  The limo phone is busy.   For a long time.  Well, he is missing a day at the office for this, you know–there’s a lot of important work he needs to get done, and he brought it with him, and he’s using the phone in the limo to make business calls.  A man is allowed to do that in his own car, surely.  By the time Mrs. Murch finally reaches him, he’s all the way to the Delaware Water Gap.  A scenic wonder, as is well known.  He’d never been there before.  Never had the time.  So it’s not a total waste.

There are other problems–they are using Interstate 80, and according to the book, they have to find an exit that has no people or buildings near it.  There is no such exit on I-80, and Dortmunder thinks darkly to himself that he bets there’s no such exit along the Northern State Parkway on Long Island, which is what’s used in Child Heist“The writer had just been making things easy for himself.”   

Maybe my favorite scene in the book occurs in this chapter–Murch’s Mom, being the one picked to make the ransom calls, is trying to reach Harrington from a pay phone by a Burger King.  She drove there in a Plymouth Roadrunner her son thoughtfully stole for her.  But these bikers are outside the restaurant (technically, that’s what Burger Kings are) eating lunch, revving their engines, and making so much noise she can’t possibly have a civil ransom-related discussion with anyone.   What on earth can this helpless old lady do, faced with such inconsiderate ruffians?

Murch’s Mom, leaving the phone off the hook, stepped out of the booth and went over to the Roadrunner.  She had seen tools on the back seat; yes, there was a nice big monkey wrench.  She picked it up, hefted it, and went over to stand in front of the motorcyclists, who were sitting on their throbbing machines, filling their faces with whoppers.  She didn’t say anything; not that it would have been possible in any event.  She stood looking at them.  She thumped the monkey wrench gently into the palm of her left hand.  She lifted it, thumped it gently again, lifted it, thumped it, lifted it, thumped it.

They became aware of her.  Their eyes followed the small movements of the monkey wrench.  They looked at one another, and they looked at Murch’s Mom’s face.  Methodically, without any appearance of undue haste but nevertheless efficiently, they stuffed their mouths with the rest of their whoppers, packed their pockets with french fries, tied their Cokes to their gas tanks with little leather straps, and drove away.

Nobody fucks with Murch’s Mom.  Not even Murch.  And now I better show a picture of her car, before she gets mad at me.

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(You can think what you like, but I think the Roadrunner is a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones).

So after every last possible thing that could have gone wrong has gone wrong (up to and including the Harrington limo being stopped for speeding by an overzealous state trooper who can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the chauffeur is an undercover FBI agent who likes to drive really fast), they get to the right overpass, and Harrington almost throws his briefcase full of business documents that he shouldn’t have had with him to begin with over the side, but it’s the suitcase of money that goes over–and right onto Dortmunder’s head, knocking him out cold.

But they have the loot!   It worked!   What can possibly go wrong now?   Well, for one thing, the book didn’t mention that the FBI has little tracking devices they can put into things like suitcases, and everyone, Herbert Harrington included, is amazed these people managed to find an actual abandoned farmhouse that has not been turned into a posh country home already, but that’s not important now–a small army of G-Men has surrounded the Dortmunder Gang’s criminal redoubt, and will move in at sunrise, because Feds read books too, and that’s how these things are done.

(Perhaps now is the time to mention that the kidnappers in The Snatchers didn’t find an abandoned farmhouse on Long Island–they rented a summer cottage on the beach in the off-season.  I’ve gone through three Lionel White novels while researching this piece–no expense was spared–not an abandoned farmhouse in sight–it’s more of a David Goodis thing, wouldn’t you say?  Or, for that matter, a Richard Stark thing.  This isn’t a Lionel White parody.  Perhaps in part because there’s not enough of a style there to hang a parody on.  Oh, that was mean).

Jimmy escapes again–he’s grown somewhat fond of these strange people, but the weather has improved, and it’s time to go.  He did get to enjoy watching The Thing (1949, credited to Christian Nyby, probably directed by Howard Hawks) with them, so that’s something.

And as he leaves the house, better prepared for his escape, he hears the FBI men whispering to each other in the dark.  He thinks about it.  He goes back inside to warn the gang.  Dortmunder still wants to know how this damn kid gets out of a locked room so easy, but there’s no time for that now.  They sneak through the enemy lines, and camp out in the woods all night, cold and wet, watching Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz, Jimmy would you please give the screen credits a rest already?).

Jimmy is still lecturing them about camera angles as the sun rises.  It’s time for them to find a car and get back to the city, but Jimmy asks if they can’t please wait until the movie is over?  It’s very well done!  “I’m almost willing,” Dortmunder said.  “I’d like to see something well done.”   He really can be such a Debbie Downer, sometimes.

Kelp, as we know, must always steal the automobiles of doctors, because doctors, being so aware of their own mortality, make sure they have the most comfortable life-enhancing vehicles.  But in this remote area, all he can manage is a van from a local veterinary practice that smells of sick dog.   They’re all ready to throw up by the time they get back to New York.  They drop Jimmy off at Eighth Ave. and 42nd St.  He can get to his psychiatrist’s office and call his dad from there.  He waves goodbye, and tells them not to feel bad.

Uh-oh.

Yeah, he took the ransom money.   Got it out of the suitcase when they weren’t looking, and stuffed it into his cute little Air France bag.  Didn’t think of that angle, did you, Richard Stark?   And just to add insult to injury, as rich people come out of the womb knowing how to do like no one else, he leaves them a goddam tip–a thousand bucks–two hundred apiece.  And that’s how the caper crumbles.

And next chapter jumps ahead about a year.   Richard Stark (the one who lives in Dortmunder’s world) is contacting his attorney.  He wants to sue the makers of a film called Kid Stuff, which is clearly based on his novel Child Heist, and is furthermore an irreverent burlesque of it.   This Dortmunderverse version of Stark is no more indulgent of such frivolities than the one we know.   He demands retribution.

But he shall not get it, because as his lawyer informs him, the director and writer of this film was one James Harrington, thirteen year old Hollywood wunderkind, whose rich father financed his first film to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand smackers (give or take a thousand).  It’s all based on his own real-life kidnapping, and is therefore legally bulletproof.   Because you can’t copyright real-life events.   Remember?

See, when the elder Harrington finally spoke to his son over the phone, prior to his release, he felt a surge of some emotion I suppose one must refer to as love. He’s been very distant and distracted the whole time, but he finally realizes he really did want his son back more than anything, and when the FBI guy asks him if he wants to hear the tape of the conversation played back, he says no–he’s afraid he might start weeping, and he doesn’t want that.

But once his admirably resourceful youngest son and heir presented him with the ransom money–then no doubt innocently raised the notion of making a movie about the whole thing–well, what proud father could say no?  And a father Herbert Harrington is, in his own constipated way.  And Jimmy Harrington achieves his career goal at roughly the same time he achieves puberty (convenient!).  Another identity puzzle solved–kind of.  Some people are born to win.   And others–well…….

The book ends with Dortmunder and Kelp–it’s been a year since they’ve spoken, for obvious reasons–and this time Dortmunder accidentally screws up a heist Kelp is pulling.  And he feels really bad about it.   Maybe he’s been too harsh on Kelp.  Nobody’s perfect, after all.   Perhaps those words will come back to haunt him in the near future, but in the meantime he and Kelp decide to go see a new movie together.   They don’t know anything much about it, but it’s supposed to be really funny.  Care to make a guess?

(I can make a little guess of my own–Westlake was probably writing the original screenplay for a movie called Hot Stuff right around the same time he was working on Jimmy The Kid, and that movie actually got made a few years later, and I’ll be reviewing it next, just to link in with this book.  I got the DVD, so I might as well.  My expectations are suitably low.   They did not shoot the script Westlake sent them.  Well, he wasn’t financing the film, was he?)

We are a race of storytellers, all of us–the only animal on this planet that is obsessed with the unreal (“The Dream Animal,” Loren Eiseley called us, and he got that right).  We don’t all make a living at it, but we all do it.   We tell stories based (often rather loosely) on things that really happened.   Then we start basing things we do in real life on the stories we made up–an endless feedback loop.  And when we run out of things that happened to us, we base new stories on stories somebody else made up, which are based on stories somebody else made up, and we try to add bits and pieces of ourselves to these stories to make them our own, and the result is that our identities are constantly trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, original and copy.

Professional criminals exist in real life–then people write stories, make movies, based on what they’ve heard about these criminals and their exciting lifestyle.   Then the criminals read/see these stories, and think “Hey, that’s pretty neat!” and start adjusting their real-life behavior and appearance to be more like the fiction.  And then you start losing track of where the story ends and the reality begins.

And some people make obscene amounts of money feeding this hunger we have for stories.   And others use stories to tell us subtle truths about ourselves–and maybe even make us laugh at ourselves now and then.  Because we are one mixed up bunch of monkeys, and we might as well get a few laughs out of it, no?

And that’s all I have to say about Jimmy The Kid.  Except that earlier in the book, when May feeds Dortmunder all his favorite dishes to make him do this kidnapping job, one of the items she prepares is Boysenberry Jell-o.  And it does not seem any such Jell-o flavor ever existed.  

Just my little contribution to distinguishing reality from fantasy.  Feel free to make your own in the comments section.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Jimmy The Kid

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Holding the mask out from his mouth with his free hand, Kelp said “Let’s not scare the kid.  Nobody’s gonna get hurt.”  It was a line word for word from Child Heist, which Kelp had been rehearsing for two weeks now.

According to the book, the chauffeur was supposed to ask Kelp what he wanted.  Instead of which, Van Gelden pointed at the pistol and said, “Scare the kid?”  Then he gestured a thumb over his shoulder and said, “Scare that kid?  Hah!”

This book enjoys a rather unique distinction among the Westlake canon.  In 1978, Westlake’s good friend Brian Garfield (who I talked about in two recent articles here)  published an anthology of pieces in which crime fiction writers described personal encounters with actual crimes.  Westlake’s contribution was an imaginary account of him at a fashionable cocktail party, where the only food available is fancy potato chips, regaling bewildered onlookers with the story of how he came to write Jimmy The Kid.  It’s funny, clever, and more than a touch convoluted, as the origins of popular fictions so often are.   I strongly suggest you obtain, have you not already, a copy of The Getaway Car, and read this fascinating piece.  Save me a lot of trouble, for one thing.

But perhaps you expect me to save you some trouble?  Okay, the upshot is that the story of this book was inspired by the story of an actual kidnapping which was inspired by yet another book.  Namely The Snatchers, aka Rapt, by Lionel White, a native New Yorker, who wrote a lot of taut suspenseful crime books, often published in paperback by outfits like Gold Medal, many of which became movies, and the movies were rarely very faithful to the books.  Sounds familiar, huh?

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(Westlake and several other sources refer to the book as The Snatch, but I can’t find any edition with that title.)

Like many another Lionel White outing, this one much later got turned into an exceptionally unfaithful film adaptation (with Marlon Brando, no less).   But it is probably better remembered today for the fact that a pair of rather impressionable French criminals decided to use the Serie Noire translation of it as the blueprint for (successfully) kidnapping a toddler who happened to be the grandson of the head of Peugeot.

You know, Peugeot?  Cars, bicycles, etc.  The cars were never that common here, but Lt. Columbo drove one on TV.  First car I can remember is my dad’s little dark blue Peugeot (don’t ask me which model, I was about the same age as the kidnap victim at the time).  My mom later said it was his rebellion against adult responsibility, or suburban conformity, or something.   You know how mothers are.

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Not only was the boy not harmed (because the book specifically said not to do that), he actually seems to have had a rather interesting time–the elder Peugeots, having received some very threatening missives about what would happen to little Eric if they didn’t pay up, were not so amused.

And the kidnappers, not having had the foresight to get a book telling them how to behave after scoring big on a kidnap caper, threw their ill-gotten gains around like water, made snide allusions in bars as to their daring enterprise, and they both went to prison in short order.   Life may imitate art up to a point, but then comes Murphy’s Law.   Or, if you prefer, The Dortmunder Effect.

The idea of adapting a crime adapted from a novel was not originally Westlake’s (in fact, it wasn’t even originally the French kidnappers’ idea; see The League of Gentlemen).  He was approached by some film producers who wanted to do a story along similar lines.  Not the Peugeot kidnapping, but something like it.  Westlake gave it some thought, and wrote a treatment which tried to change the crime to counterfeiting, which didn’t work.  So he changed it back to kidnapping, which reportedly worked better, but the studio head, a grandfather himself, didn’t see the humor in the concept for some odd reason.

The movie was scrapped.  But as had happened twice already in the past, Westlake had retained the book rights, and eventually decided (with encouragement from his then-girlfriend, Abby Adams) to try and turn the story of a kidnapping adapted from a novel back into a novel. Art imitating Life imitating Art.

(Anyway, as is mentioned in this very book, you can’t copyright real-life events.  Anybody could do a story about the Peugeot kidnapping, or a story inspired by it.  Even though it was itself directly inspired by a book that is, far as I know, still under copyright.   Literary plagiarism laws only apply to fictional events and persons.  You can plagiarize any story you want to, as long as you’re living it, as opposed to writing it.  Westlake thought this was very funny).

He’d been down this same exact road already, with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   That comic kidnapping caper was a creative failure, in spite of some good writing, mainly because the characters had poorly defined voices, perhaps because they’d been written as film characters who had to be played by popular film stars, and something was lost in translation between mediums.  Here, he’d remake the story basically from scratch, and instead of using the characters from the two treatments he’d written for the movie that never got made, he’d use characters with very strong voices that he’d already featured in two previous novels–eighteen if you count Parker.

Yeah, this is the Dortmunder novel where Parker has a cameo as a fictional character in Dortmunder’s world, and Stark has a epistolary cameo as his pissed-off creator.   That, I think, is how most people tend to remember it today, and that’s why a good first edition can run you a bit more than other Dortmunders from this general time period.  Overlapping fanbases.  But if you’re a Stark reader who ran out of novels and is hoping to find a new Parker heist contained in the pages of this book, you’re in for a disappointment.  Because this isn’t really Parker, it’s only three chapters, and it’s not very good–the Parker chapters, I mean.

It only makes sense.  If Westlake had come up with a really great idea for a Parker novel, he’d use it to write another Parker novel.  Possible this is a rejected idea he pulled out of his Parker slushpile, but I don’t think so.  We know where he got the kidnapping angle from. And we know something else–Parker–the real Parker–would never get involved in a job like this.  Kidnapping isn’t his line.  And kidnapping a child?  Stark wouldn’t have it.  But Stark’s not pulling the strings here.  Stark’s taken a long coffee break (black, of course), leaving Westlake not really knowing how to write in that voice anymore.

I think there is some attempt to contrast the Westlake style with Stark’s here, but it’s not that effective, because as I explained a few weeks back, in the course of writing the hybridized Westlake/Stark epic that is Butcher’s Moon, he’d somehow slipped out of the groove, as far as Stark was concerned.  It would be quite a while before he got back in that groove, and he’s faking it to beat the band here.

And that’s perfectly fine, because this isn’t a Parker novel–it’s a Dortmunder, and one of the better ones, I think.  Not everyone agrees–it’s certainly not a classic of the series, since kidnapping isn’t Dortmunder’s line either, and for obvious reasons he’s not planning the job this time (much to his disgust)–but I was shaking with laughter at my local, as I finished it over tacos and beer.  And I picked up on some things I missed the first time through.  It’s a funny, insightful, and deceptively simple little book, with a lot of layers to it.  And a fine addition to a rather odd little sub-genre–the comic kidnapping story.

I mean, kidnapping shouldn’t be funny, should it?  It happens all the time in real life, and the kidnap victims and their families are rarely laughing about it.  And yet something about it excites us–even the word ‘kidnap’ itself, which originally meant exactly what it sounds like–child theft.  We all have some kidnappers in our family trees–just as so many of our great national epics are about armed robberies of some kind or another, as I explained in my review of The Score, you can just as easily go back through ancient mythology and find one long series of colorful (and often sexual) abductions.

Hell, that’s how Rome was reputedly founded, with those Sabine women, only they didn’t call that kidnapping at the time.  But why is that story so unexpectedly funny, and later the source of a Hollywood musical comedy with great choreography?  Because the women want to be abducted.  Because they end up having a good time, and wanting to stay with their abductors.  So that’s the secret to making it humorous, as opposed to suspenseful, or tragic.  Turn the tables.  Dramatic reversal.

The funniest kidnapping story of all time debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907, and Westlake knew damn well he was never topping that one.  The inner dust jacket for the first edition up top says otherwise, but it lies.  Westlake came up with a splendid variation on a theme, make no mistake–but some things in this world can’t be improved upon.

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How long since you last read it?   It had been quite a long while for me, and I savored every paragraph, every last impeccably chosen word.  As close to perfection as any mortal can get, but the message is very simple, isn’t it?  “Boys are a lot more trouble than you think.”

Reading it as a child, you think “This kid is great!”   Reading it as an adult, you realize your loyalties have somehow inexorably shifted, and you marvel at the stoic saintly patience of the kidnappers.  You look at some banal Hollywood re-rendering of it, like those Home Alone movies, and you yearn for something heavy to fall on Macauley Culkin and put an end to his tow-headed malevolence (mercifully, adolescence eventually achieved the same result without the need to resort to bloodshed).

But from either generational perspective, it’s funny, because much against their will, the abductors have become the abductees.  Because they could never really harm the kid, they are subject to being seriously harmed by him.  And he has no intention of ever letting them go.   They’re just too much fun.  I think The Joker said that to Batman once.

Westlake said in that piece he wrote for Garfield that he didn’t want to use a child the age of Eric Peugeot at the time he was grabbed because an infant kidnapping is ‘inimical to comedy’–the Coen brothers kind of proved him wrong with Raising Arizona, but of course that was abduction for love, not money.  And it had the aesthetic sensibility of a Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoon.  But it’s still the same basic idea–you create comedy in a story about a kidnapping by creating sympathy for the kidnappers.  They did not know what they were getting into.

And in fact, Eric Peugeot said later he was fascinated by his kidnappers, entranced by them–he’d never been around two grown men so much before, let alone men of this class, and he watched them avidly.   He was certainly scared at points–not traumatized in the least.  But he was no real trouble to them, being past the terrible two’s, yet still too young to ask a lot of silly questions, or get up to any serious mischief (okay, I hear parents of three year olds objecting now, but he wouldn’t be trying to scalp them, would he?).

The only problem the kidnappers had was their own stupidity once the kidnapping was concluded.  The kid was just quietly curious about them.  Okay, that’s not funny, or at least not the right kind of funny.   Need an older victim.  Perhaps older than his years?   Can’t make him too much like O. Henry’s kid.

P.G. Wodehouse did several stories about child kidnappings, but those were early works, before he’d arrived at the brilliance of Jeeves, Mulliner, Uncle Fred, or Blandings.  His gift for comic language was developing rapidly, but his grasp of characterization and plotting was still in embryonic form.   So those books have dated rapidly, and the kidnappings are treated rather offhandedly, lost in the shuffle of too many implausible story threads, and too much forced banter (like Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, only worse).  Even Plum had to start somewhere.

If you’re going to tell a story like this, to make it funny you have to build on the logic of it, not just throw it in for a lark.  So O. Henry, that most consummate of craftsmen, would be Westlake’s model here, not Wodehouse.   Have to match the tool to the task.  And now my tool had best be the plot synopsis.

Having repeatedly failed as a heister, Dortmunder is trying life as a mere burglar, going down a fire escape (there’s going to be a lot of those fire escapes) to break into a furrier’s shop, and then he hears a voice calling him from above–is it the Lord?   No, it’s just Andy Kelp.  (Interesting though, that Dortmunder, as opposed to Parker, seems to have some sort of half-hearted religious notions in his head, no doubt put there by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, who raised him as an orphaned youth).

Turns out Dortmunder was on the wrong floor of the building (he’s never going to be much of a burglar–made for bigger things), and to have Kelp point out his mistake adds insult to injury.  Kelp opens the door of the shop for him, and he won’t even look at the furs on the racks–Kelp has ruined yet another job for him.  He’s just doing to get into his stolen VW Microbus and leave.  But their squabbling has roused the whole neighborhood, and they have to get out of there, and he accidentally bloodied Kelp’s nose in his wrath, so he lets Kelp ride with him.  And this is a mistake of course.  Because Kelp has an idea.   Kelp always has some damn fool idea.  But this one is weird, even for him.

With the hand that wasn’t holding his nose, Kelp reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a paperback book.  “It’s this,” he said.

Dortmunder was approaching an intersection with a green light.  He made his turn, drove a block, and stopped at a red light.  Then he looked at the book Kellp was waving.  He said, “What’s that?”

“It’s a book.”

“I know it’s a book.  What is it?”

“It’s for you to read,” Kelp said.  “Here, take it.”  He was still staring at the roof and holding his hose, and he was merely waving the book in Dortmunder’s direction.

So Dortmunder took the book.  The title was Child Heist, and the author was somebody named Richard Stark.  “Sounds like crap,” Dortmunder said.

Dortmunder takes the book, figuring what the hell.  Kelp’s next errand is to go find Stan Murch and give him a copy of the same book–he tells Murch (whose reading is mainly confined to newspapers and car magazines)  the guy in it will remind him of Dortmunder.  And Murch also takes the book, also figuring what the hell.  Kelp says to make sure Murch’s Mom reads it as well.  What the hell?

Then Kelp shows up at Dortmunder and May’s apartment, along with Murch, to make the pitch.  Kelp’s idea is simple–and not original to him, but how’s he to know about the French guys?  See, he got pulled in by some cops out in the sticks a few days, a bum rap, they didn’t have anything on him, which isn’t to say he was innocent, but cops should know better than to put a crimp in a man’s schedule over a bad arrest.  It’s unprofessional.

Anyway, the jail had a bunch of books donated by a local ladies club (heh) and a lot of them were these books about this armed robber named Parker, written by this Richard Stark person.  You may have heard of them.  Having nothing better to do, Kelp read the books, and was immediately captivated by the idea of a hardened criminal who pulls daring complex heists and never gets caught.

I already used the money quote from this chapter for my review of The Score (check it out, or just read the book), but basically Kelp is saying they should just do the plan from this book he particularly liked named Child Heist–which is about a kidnapping.  Just follow the same plan Parker and his associates employ, right down to the letter, and it’ll succeed, like it does in the book.  Why wouldn’t it?

He wants May and Murch’s Mom (she has a name, but it’s hardly ever used) to babysit the kid, which Murch’s Mom says is very sexist, while simultaneously conceding that Kelp and the other guys in the string would have no idea how to take care of a child.

May, who has no problem at all with crime as a modus vivendi, thinks it would be mean to frighten a little kid by taking him from his home and family.  Murch’s interest is predictably limited to the wide variety of motorized vehicles needed to pull this job.   Dortmunder says very little, brooding to himself, and then he suddenly says he never wants to see Kelp again.  He’s furious.  Because he’s the planner, and Kelp is bringing in this Stark guy, who probably never so much as knocked over a candy store in his life, as a ringer, to do his job!   He’s been outsourced!   And that’s not even a thing yet!

But as they all admitted earlier in the meeting, the problem here is that big cash scores are getting hard to find in this increasingly cash-free modern world (same problem Parker has been having in the dimension next-door).  Dortmunder has no better options at present, and he hates living off May and her meager supermarket salary (that she steals most of their food from her employer is neither here nor there).  He’s only really happy when he’s planning a big heist, and May knows that.  She likewise knows that because of his past offenses, if he gets caught stealing so much as a pack of Luckies for her he’s going back to prison for life, so he might as well pull something big.

May is also concerned that Kelp is so obsessed with pulling this job that he’ll do it without Dortmunder, and something will go horribly wrong, and the kid will get hurt, even though nobody wants that.  Somehow, hearing about this proposed federal crime has roused her maternal instincts.  So she fixes Dortmunder all his favorite dishes for dinner, and works on him, like only she can.  She explains to him that he’s still needed to make the plan in the book work in the real world.

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said.  “Don’t you see?  There’s  a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it.  You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her.  “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said.  “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands.  “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you.  The idea is–”

“I’m not shouting,” he said.  He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting.  Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,”  Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

(Godard liked it well enough.  You’re still mad at him, aren’t you, Mr. Westlake?  Him and that Boorman guy who said he liked to exploit writers, steal their ideas, and then discard them.   In public he said this, while adapting your book into a movie.  A movie you kind of liked, but a movie that bombed.  ‘The writer isn’t the writer.’   Sheesh.  These new filmmakers got no couth.   No wonder you’re so grumpy.  As to what Dortmunder has to do with the movies, probably better not to ask, but for those who must know, read my piece Dortmunder At The Movies. On this very blog. And don’t say you weren’t warned.  Back to the synopsis.)

So the gang all meet up at the O.J. Bar and Grill (this time the chatty barflies are two telephone repairmen about to get into a fight over the derivation of the word ‘spic’ to refer to Puerto Ricans), and Dortmunder grudgingly admits that the book could serve as a jumping off point, but it needs to be adapted.  See, talking like an aw-tour already!  And then we get a whole chapter of Child Heist, showing us Parker and some guy named Krauss scoping out potential kidnap victims.   Here’s how the Parker chapter begins:

When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars.  He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him.  There was no other furniture in the room, which had gray plaster walls from which patterned wallpaper had recently been stripped.  Curls of wallpaper lay against the molding in all the corners.  On the floor beside Krauss’ chair lay three apple cores.

And here’s how the Dortmunder chapter begins:

When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap.  “For Christ’s sake,” Dortmunder said.

And this is a recurring theme of the book–that in Parker’s world, every job goes smoothly, everyone’s a consummate pro, nothing ever goes wrong–and in Dortmunder’s world, it’s the exact opposite.  Westlake knew this was a rank oversimplfication–Parker, if anything, has worse luck than Dortmunder with his strings (only once would any of Dortmunder’s associates ever try to kill him), and he never once pulled a heist without something going seriously wrong, but here’s the thing–how can Westlake get that across to that very large section of the Dortmunder readership that has not read the Parker books?  Who may in fact assume they’re something Westlake dreamed up specifically for this story.

It ruins the sly meta-textual joke he’s making here if he brings in all those inconvenient nitpicky details.  So he doesn’t.  But for those of us who have read the Parkers, this can be irritating.   It’s still fun to read, mind you.  But we know it’s wrong.  It’s one of the less effectively executed gags, but still fascinating to read, for those who follow both series.   I don’t think it’s really meant as a commentary on the Stark books.  That’s not really what this book is about, contrasting Stark and Westlake, but it’s there, and it doesn’t quite come off, because Westlake can’t really write like Stark in this context.   Fortunately, he doesn’t have to.  There’s plenty else going on here.  Layer after layer, joke within joke.

So going by the book, they have to scope out limos from a handy lookout spot.  They need one with a built-in phone that routinely carries some rich kid to and from an appointment in Manhattan.   In Child Heist, ‘Parker’ and his buddies find a Lincoln that fits the bill nicely–Dortmunder & Co. find a Cadillac.  This leads to some confusion later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And the deceptively diminutive backseat occupant of said Cadillac is one Jimmy Harrington, twelve years of age, youngest son of a rich corporate lawyer, and boy genius.  So much so that he’s going to a psychiatrist in the city, to work out some of the personal issues that tend to arise when you’re smarter than all the kids in your class, and probably most of the adults you know as well.  Would it sound arrogant if I said I can relate?  Yeah, it probably would.  Never mind.  But something tells me Westlake related a whole lot.  In this specific regard, at least.  It’s not a rich kid’s fault that he’s rich.  It is, on the other hand, very much a psychiatrist’s fault that he is a psychiatrist.

Jimmy Harrington, lying on the black naugahyde couch in Dr. Schraubenzieher’s office, looking over at the pumpkin-colored drapes half-closed over the air-shaft window, said, “You know, for the past few weeks, every time I come into the city I keep having this feeling, somebody is watching me.”

“Mm hm?”

“A very specific kind of watching,” Jimmy said.  “I have this feeling, I’m somebody’s target. Like a sniper’s target.  Like the man in the tower in Austin, Texas.”

“Mm hm?”

“That’s obviously paranoid, of course,” Jimmy said.  “And yet it doesn’t truly have a paranoid feel about it.  I think I understand paranoid manifestations, and this seems somehow to be something else.  Do you have any ideas, Doctor?”

Though he responds with more than “Mm hm?” this time, the Doctor seems more concerned with scoring a rare intellectual point over his precocious patient than in getting to the bottom of Jimmy’s actually quite well-founded anxieties.  But you get the gist of the character here–Jimmy has a first-rate brain and tremendous intellectual curiosity, bolstered by extensive reading, and no doubt the best private schools and tutors money can buy.  He seems to have no friends his own age, and this doesn’t seem to bother him much, but the boy could use some seasoning.   Like a Captains Courageous kind of deal.   Only tougher on the captains than on the kid, as matters shall arrange themselves.

Jimmy seems to me like a much younger and far less irritable reworking of Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the main protagonist of  Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   But Westlake had a hard time identifying with the spoiled wealthy Kelly, even though Kelly’s physical appearance and interests seemed to be somewhat modeled after Westlake himself.  Jimmy, being younger–I’d assume some of Westlake’s own boys were around Jimmy’s age, or had been recently, or would be soon–comes off much better than Kelly.  Westlake often did wonder, I think, what life might have been like for him if he’d had all the advantages growing up.   Better in some ways, worse in others.   There’s always a trade-off.

Oh, and one more thing–Jimmy knows what he wants to do for a living.  At age twelve.  Okay, in this I can not even slightly relate.  But wait until you hear it–he wants to direct.  As in movies.   Wants to be an aw-tour.  And somewhere, the God of Dortmunder’s Universe chuckles wickedly, and the net begins to close.  And I say see you next week, kids.  I’ll be watching you–well, those of you that post comments, anyway.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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