“I wanted to read it again. I wanted to see if maybe Kelp had a good idea after all.”
“Kelp with a good idea.” He finished his Jell-O and reached for his coffee.
“Well, he was smart to bring it around to you,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to do it right without you.”
“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.”
“So they call the director the aw-tour,” she explained, “because that’s French for writer.”
“I don’t know what we’re talking about,” Dortmunder said, “but I think I’m getting caught up in it.
“Hey,” she said, “where am I?”
She could have answered the question herself. She was, to judge from appearances, in an especially squalid shack. The shack itself was fairly close to a highway, judging from the traffic noises. If she had to guess, she would place the location somewhere below the southern edge of the city, probably a few hundred yards off Highway 130 near the river. There were plenty of empty fishing shacks there, she remembered, and it was a fair bet this was one of them.
“Now just take it easy, Carole,” the thin man said. “You take it easy and nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“You kidnapped me!”
“You just take it easy and–”
She squealed with joy. “This is too much! You’ve actually kidnapped me. Oh, this is wild! Did you call my old man yet?”
“Will you let me listen when you do?” She started to giggle. “I’d give anything to see his face when you tell him. He’ll split. He’ll just fall apart.”
They were both staring at her, open-mouthed. The younger man said, “You sound happy about it.”
“Happy? Of course I’m happy. This is the most exciting thing that ever happened to me!”
“But your father–”
“I hope you soak him good,” she went on. “He’s the cheapest old man on earth. He wouldn’t pay a nickel to see a man go over the Falls. How much are you going to ask?”
“Never mind,” the thin man said.
“I just hope it’s enough. He can afford plenty.”
I should probably explain.
Not long ago, a book crossed my desk at the library. Portraits of Murder, a hardcover collection of short stories from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (still very much an extant publication) which debuted in 1956, and provided many a much-needed check for Donald Westlake and his partners in crime fiction. Many of the stories in Westlake anthologies first saw print there, and of course I checked to see if his name featured in the table of contents. No dice. Possibly because Mr. Westlake’s best stuff for AHMM was already spoken for, or didn’t fit the profile for whatever the editors were looking for.
But two stories by Lawrence Block, the first of which was quite near the front of the book, and was about a kidnapped child. Well, minor. Well, she’s seventeen. And precocious. And sexy. And not to be underestimated. It’s Block.
This brief exercise in sardonic suspense (less than ten full pages in the book) entitled The Most Unusual Snatch, appeared in the April 1967 issue. That’s the cover up top. Next to a French edition of a 1974 Westlake novel, the identity of which my most irregular regulars shall no doubt deduce without any difficulty. That is also about a kidnapped minor, but younger, and male, and not at all sexy, but still–precocious. And a bane to all would-be abductors. Well, they both read O. Henry, right?
Man, been so long since I did a synopsis here:
Carole Butler, pretty teenaged daughter of a wealthy doctor, is kidnapped by two men. One tall skinny sourpuss named Howie who fully intends to kill her once they get the money, more or less just because he thinks that’s what you do when you kidnap somebody. One younger (and to Carole’s eyes, not unattractive) thug named Ray, who is on the fence about killing her, and whose physical description matches up pretty well with Block’s. (One of the most attractive things to her about him is that he’s not terribly bright, at least where females are concerned, as if any male ever has been, but there are degrees.)
As you can see up top, she’s delighted at first. She had fantasized about faking her own kidnapping, and now it’s happened. She hates her father (who seems besotted with her, no mother in sight, perhaps best not to inquire further), would love to see him lose his shirt getting her back.
She’s full of helpful suggestions for her not over-competent captors, even tells them dad’s got a hundred grand stashed in a safe in the basement at all times, and that he wouldn’t want the IRS to ever get wind of that, probably wouldn’t even call the cops if he got her back in one piece. Maybe even if he didn’t, but she doesn’t intend to let it come to that.
Howie is the main problem. Her charms won’t work on him. But Ray’s an easy touch, wants to touch her, so they enjoy a quick canoodle while Howie’s away. She’s scared, obviously–but enjoying the danger. And the sex. And calculating her odds all the while. She’s a bit crestfallen when he ties her up again afterwards (Shades of Mavis in The Rare Coin Score, published in ’67 as well–but Carole is no Mavis, and Ray’s sure as hell no Parker.)
Here’s where it gets interesting–well, it’s Block, so interesting all the way through, but I mean for my purposes, since I’m no less conniving than Carole in my own way. The thing that worries Howie is the pick-up. Carole doesn’t think her old man will call the cops, but if he does, they’ll be waiting to grab him when he goes to get the cash (and then what might happen to her?) She has anticipated this wrinkle–and has the answer. She pretends not to know where the hideout is, but says she knows the perfect spot for the transfer, if they just happen to be near the south end of town.
She told him about it–the overpass on Route 130 at the approach to the turnpike. They could have her father drive onto the pike, toss the money over the side of the overpass when he reached it, and they could be waiting down below to pick it up. Any cops who were with him would be stuck up there on the turnpike and they could get away clean.
“It’s not bad,” Ray said.
“It’s perfect,” Howie added. “You thought that up all by yourself?”
“Well, I got the idea from a really super-duper movie.”
Howie is so struck with admiration for her devious criminal mind, he makes a little slip, saying it’s a shame and all, then pretends he didn’t say what they all know he just said. She knows there’s no way she’s getting out of this thrill ride alive–Howie’s dead set on tying off loose ends. Ray’s too weak to stand up to him.
She does a brilliant job terrifying her father over the phone, making up two additional gang members, then explaining to the puzzled crooks that she’s laying a false trail for the cops. While Howie’s off getting the cash, she talks Ray into letting her go–the idea is, they’ll make it look like she hit him from behind with the revolver butt, and got away. She’ll give phony descriptions, the police will be looking for three men and a woman, everybody wins. Ray, possibly thinking they can meet up for more nookie later on, hands her the automatic and tells her where to hit him, make it look good.
She promptly shoots him dead with the business end. Then the astonished Howie, returning with the loot, so elated about what he thinks is the biggest score of his career, but he was sadly mistaken there. Then she cleans up the crime scene a bit, so nobody can connect her to it.
She hikes to a payphone (remember them?), calls dad, tells him a story about inter-gang violence, and somehow the two survivors left her alive, taking the money with them. He comes to pick her up, sees the bodies. He says it’s best they not call the police, too many questions. He only gave them ten thousand (he says)–it’s just money. All that matters is her. She smiles, hugs him, and laughs to herself, thinking what she’s going to do with the hundred thousand she buried near the shack.
I don’t think Patricia Highsmith would have been ashamed to call this one her own. Only she never wrote for the pulps (got her start in comic books), her Carole would have pretended to enjoy sex with Ray, and the father would have probably died too. We all have our quirks. In short, it’s a cracking good yarn in this vein, and no doubt Mr. Westlake thought so too.
So when I wrote my review of Jimmy the Kid, I didn’t know about this story, so I talked about the influence that was obvious to everyone (The Ransom of Red Chief), and the one Westlake himself wryly referenced in a piece he wrote for a 1978 anthology Brian Garfield put together; namely the kidnapping of French automotive heir Eric Peugeot, where the kidnappers used a Lionel White crime novel called The Snatchers as their blueprint, and it all worked out fine until they got their money, and started spending it. The book hadn’t told them what to do after you get the money, since the kidnappers in the novel never reached that point.
As I observed then, Westlake’s novel ended up being about the dysfunctionally symbiotic relationship between fiction and reality; how each inspires the other, but they never do quite connect. The kidnap victim was somewhere between the quietly fascinated (and very young) Master Peugeot, who had never really spent time with grown men before, and the western-crazed red-headed hooligan from O. Henry’s story, who made two grown men cry uncle.
It was also one of the funniest things he ever wrote, and having now reread it yet again, I’m even more inclined to think it’s a high-water mark for the Dortmunder series.
But see, I assumed the notion that the ‘victim’ would be not merely enjoying the experience but using it to his own coldly calculated advantage was Westlake’s contribution–as you can see, not necessarily so.
That Westlake read his close friend and sometimes collaborator’s story, in a magazine he himself contributed to multiple times, cannot be reasonably questioned. Nor can the multiple confluences between the two, up to and including the means whereby the kidnappers arrange the ransom drop-off via a highway overpass, that Carole says she got from a movie, but damned if I can figure out which flick that might have been, and that reference strikes me as a bit of a wink from Mr. Block–only I don’t have the context to know who he’s winking at, or why. (Definitely not The Master of Suspense.)
But in the story, it doesn’t quite work, does it? If Carole’s old man knows in advance that’s the plan, and he has gone to the law, there’ll be cops lying in wait beneath the highway, as well as above. Now as it happens, for purely self-centered reasons Carole herself foresaw, her father never did call the cops, so it all worked out fine (for her), and maybe it’s just her way of lulling her captors off guard, or she’s actually having fun planning her own kidnap, as she used to fantasize doing–but either way, it’s a plot hole, since Howie at least should spot the logical flaw that they’d have to tell Dr. Butler where to drop the money before he left the house with it. No mention of any phone in his car.
Phones in private limos began to become a thing in the 50’s, but only the very rich had them. Carole’s dad isn’t that flush (no chauffeur), and is clearly a bit of a skinflint anyway. By the 70’s, they were less of a big deal, service was pretty good, and a partner in a big law firm might have one just to do business while being driven around. Still rare enough that even the FBI didn’t have much expertise in putting a trace on one (though they would have other ways of tracing where the money went).
And so the Richard Stark of Dortmunder’s universe writes a novel called Child Heist, that Andy Kelp discovers doing a short stretch in a county lock-up. In this ersatz escapade, Parker and his cohorts figure out how to make the highway drop work for them–find a vantage point where they can watch for limos entering Manhattan, scope out one that is regularly transporting a rich kid in and out of the city, that also has a mobile phone line. Then tell whoever’s coughing up the ransom to use that car when setting out with the money. They’ll get in touch along the way.
(It’s never explained how they got the number, since that chapter of the nonexistent novel isn’t included in Jimmy the Kid) but given the relatively small number of mobile lines in a given area, probably not that hard, and why quibble if you’re having fun?)
The cops won’t have enough time to get their Duckbundys lined up (if you read the book, you’ll see what I did there), and by the time they figure out what’s happening, the gang will have the money, and return the kid unharmed, because that way the law doesn’t come after them as hard and parents don’t write angry letters to ‘Richard Stark.’ Another perfect score by Parker!
(Except I have to wonder why the fictional Parker of Dortmunder’s dimension doesn’t have problems with double-dealing accomplices, lousy drivers, unstable significant others, unforeseeable snafus, etc. Nothing goes wrong, everybody does his job right. It sounds kind of humdrum and routine, just another day at the office, a clockwork kidnap, but that’s what Kelp loves about it. And Westlake loves sending up his own alter-ego.)
So this fixes the problem in Block’s story, while creating many more to throw in the path of Dortmunder & Co. Whatever seems straighforward in Parker’s world is fraught with frustration in Dortmunder’s. Like what if the frightened father is also a confirmed workaholic, and you didn’t tell him to keep the line free?
At the Burger King, Murch’s Mom dialled the operator, and yelled, “I want to call a mobile unit in a private car!”
“Well, you don’t have to yell about it,” the operator said.
“You have trouble on your line,” the operator said. “Hang up and dial again.”
“What? I can’t hear you with all these motorcycles!”
“Oh,” said the operator. “You want to call a mobile unit?”
“Do you want to call a mobile unit?”
“Why do you think I’m putting up with all this?”
“Do you have the number?”
Harrington was saying. “Now in the matter of that prospectus. I think our posture before the SEC is that while the prospectus did speak of home sites, it does not at any point say anything about a community. A community would necessarily imply the existence of available water. A home site would not. Country retreat, weekend cottage, that sort of thing. Have Bill Timmins see what he can root up by way of precedents.”
“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.
“Then call Danforth in Oklahoma and tell him that Marseilles crowd just will not budge on the three-for-two stock swap. Tell him my suggestion is that we threaten to simply bow out on the railroad end. of it and carry our venture capital elsewhere. If he approves, try and arrange a phone conference with Grandin for nine-thirty tomorrow morning, New York time. If Danforth has a problem, give him my home number, and tell him I should be there in, oh, two hours at the very most.”
“Yes, sir,” said the secretary.
“But the line’s busy!” the operator said.
“Well, try again!” Murch’s Mom said.
(I half-suspect Mr. Westlake scanned some of the Get Smart novels produced in the 60’s by William Johnston, which at times were even funnier than the TV show, featured as a recurring character the snarky operator Max had to deal with whenever he made a call via footwear, and demonstrated how a phone that traveled around with you might not always be an unqualified asset to your endeavors. But you know, great minds.)
And as is the case with any tightly plotted scheme, even the slightest deviation leads to chaos. (Also the case with tightly plotted train schedules, as I learned during a trip to Germany.) A comedy of errors ensues, but I’ve written about that already.
I think the money transfer is Westlake’s way of crediting Block, since nobody who had read both stories could easily miss the parallel there–a sort of backhanded credit, inadmissible in a court of law (since Block probably got the idea from somewhere else also).
But the primary point of influence is between Carole Butler and Jimmy Harrington, who are not at all similar in age, gender, or characterization, but who share nonetheless several key attributes, not least of which a desire to not merely escape their abductors, but to profit from their credulity. (And of course, each ends up with the ransom money from daddy, though Jimmy by somewhat more honorable means, and at least he left a tip.)
It all plays out very differently, since Westlake’s novel isn’t written for a magazine that specializes in grisly twists, and he will have need of Dortmunder & Co. in future; and it should go without saying nobody in the Dortmunder Gang is having sex with a twelve year old (or anyone, at this stage of the series.)
But for all the cunning variations on a theme, the influence simply can’t be denied. It is, as they say in over-formulaic British crime fiction, a fair cop. Westlake borrowed directly from Block.
So. Did Block know about it? Did Westlake ask him if it was okay? Did these men who used to write pseudo-porn together, taking turns writing chapters, routinely steal from each other, and wait gleefully to see if the pilfery was detected? Remember, these guys both wrote so much, it would be easy for either to forget a story tossed off in a hurry to pay for a kid’s braces or whatever. But that seems a mite unprofessional for these two. Is there some other explanation?
I have one–see that little exchange between Dortmunder and May up top? The first big gag of the novel is that Kelp not only brings an idea for a heist to Dortmunder, but that this time he’s brought a plan to go with it–which is supposed to be Dortmunder’s purview. Dortmunder is most disgruntled over this. “Kelp brings a plan to me.”
So suppose Mr. Westlake was grousing over a few bourbons at some disreputable bar & grill (maybe there was a back room) that he was having story problems with this new Dortmunder, having already had the idea of a comic kidnapping inspired in equal part by O. Henry and the Peugeot case, but that’s just an idea for a caper, not the caper itself. He’s got the premise. Not the plan. Where’s the hook?
And Mr. Block, ever a generous colleague, as well as a competitive one, brought up his own humble effort in this sub-sub-genre (since his kidnapping was also comedic, however dark). I have speculated that the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic is at least partly based on the long informal partnership of Westlake and Block. And while there is some of Kelp in Westlake, far more of him is Dortmunder. So did his Kelp bring a plan to him? Hmm.
Reading both Block and Westlake, one must always be aware that each scribe read the other’s output assiduously, as did others in their circle. Westlake penciled in many a gag aimed not at the funny bones of his readership, but those of his poker-faced poker buddies. See if he could get a rise out of them. I’m guessing he did pretty well. And they got a few chuckles in return.
But in this case, being first doesn’t count for much. The Most Unusual Snatch is a nifty little short that got anthologized a few times. Jimmy the Kid turned out to be a bit of a phenom, much like its title character. DonaldWestlake.com lists no fewer than eighteen editions in seven languages (good bet that’s not all). And there were three film adaptations–Italian, German, and the one with the kid from Diff’rent Strokes. (Probably they’re all terrible, but it’s the check that counts.) Not for nothing did Westlake dedicate this one to his agent Henry Morrison, who probably badgered him into doing more Dortmunder books.
I wanted to write this as a companion piece to my previous article, about how Suzuki & Co. stole from Westlake (and a fair few other pulpish writers, no doubt) to make a surrealistic crime movie. Much as I don’t think Westlake would have been offended, it was still unacknowledged borrowing (had to be, since there was no money in the budget to buy up the adaptation rights, or even time to negotiate for them across an ocean and a language barrier). And of course these two masters of noir never met, so there was no winking going on in either direction.
But the reason I’m sure Westlake would have given Suzuki a pass had he known was that he knew all good storytellers steal. It’s how you do it that matters; whether you add something of yourself to the mix. Suzuki and his collaborators did that, and so did Westlake here (rather better, I think). Stolen plot elements can become remarkably personal expressions, so long as you don’t get all your loot from the same bank. Ideas are just building blocks. Put them together in your own way, and see what happens. Make it an unusual snatch.