Category Archives: John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real, Part Last

summer

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.

But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.  A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.  

“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”

“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”

“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”

“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.

“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”

Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”

“Ourselves,” Kelp said.

“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”

“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.

From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.

I love John Dortmunder.

I mean, not that way.  I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here.  Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here.  And I’m hardly alone in this.  My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.

Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved.  Nor does he give a damn if he is or not.  Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him.  Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.

Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but would how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with?  We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.

And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true?  Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon.   You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not.  Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.

I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car.  No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories.  Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all.  (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)

Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy.  Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here.  With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.

One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy.  True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century.  Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it.  He must have known that.  Nor was this such a new sensation.  He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life.  Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.

But there are compensations.  To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them.  You may even get an inkling of things yet to come.  And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning.  So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.

All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work.  The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.

The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them.  We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing.  Must that always be true?  I could not say.

But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.

So what’s different?  This time they know about it.  I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger.  To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before.  Self-awareness is one thing.  Self-consciousness quite another.

And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched.  Most of all when you’re playing to a camera.  Playing yourself.  Instead of just being yourself.  Which was hard enough to begin with.

To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work.  What you do shapes everything about you.  He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.

Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs.  If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere.  (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.)  But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.

And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that.  Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it.  Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins.  The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself.  Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it.  To be is to be perceived.

This is normal for entertainers, of course.  That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?)  But how about a writer?   Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.

Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore.  B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either.  I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed.  Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.

If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.

Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it.  He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower.  Few can claim to be that focused.

Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him.  Maybe not even then.  In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be.  To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.

To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?

I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting.  As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool.  They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies.  They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.

Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars.  Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him.  That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.

So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system.  As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.

Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it.  (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)

Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing.  He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete.  He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff.  I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same.  Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work.  There is no Jobs, no CEO.  Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers.  An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.

It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow.  Creative anarchism.  (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates).  And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea.  No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.

Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it.  Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires.  So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer.  Here’s just one exchange from that process.  (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years).  Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.

“Wires,” decided Kelp.

“You’re right.”

They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”

Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “

Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”

His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.

Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”

“I got it.”

“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”

Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”

“Same as last time. Comere.”

They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”

“You got it.”

“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”

“Okay.”

“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”

“Done.”

Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “

Yar!”

“Start listening!”

“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—

“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”

The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”

“Can’t you hear anything?”

“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”

Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes.  Dortmunder accepts.  Graciously, if a bit stiffly.

Why is this work so good to watch?  Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment.  This, in a nutshell, is fiction.  (And life, or it ought to be.)

Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted.  There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions.  They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”

I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape.  Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.

Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty).  Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap.  But we watch it.  Because it’s fun!  Vérité be damned, we crave variety.

(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon.  Won’t even mention Keanu.  Too obvious.  Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity.  The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)

The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject.  They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.

And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros  in their own field–and what’s their job?  To make you look good doing your job.  Which makes them look good at their jobs.  One hand jacking off the other.   Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.

The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell.  This is not who they are.  If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived.  To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.

They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company).  They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it.  That’s how they get real.

They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all.  It’s not what they do.  Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know.  To thine own self be true.

Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a  huff, because really.  Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.

The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’  You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it.  There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars.  Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.”  Well, maybe if it’s a diner.

The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you.  Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops.  Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet.  Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere?  Andy?  Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom.  The internet is definitely not there.

But Doug is, and that’s even worse.  He doesn’t belong in the real OJ.  They shut the door in his face.  But he persists.  The corporate overlords love the new heist show.  They want to go ahead with it.  Please, please come back!  They’re kind of meh about it.  The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way?  Doug says that’s not how reality works.  John says “Why not?  How real is reality anyway?”  That is the question, all right.

But they come back.  Because money.  And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera.  Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene.  Very stiff.  But that’s okay, they can carry him.  They’re professionals.  They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.

So they pull the job.  The cash is there, just like they thought.  So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that.  Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it.  Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.

To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen.  This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway.  I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.

There’s a ton of cash in there.  Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is.  The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home.  The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again.  They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.

So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was.  They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left.  Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it.  $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.

“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.”  He smiles.  And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past?   The Avalon Bank Tower heist.  The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better?  Because it’s repeatable.  They can keep going back for more.   As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.

Except they don’t work there anymore.  Corporate moves in mysterious ways.  Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals.  They can’t be associated with crime!

(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again.  Westlake was still thinking about Trump.  Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.

Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building.  TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real.  And it’s TUI that cancels the show.  I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016.  Much as his insights may be missed.)

So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent.  Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs.  Everybody else is fired.  The show is canceled.  Shut it down.

Just in time, too.  They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news.  Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook.  “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place.  You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”

Like himself, but not himself.  Just like the others.  They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly.  Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio.  Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy?  You can dish it out but you can’t take it!

Marcy is so happy.  This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé.  The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play.  Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned.  Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.

Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one.  10k a hood, I mean head.  Plus they got some money upfront.  Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud).  Plus they got the money from the dishwasher.  Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out.  (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)

“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks.  Already snapping back to his old self.  You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it.  It’s a living.  We suppose.

Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate.  Dortmunder feels bad for her.  She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not.  She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something.  Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash.  “There’s an idea,” says Kelp.  He doesn’t stop walking.  Disappears around the corner.  Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.

John, stop.  Wait.  Come back, John.  Please come back.  You can’t leave us.  We love you. John?

Gone.

Just like the man who first made him real.  I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right?  He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.

But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once.  The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage.  There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits.  And that’s us, get it?  We’re the fairies.  Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.

Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality.  Transcendent reality.  And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again.  (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).

Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming.  I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way.  The best way is to read the books.  Over and over.  Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it?  Which is what I re-read Get Real on.  Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind.  And share it with someone who loves you.  Then you’ll be real too.

Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what?  No more?  Well then.  Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself.  I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my  job.  It’s been real.  You know?  Open bar at the OJ.  Bourbon’s on me.  Tell Rollo Fred sent you.

PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words.  Uploaded it to YouTube.  You can view it here.

You wish. See you next week. (I wish.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real, Part 2

Babe turned to John. “Just so you know what’s happened here,” he said, “the Social Security numbers are much more important than the names. You can call yourself Little Bo Peep for all I care. But a corporation like ours simply cannot employ anybody who cannot demonstrate, with a valid Social Security number, their right to work in this country. We absolutely cannot hire wetbacks.”

Andy said, “Wetbacks?” sounding incredulous.

Babe patted the air in his direction. “Listen, I know you guys are homegrown, I know you’re not illegal aliens.”

“We are,” John said, with dignity, “illegal citizens.”

When they first started to do the camera thing, Dortmunder found himself, to his surprise, itching all over. That was completely unexpected, the idea that all of a sudden he’d be feeling this great need to scratch, all different parts of his body. He didn’t want to scratch, he just felt compelled to scratch, but he fought it off, because he was damned if he was going to stand there and look like an idiot, scratching himself like a dog with fleas in front of a bunch of cameras.

And the cameras themselves were intrusive in ways he hadn’t guessed. They were like those barely seen creatures in horror movies, the ones just leaving the doorway or disappearing up the stairs. Except that the cameras weren’t disappearing. They were there, just incessantly there, at the edge of your peripheral vision, their heads turning slightly, polite, silent, very curious, and big. Big.

Between the nudging presence of the cameras and the maddening need to scratch all these itches, Dortmunder found himself tightening into knots, his movements as stiff as the Tin Woodman’s before he gets the oil. I’m supposed to act natural, he told himself, but this isn’t natural. I’m lumbering around like Frankenstein’s monster. I feel like I’ve been filled up with itchy cement.

Dortmunder’s last dance is, in many ways, his most off-beat.  You know the tune, but the cadence keeps throwing you off.

It goes back, as I said last time, to the more focused approach of the first few books–there is one idea here, pursued to its conclusion, logical or otherwise. The usual story elements are trotted out.

There is a heist–attempted several times, finally successful, which goes back to the very first book, the variation here being they’re not quite sure what they’re looking for, or where exactly to find it.  It all takes place in New York.  No new string members are introduced (none that are going to stick, anyway). Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and (like him or not) Judson.  The core group.

The ladies auxiliary, of May, Murch’s Mom, J.C., and Anne Marie–so important to previous books–present and accounted for but mainly sidelined.  This isn’t about them.  It’s about whether the men in their lives still count for something. Do they have a place in this world?  (Technically, they should be on Social Security by now, but who says Social Security is going to have a place in this world?)

What’s missing?  An identifiable enemy (unless you count Dortmunder’s arch enemy, change). Nobody is out to murder them. Nobody is out to jail them. Nobody is out to cheat them of their rightful due.  The closest thing to a nemesis is this authority figure who keeps storming in, saying “This show is canceled, shut it down.”  I am not the first to detect a metatextual overtone to this leitmotif, anymore than I’m the first to try and plumb the existential mysteries of maybe the most consummate storyteller the mystery genre ever had.

Am I too fanciful or is Babe, the executive producer, somehow Westlake’s own grim reaper, circling like a vulture before ringing down the curtain? Read carefully. At the least, it is rather chilling and moving how Babe sits in the corner, a “stiff” actor, while Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, and the kid are asked to reminisce “about the hits of yesteryear.” It’s the last book but the normally unsentimental author gets it in:

“The group cut up old jackpots, the bank in the trailer, the emerald they had to keep going back and getting again and again, the ruby that was too famous to hock so they had to put it back where they got it, the cache of cash in the reservoir. The time just seemed to go by.”

You know, it has at that.

The other Westlake completist (who never bothers much with the pseudonyms), says this one sticks out as well.  He is, nonetheless, gratified our champion goes out a winner.  “John Dortmunder, sad sack no more.”  Might as well say John Dortmunder no more.

And what would Westlake want to do for the brainchild who was, in many ways, closest to his heart?  If he suspected this was the final outing, and there’s reason to think he did.  The elder and fiercer of his thieving progeny, self-reliant to the last, would always take arms against a sea of troubles, and in opposing end them. That younger, timider screw-up of a prodigal–who had still done his dad proud, so many times–he maybe needed a little help.  A final bequest, let’s say.  If he had the gumption to claim it.  If to his own self he was true.

Although I have given less virtual ink to much better (and longer) Westlake novels, I have come to terms with the fact that there’s a lot to say about this one.  Get Real is at least as good as Dirty Money.  So a three parter this shall be, after all. (What happened to the Fred Fitch who polished off Ex Officio in 6,205 words?  I suspect foul play.)

Let me try one final subheading motif, to move us along more briskly.  We’ll begin with–

STORAGE WARS:

When Kelp came strolling down Varick Street at two that afternoon, he saw Dortmunder ahead of him, facing a building in midblock, frowning at it while he frisked himself. Kelp approached, interested in this phenomenon, and Dortmunder withdrew from two separate pockets a crumpled piece of paper and a ballpoint pen. Bending over the paper held in his cupped left palm, he began to write, with quick glances at the facade in front of him.

Ah. The right third of the building, at street level, was a gray metal overhead garage door, graffiti-smeared in a language that hadn’t been seen on Earth since the glory days of the Maya. To the immediate left of this was a vertical series of bell buttons, each with an identifying label. These were what Dortmunder was copying onto a cash register receipt from a chain drugstore.

Reading the labels directly, since Dortmunder’s handwriting was about as legible as the Mayan graffiti, Kelp saw:

5 GR DEVELOPMENT
4 SCENERY STARS
3 KNICKERBOCKER STORAGE
2 COMBINED TOOL

The building, broad and old, was made of large rectangular stone blocks, time-darkened to a blurry charcoal. On the street floor, to the left of the garage, were two large windows, barred for security and opaque with dirt, and beyond them at the farther end a gray metal door with a bell mounted in its middle at head height. The upper floors showed blank walls above the garage entrance and three windows each, all looking a little cleaner than the ones down here.

Putting paper and pen away, Dortmunder acknowledged Kelp’s presence for the first time: “Harya doin?”

“I wanna see the inside of the place,” Kelp told him.

“We can do that,” Dortmunder said, and pushed the button for five.

The gang has accepted Doug Fairkeep’s offer to build a reality show around them–while using the access they get to seek the caches of corporate cash, earmarked for illegal overseas bribes, which they now believe might exist within this grimy downtown edifice, occupied by several businesses, all of which may in fact be related to each other in some obscure way.

They meet Doug’s boss Babe Tuck, who introduces himself with the foreboding remark that they’re lucky to only have to worry about U.S. prisons.  Aside from the occasional rape, stateside stir is so much cushier than what he encountered back during his foreign correspondent days.  Life expectancy is much longer.  Kelp says maybe it just seems longer.  Babe likes that, says they have to keep a mike on this guy, he’s a character.  Oh he is that, Babe.

The idea of the meeting is to figure out which aspects of the gang’s working life could be best translated to television.  The subject of a hang-out is raised (‘lair’ is the word they actually use), and the TV people learn of the OJ Bar and Grill.  They express a desire to see it–not to film there, they assure an alarmed Dortmunder, but to recreate it as a studio set, where the gang can be seen plotting their next job.

This show is going to be a bit different than your usual reality TV gig.  Because they’re going to film people committing crimes, there will have to be a lot more artifice than is the case even with a ‘normal’ show of this type.  (Which it seems to me is ever more true of the genre as a whole. Mission creep, you could call it.)

As the book goes on, the gang alternates between learning how to play edited versions of themselves, and trying to find that cash.  As John puts it, the heist the TV people see and the one they don’t see.  One of those other businesses, Combined Tool, has a door with a very sophisticated alarm system.  Hmmm!  Andy’s expertise with locks (no Wally Whistler or Herman X this time) is going to be tested as never before.

There is, as you see, an actual storage outfit  in the building, which is a potential target for the TV heist–but that turns out to have nothing but people’s old worthless junk in it.  Like, you know, a normal storage outfit.  That has not been salted in advance with all kinds of rare wacky collectibles–which would have been one solution to the problem of how to pull a legal  heist that people would enjoy watching on TV, but nobody suggests this.  (Storage Wars premiered in 2010).

Doug Fairkeep is happy with how things are developing (or so he thinks), but the need for him to develop this new show is going to be accelerated by revelations concerning the previous one, as shall now be detailed in —

SAY YES TO THE DRESS:

“I’ll tell you,” Doug said, “I wouldn’t kick Darlene out of bed.”

“Kirby would,” Marcy said, and the other two sadly nodded.

Doug said, “Does he have a reason?”

“Yes,” Marcy said. “He says he’s gay.”

Gay!” Doug made a fist and pounded it into his other palm. “No! We shall have no gay farm boys on The Stand! Who gave him that idea, anyway?”

Marcy, on the verge of tears, said, “He says he is gay.”

“Not on our show, he isn’t. In the world of reality, we do not have surprises. Kirby has his role, the impish younger brother who’s finally gonna be okay. No room for sex changes. What does Harry say?” Harry being the father of the Finch family.

Josh shook his head, with a weak apologetic smile. “You know how Harry is.”

Not an authority figure; yes, Doug knew. Whatever they want is okay by me, you know? So far, that had been a plus, meaning there was never any argument with the producers’ plans for the show. Except now.

Marcy said, “I think Harry has the hots for Darlene himself.”

“No, Marcy,” Doug said. “We aren’t going there either. This is a clean wholesome show. You could project it on the wall of a megachurch in the South. Fathers do not hit on their sons’ girlfriends. Come next door, fellas, we’ve got to solve this.”

Meanwhile, over at The Stand, Doug’s other show, about an upstate New York farming family trying to hawk their produce by the roadside (in Putkin’s Corners, which you will remember from Drowned Hopes, though Dortmunder would much rather forget), things are not well, as you see.  The show is about the family’s dynamic, and that is disintegrating, due in part to the pressure of being incessantly filmed. (What does that remind me of?)

A lushly proportioned blonde named Darlene has been hired to play the younger son’s love interest, spice up the storyline a bit, and he’s refusing to play along, because girls are yucky. The older son is deemed unsuitable because he’s established as the gloomy loner who is going to leave the old farm to study engineering.  These people need to stay in character, dammit!

And the father, who would happily leap into bed with Darlene, is just too darned old.  It’d be creepy.  (I know what you’re all thinking, and so am I, about Doug’s assertion that older men hitting on really young women won’t play in the evangelical heartland, but let’s stay focused here. This is a family blog.  Pretty sure nobody’s reading it while attending a megachurch, but maybe if the sermon goes long….)

Doug wants Darlene on the show, it should be mentioned, because he’s hoping to get her into bed himself (off camera, funny how the people who make these shows never seem to aspire to be in one themselves).  This does not work out as planned either, but we’ll get to that.

The subplot with the Finch family goes on through the book, and ultimately ends with production on The Stand shutting down–the family just doesn’t want to play along anymore.  They aren’t getting rich from it, fame hasn’t made them any happier, and business at their stand hasn’t picked up that much, probably because loyal viewers can’t navigate the secondary roads in upstate NY. (Can anyone?)

We never get to know any of the Finches, only hear about them through scattered reports, but they make an impression, regardless.  I would describe them as the secondary heroes of the piece.  Westlake himself hailed from that part of the world, and I think the point is that all inducements to the contrary, they just can’t help being themselves.  Their real identities reject their fabricated identities, like an implant that didn’t take.

They say no to the show, refuse to  hit their marks, and that’s how they stop being marks, sink with relief back into middle American mediocrity.  Overoptimistic?  We can ponder that question as we sink (metaphorically!) into our next topic, namely–

THE STARLET:

Darlene didn’t believe they were really serious. This was her third reality show—fourth, if you counted The Stand, though you probably shouldn’t—and in her experience nothing that happened in reality was serious. She’d been a contestant on Build Your Own Beauty Parlor and a survivor on The Zaniest Challenge of the Year! and would have been a fiancée on The Stand if that fellow hadn’t turned out to be all icky, and she had to say that not one of those shows had been any more serious than first love.

This one, that Doug Fairkeep kept calling The Gang’s All Here although apparently he really didn’t want to, would just be more of the same. This “gang” wasn’t going to steal anything. They were just a bunch of guys who could look like bank robbers in some B movie somewhere, that’s all.

Just look at the variety of people inside the “gang”: that was the giveaway. All of these cast-to-type characters, the ugly monster for the “muscle,” the sharpie with the line of patter, the gloomy mastermind, the testy driver, and the innocent youth, that last one so the audience would be able to see it all through his eyes. Everything but a black guy, so maybe you didn’t need a black guy any more.

Of the peripheral characters in this book, Darlene Looper is by far the best-developed (you know what I meant).  Sexy in a way that probably won’t age well, but too young to let that bother her right now.  Does she care about fame?  No.  Does she care about acting?  Hell no.  Will she take any excuse on offer to get the hell out of the dustbowl she was born in?  Now you’re talking.

Darlene Looper was a product of North Flatte, Nebraska, a town that had had its peak of population and importance in the 1870s, after the railroad arrived and before the drought arrived. The railroad turned out to be a sometime thing, but the drought was the natural condition of the Great Plains, it being a kind of a joke on the European settlers that they got there in the middle of a rare rainy streak.

All the time Darlene was growing up, North Flatte was getting smaller, until there was nobody left who cared enough to correct the POP. sign on the edge of town, which would apparently read 1,247 forever. (In truth, the comma had moved out a long time ago.)

Darlene followed suit, and since then she’s played her assets for all they’re worth.  But just because you invariably get cast as the dumb blonde doesn’t mean you have to play her in real life.  Darlene gets a lot of things wrong, and her cynicism isn’t quite lived-in enough yet, but she knows her way around.

However, she’s so grounded in the fake world of entertainment as to see everything within that frame, translating the gang into a bunch of no-name bit players like her, posing as something they’re not, because she can’t grasp they’re legit thieves (though, of course, they were built by their creator along precisely the genre-based lines she perceives–and so was she–and so are lots of real people all around you, but they’re still made of flesh and blood, same as you.)

She knows why Doug Fairkeep really cast her, what extracurricular role he wants her to play, and she just plays along, giving him nothing.  And he, thankfully, is no Harvey Weinstein (give him a few more years…..).

Darlene is no longer surprised by anything, so she no longer takes joy in anything.  A hardened trouper in her early 20’s, whose jaundiced reaction to reality TV is that it’s a lot like first love.  A whole lot of fuss over nothing.  What is there in this world for someone simultaneously so naif and blasé?

How about true love?  She meets somebody, on the new show, that she got drafted onto after her role on the one about veg peddlers went away.  She figured she’d just end up sleeping with this or that member of the gang (either Kelp or Judson, doesn’t even think to find out if either is spoken for).

Then The Real Thing hits her right between the eyes, as it always does, when you least expect it.  And all at once she realizes there are things in this life you can’t fake your way through, and there is no script.  Even reality can get real, sometimes.

The Great God Westlake was in a giving vein, as he wrote this final book.  And what he has on offer could be called–

HUMAN RESOURCES:

RAY HARBACH (Dippo) is pleased to be back in the Excelsior Theater, where he appeared three seasons ago as Kalmar in the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Other theater roles have included work by Mamet, Shaw, Osborne, and Orton. Film: Ocean’s 12; Rollerball. Television: The New Adventures of the Virgin Mary and the Seven Dwarfs at the North Pole; The Sopranos; One Life to Live; Sesame Street. I want to dedicate this production to my father, Hank.

Doug goes for a meeting with Babe Tuck, only to find Babe has recruited an actor to play one of the gang members.  Not like Darlene.  A bonafide thespian, with a long list of past roles, and just a trace of a criminal background (more like he used to hang out with guys who used to hang out with guys who may have done something).

The story for the gang is that Ray Harbach is there to teach them how to act for the camera.  The real story is that he’s there to report back to Babe, make sure nothing’s amiss with these felons.  He’s game, as long as they make sure he’s covered on the legal end.

He’s got an applicable skill–he can climb walls like a human fly.   The gang’s very impressed.  But once they’re out of earshot, Kelp asks everybody what they think of the human fly.  “He’s a human plant,” Tiny growls.  Because obviously.

So they work it this way–they pretend to ditch Murch (Doug’s afraid they’ve killed him).  Murch is still part of the genuine job they intend to pull, at Combined Tool.  But he’s out of the show (even though it was  his mom who got them on the show in the first place).  Ray Harbach can take his place on the fake heist–but they will freeze him out of anything real.  Same goes for Darlene, which means even Judson isn’t going to hook up with her (kid never gets a break).

And since they’re the only experienced actors on the show, and there isn’t much of anything else for them to do, they get assigned the obligatory fake reality romantic subplot.  Guess what?

The setup was this: Ray, the wall-walking specialist of the gang, had recently met Darlene and had wanted to show her off to the guys, but when he did, the contrast between her nearly fresh innocence (it’s all in the acting) and their jaded disbelief (no acting required) had shown him his life in a whole new light.

So they’d gone off to Central Park together, that was the idea, to be away from the others, unobserved, so they could talk things over. What was their relationship, really? (In reality show terms, that is.) What was their future? Did they have a future together?

They spent most of that day filming all over the park, with all the necessary permits, that was part of what made the day so special and so much fun and so liberating. They rowed a boat together on the lake, they wandered together in the Ramble, they watched the joggers endlessly circling the reservoir (without joining them, although Marcy would have dearly loved it if they had), they walked around Belvedere Castle, they observed the imposing stone buildings that stood like sentinels in long straight rows all around the periphery of the park, and they talked it all out, coming to several different conclusions in the course of several different takes of each sequence, because Roy wanted to keep his options open. (At that time, so did Ray.)

And they shared one brief tentative tremulous kiss, late in the day, on the path beside the Drive, surrounded by taxis and hansom cabs and joggers and bicyclists, all of whom, this being New York, ignored the smoochers in their midst.

And then they all went home, walking out of the park, Darlene and Ray and the others, and they didn’t even hold hands. But they knew, they both knew, and a little later that evening they confirmed their knowledge.

Basically, nothing else happens with Ray and Darlene, and far as we know, they lived happily ever after in Ray’s nice little actor’s apartment, full of his old Playbills and 8×10 glossies, and maybe she even became a real actress with his tutelage.  One hopes it won’t end up like another damn remake of A Star Is Born (he’s at least twenty years older), but something tells me these two will always be supporting players, and those are the best kind. HR did its bit, and the rest is up to them.

Meanwhile, back at the OJ–wait a minute–we’re at the TV studio!  What’s the OJ doing here?  Somebody call–

BAR RESCUE:

“It’s like a set,” Kelp said.

“From the wrong side,” Dortmunder said. “Is there a way in?”

There was. Around the rough unfinished wall they came to an opening, and now they could see that what had been built was a broad but shallow three-walled room without a ceiling. A dark wood bar, a little beat-up, stretched along the back wall, on which were mounted beer posters and mirrors that had been smeared with something that looked like soap, so they wouldn’t reflect. A jumble of bottles filled the back bar, plus a cash register at the right end. Barstools in a row looked as though they’d come directly from the wholesale restaurant supply place next door, and so did the two tables and eight chairs in the grouping in front of the bar. At the right end of the bar stood two pinball machines, and at the left end a doorway into darkness.

Kelp, in wonder, said, “It’s the OJ.”

“Well, it isn’t the OJ,” Dortmunder said.

“No, I know it isn’t,” Kelp said, “but that’s what they’re going for.”

John and Andy first come across The Fake OJ while trying to find a way into Combined Tool one night.  Kelp is impressed at how real a fake it is–Dortmunder is disgusted.  He says he feels like a guy who fakes an autobiography.  “We haven’t done anything and already this is a lie.”  (Too pure a soul for this age, I sometimes fear.)

Before you know it, The Fake OJ has a Fake Rollo the Bartender (played by Rodney, another fine supporting player), and as for the barstool brigade–

When Kelp and Dortmunder and Tiny and the kid walked into the fake OJ Tuesday afternoon at two, Doug and Marcy and Roy Ombelen and Rodney the bartender and the camera crews were already there, clustered around the left end of the bar, where in the real joint the regulars reigned.

As they approached the bar, Rodney was saying, “No way Shakespeare wrote those plays. He didn’t have the education, he hadn’t been anywhere, he was just a country bumpkin. An actor. A very good actor, everybody says so, but just an actor.”

Doug said, “Isn’t some duke supposed to be the real guy?”

“Oh, Clarence,” Rodney said, in dismissal.

“I heard that, too,” Marcy said. “That’s very interesting.”

“No, it wasn’t him,” Rodney said, scoffing at the idea. “In fact, if you study those plays the way I did, you’ll see they couldn’t have been written by a man at all.”

Marcy, astonished, said, “A woman?”

“No sixteenth-century guy,” Rodney said, “had that kind of modern attitude toward women or instinctive understanding of the woman’s mind.”

One of the camerapersons said, “My husband says it was Bacon.”

Another cameraperson, dripping scorn, said, “They’re not talking about meat, they’re talking about Shakespeare.”

“Sir Francis Bacon.”

“Oh.”

Roy said to Rodney, “I venture to say you have someone in mind.”

“Queen,” Rodney pronounced, “Elizabeth the First.”

Kelp and Dortmunder looked at one another. “You build it,” Kelp murmured, “they will come.”

(Malcolm X thought it was King James.  You know, the one with the bible.  Everybody’s got a pet theory.  Mine is that it was that Stratford bum.  Because who else had the time?)

Marcy, the writer who can’t call herself a writer, is hanging at the fake OJ as well, which kind of makes sense.  If anything here does.  She’s got some ideas for how to save their show that keeps threatening not to happen (I could do a Project Greenlight segment, but this is getting long).

Marcy and the rest of the cast were now clustered at one of the side booths, and Marcy waved to Kelp and called, “Come on over, Andy, we’re working out the story line.”

The story line. 1) You go in. 2) You take what you came for. 3) You go out. If civilians are present, insert 1A) You show, but do not employ, weapons. Marcy’s story line would be a little more baroque.

Kelp went over, found a sliver of bench available next to Tiny, perched on it, and Marcy leaned in to be confidential, saying, “I hope you held out for a lot more money.”

“Oh, sure,” Kelp said. “You know us.”

Because, of course, Marcy didn’t know anything. She didn’t know why they’d left, and she didn’t know why they were back. So, as with the reality show, she was making up her own story line, which was perfectly okay.

“What we need, in the next couple weeks of the show,” Marcy told them, “is some sense of menace. Not from you guys, some other outside force.”

Dortmunder said, “Like the law, you mean?”

“No, we don’t want to bring the police in until the very end of the season. The escape from the police will be the great triumph, and it’ll make up for you not getting the big score you were counting on from the storage rooms.”

Kelp said, “Oh, we’re not getting that?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Marcy said. “I don’t want you to know the story too far ahead, because it can affect the way you play it. But I can guarantee you, the escape from the police will be the climax of the first season.”

“I’d watch it,” the kid said.

“For a menace from the outside,” Marcy said, “what do you think of another gang going after the exact same target?”

Kelp said, “Wasn’t that in a Woody Allen movie?”

“Oh, it’s been in dozens of movies,” she said. “That’s all right. Nobody expects reality to be original. People will see that, and they’ll laugh and they’ll say, ‘Just like the Woody Allen movie, and here the same thing happens in real life.’ ”

Dortmunder said, “That’s what they say, huh?”

(Nobody gets it when Dortmunder uses irony.  He has one of those faces where ironic is the default expression, so it goes unnoticed.  Much like the reference to Take The Money And Run, which came out about the same time Westlake was working on The Hot Rock, and long before Too Many Crooks, a more organic and sustained use of the basic gag, but credit where credit is due, assuming the Woodman didn’t steal it from somebody else, which I don’t.  He’s got bigger stuff to worry about these days.  Like when did he have his funnybone surgically removed?  Does Blue Cross cover that?  Wonder Wheel, Schmonder Wheel.)

In the midst of all these media-based meta-isms, there is actual thievery going on, most of it from none other than Stan The Man Murch, or as he shall now be known–

KING OF CARS:

Vehicles, vehicles everywhere. Big ones, little ones, new ones, old ones, valuable ones, junk. Whistling behind his teeth, Stan wandered among all these wheels and used his cell phone to take pictures of the ones he thought might be of interest. He stopped after he’d chosen six, not wanting to be greedy, then picked for tonight’s transportation a relatively modest black Dodge Caliber, mostly because it was pretty close to the garage door and wouldn’t require shifting too many other vehicles around to get it out of here.

The Caliber had apparently been used one way or another in movie- or television-making, because the passenger floor in front was littered with several random screenplay pages and the entire back area was a foot deep in plastic coffee cups and fast food trays. The glove box contained four different lipsticks, a package of condoms, and a cell phone; people are always leaving their cell phones.

Well, all of this would be somebody else’s problem, farther down the line. Stan merely drove the Caliber out to Varick Street, then left it athwart the sidewalk as he ducked back in to close the garage door.

Satisfied with the day’s work, he steered the Caliber down through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and thence by many secondary streets across Brooklyn to Canarsie, pausing along the way to pick up from a closed movie rental place a DVD of Pit Stop (1969, Brian Donlevy, with a cameo from George Barris, famous custom car builder) to watch that night with his Mom.

Leaving the Caliber at the curb on a side street a couple blocks from home, he returned to it Thursday morning to find it was still there, so he drove it onto an even more remote area than Canarsie, a neighborhood—if that isn’t too fancy a word—somewhere out there that was in a way Brooklyn, in a way Queens, and very nearly but not quite, Nassau County.

Murch has been thrown off the fake heist, and as matters work themselves out, he won’t really be needed as a driver on the real one, but as the ultimate rolling stone, he’s still going to gather some moss.  There is a huge parking garage on the ground floor of Get Real’s headquarters on Varick Street.  Conveniently located near a tunnel leading out of Manhattan. Full of all kinds of cars used for shoots. So many that it will take some time for anyone to realize some of them aren’t there anymore.

There aren’t a lot of fake names for American-made autos here, a running gag in the late Dortmunders.  I thought Dodge Caliber might be fake, particularly since Westlake uses it to make a pun, but it’s an actual car, a five door compact. (Not sure what caliber that would be, .32 maybe?)

There’s a Chevy Gazpacho–I don’t want to know if that’s real.  There’s a GMC Mastodon, and I think we already had that one?  No?  They kind of blur together after a while.  Much like the cars themselves, which is one of the many reasons Detroit is having problems now.

He pops over to Maximillian’s Used Cars, where things proceed much as always, except Harriet the receptionist has a computer now, and Max is all agog at the photos Stan presents him of creampuff after creampuff, all of them his for the asking (and cash, needless to say). “What’d you do?” he asked. “Follow them to their nest?”  More or less, yeah.

But he hasn’t reckoned on the mama bird, namely Babe Tuck, who marches in (for the second time in the book, to proclaim “This show is canceled.  Shut it down.”  Because somebody’s been taking cars from the garage downstairs, and guess who Babe thinks that would be?  Dortmunder doesn’t need to be any kind of detective to solve that mystery.  And he was just working on a way to monetize the prospective storage heist (this is before the discussion with Marcy at the Fake OJ), which brings us to our final easily-named segment–

HARDCORE PAWN (the other one was too easy):

For instance, last week they kind of took the show on the road. All of them except Ray, since there was to be no actual planning or wall-walking involved, went to a real pawnshop and talked to a real pawnbroker, who wasn’t like old suspenders-wearing pawnbrokers in the movies, but was some kind of Asian guy, very thin, who talked very fast with a hard click-like thing at the end of every word. He thought what they were doing was hilarious, and he kept cracking up with high-pitched giggles, his whole face scrunched around his laughing mouth. Marcy and Doug kept at him to stay serious, to remember the actual cash money they’d be paying him, and eventually he did settle down enough so they could get through it.

But it wasn’t any good. That is, it wasn’t any good on purpose. The whole point of the week was that Tiny knew this pawnbroker, so they all went over to talk with him (taxi scenes, with Tiny all over the front seat, and another reason not to include Ray), because this pawnbroker would be willing to take whatever it was they would be removing from the storage company.

But then it turned out he was only willing to take the stuff on consignment, and consignment was not going to cut it. Thieves don’t work on consignment. Thieves obtain the goods, they sell the goods, they take cash on the barrelhead. That’s why they finish with such a small percentage of the value of whatever they’ve taken, which was all right, because it meant they had something where they had nothing before.

The question must be asked–why do they need to steal anything?  I mean, other than whatever Get Real sets up for them to steal, or fail to steal, or maybe get stolen from them?  However the season finale works out, they get 20 grand apiece.  That’s better than they’ve done in most of the previous books, even allowing for inflation (they got bupkus in a lot of the previous books, and inflation does bupkus to bupkus).

It’s even been worked out so that they don’t have to provide things like Social Security numbers, through a clever dodge (that Kelp thought of, naturally) involving paying them through a related company in the UK.  (Been a lot of clever dodges like that going around lately, wouldn’t you say?  Deutschebank, Deutschebank, uber alles.  Andy, have you been moonlighting again?)

And the reason is, this is what they do. They are thieves.  Not ‘reality’ thieves. Real thieves. And once you’re real, you can never become unreal again–right?

That is the question we shall ask next week.  When I finish this review.  Yes, really.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  Possibly for the last time, but be that as it may, thanks to Patti and Todd for all the plugs.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Get Real

So, a minute later, when May reappeared, unencumbered except for three beer cans that she distributed, Dortmunder said, “I got a very strange proposition today.”

She didn’t quite know how to take that word. Settling into her chair, she said, “A proposition?”

“A job, kind of. But weird.”

“John’s gonna describe it to you now,” Kelp said, and looked at Dortmunder, as alert as a sparrow on a branch.

Dortmunder took a breath. “It’s reality TV,” he said, and went on to describe how Murch’s Mom had introduced Doug Fairkeep into their lives and what Doug Fairkeep had proposed, including the payoff.

Somehow, every time he told that story he got the same kind of dead-air silent reaction. Now May and Kelp both gave him the glassy-eye treatment, so he said, “That’s the story, May, that’s all there is.”

She said, “Except the next day, when they drag you all off to jail.”

“Doug Fairkeep says we’ll work around that.”

“How?”

“He doesn’t say.”

May squinted, much the way she used to squint back when she chain-smoked. “I’ll tell you another question,” she said. “What is it you’re supposed to steal?”

“We didn’t go into that.”

“It might make a difference,” she said.

Dortmunder didn’t get it. “How?”

“Well,” she said, “if they were going for laughs, like. Like if you hijacked a diaper service truck, something like that.”

Kelp said, “I’m not gonna hijack any diaper service truck.”

Like that,” she said.

Dortmunder said, “May, I don’t think so. What they do is, they find people got some sort of interesting lifestyle or background or something, and they film the people doing what they do, and then they shape it, to make it entertainment. I don’t think they’re goin for jokes, I think they’re goin for real.”

“Jail is real,” she said.

Dortmunder nodded, but said, “The problem is, so is twenty G.”

“Looks to me,” Kelp said, “as though you oughta go back and see this guy and ask him a lot more questions.”

“I’m realizing that,” Dortmunder admitted. “You wanna come along?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Kelp said, as casual as an aluminum siding salesman. “No need for me to poke my face in at this point. Murch’s Mom didn’t rat me out to the guy.”

“No, she didn’t,” Dortmunder said.

“But I tell you what I’ll do,” Kelp said. “Come home with me and I’ll Google him.”

Dortmunder frowned. “Is that a good thing?”

“Oh, yeah,” Kelp said.

It’s 2009.   Almost half a century after you wandered into a drugstore, and found The Mercenaries.  Hard to believe. Time flies when you’re having fun.  You need something to read, so you surf on over to Amazon.  Hey, there’s a new Dortmunder out!  A few clicks later, you’ve got it on your device.  No more gaudy paperbacks at newsstands, no more revolving racks at drugstores, damned few bookstores of any kind in New York now.  (The rent is too damn high.)  Progress. One supposes.

As always, Dortmunder dissents.  But the world keeps changing, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  As inevitable as death and taxes.  Well, as the latter.  Apparently some people aren’t going to pay taxes anymore.  More for the rest of us, huh?

Somewhere, Donald E. Westlake is rolling his eyes at us.  But not on this mortal plane.  Mr. Westlake has left the building, after making one last statement about identity–and how we keep confusing it.  He’s been here with Dortmunder & Co. before, decades earlier.

In Jimmy The Kid, he was talking about the increasingly blurry line between fiction and reality.  Real criminals getting a plan from a paperback crime novel, only to learn that real life is more complex, more contingent, and nobody knows their lines, heeds their cues.  Because everybody in this world is living out his or her own story, as the protagonist, you can’t control life the way a writer can control a narrative.

In Get Real, he’s talking about the increasingly nonexistent line between fiction and ‘reality.’  As in reality TV.  Semi-scripted documentaries, where people narrate their daily existence, improvise dialogue in place of having conversations–become fictional characters in their own lives.

That erudite Irishman, Bishop Berkeley, once opined that to be is to be perceived.  That the world around us is created by the act of viewing it, God being the divine perceiver who holds the fabric of reality together.  I don’t know about all that, but we 21st century humans sure behave as if the Bishop spoke gospel.  Only for us, God is a camera.  And a boom mike.  Budget lacking, a webcam, or smartphone.  Life must be dramatized.  Like it wasn’t dramatic enough already.

Let’s learn about this one.  The last one.  Not just the last Dortmunder.  The last book in our queue.  (If there are any outstanding wagers, with regards to my reaching this milestone, time to settle up).

Given how much earlier Dirty Money appeared, we should probably assume this is the very last piece of work Westlake submitted for publication in his lifetime.  Marilyn Stasio’s review for the New York Times came out in late August of 2009, eight months after Westlake departed this mortal coil by way of Mexico.  After a long series of affectionate thumbnails, she put more time and effort into this one, as a final homage, even praising the wry social commentary that was always a part of this series.

It’s quite a nice review, one of the best he ever got in the Times, which routinely gave short shrift to far better Westlakes than this.  His humorous writings in particular tended to be dismissed as enjoyable diversions, but now his satiric edge begins to be appreciated.  All he had to do was die.   (Why am I thinking of Daffy Duck again?  Oh right.)

(Censored!?  Is literally nothing sacred?  Oh never mind.  Overture.  Curtain lights.  On with the show, this is it.)

The quote up top gives us the premise.  One fine day in New York City traffic, Murch’s Mom struck up a conversation with her fare of the moment, a TV producer working for Get Real, a shingle devoted to reality shows, owned by a media company called Monopole, majority controlled by by Trans-Global Universal Industries, the same mega-corporation referenced in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  (No mention of its disgraced CEO, so maybe he’s in prison.  Or the White House.  Details.)  TUI in turn is controlled by Somnitech, which we heard about in The Road to Ruin.  It is, quite literally, a rich tapestry.

Right now, the only show they’ve got on the air is The Stand, which is not, you should know, about a post-apocalyptic world in which the fate of humanity shall be decided by a war between Boulder and Las Vegas.  It’s about a failing roadside farm stand in upstate New York.  The kind of thing you come across channel-surfing, and you wonder what the hell is keeping Captain Trips.  Should have been here decades ago.

You know how proud mothers can never resist talking about what their sons do for a living.  So when our Gladys summons both Murch and Dortmunder to her cab for a confab, she has worrisome news to impart.

Stan said, “Hello? You started telling him what about me?”

“I’m looking to see,” his mother told him, “could he get you a job.”

“In TV? What am I gonna do, sports?”

“Whatever,” his mother said. “Face it, Stanley, your previous occupation is coming to an end.”

Stan frowned at her profile. “How do you work that out?”

“Cameras,” his Mom said, and pointed at one mounted on a nearby pole. “Security. ID. Tracking. Records of everything. Global positioning. Radio chips. It’s harder for people like you and John every day, and you know it is. It is time, Stanley, you underwent a career change.”

Dortmunder said, “It isn’t that bad.”

“Oh, it’s all right for you,” she told him. “You go on doing what you’re doing because what else have you got, but Stanley’s possessed of an actual marketable skill.”

“Mp,” said Dortmunder.

Stan said, “Which skill is that?” “Driving,” she said. “Keeping your wits about you. Anyway, the point is, I liked this guy, Doug Fairkeep his name is, so I wound up I gave him a little more of your background than I originally planned.”

Fairkeep wasn’t looking for any new drivers, but when he realized he was talking to somebody who could put him in touch with professional heisters, he got very excited.  He immediately saw the potential for a new show.  Title to be determined (I’d stick with the King motif–MiseryNeedful Things–I think he just had a book out called Finders Keepers?)

She gives Stan the guy’s card and it looks legit.  What he and Dortmunder do isn’t, so how could they ever pull a job on national TV and not end up in a reality show about prison, perhaps on MSNBC?  (With Dortmunder’s luck, it’d be Animal Planet, and he’d be a teaching aide for German Shepherds who chase burglars.  Rrrrr!)

While they ponder that,  Chapter 2 introduces us to Mr. Fairkeep, and his production assistant, Marcy Waldorf.  Who would like to be called a writer, since that’s what she’s doing for her meager living, but alas–

“It is not writing, Marcy,” Doug said, “for two reasons. In the first place, The Stand is a reality show, the cameras catching real life on the fly, not a scripted show with actors. The Finches aren’t actors, Marcy, they are an actual family struggling to run an actual farmstand on an actual farm on an actual secondary road in upstate New York.”

“But,” Marcy objected, “they’re saying the words we write, down here in the production assistants’ room, Josh and Edna and me.”

“The Finches often,” Doug allowed, “follow our suggestions, that’s true. But, Marcy, even if they followed your suggestions one hundred percent of the time, you still wouldn’t be a writer.”

“Why not?”

“Because The Stand is a reality show, and reality shows do not have actors and writers because they do not need actors and writers. We are a very low-budget show because we do not need actors and writers. If you were a writer, Marcy, you would have to be in the union, and you would cost us a whole lot more because of health insurance and a pension plan, which would make you too expensive for our budget, and we would very reluctantly have to let you go and replace you with another twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college. You’re young and healthy. You don’t want all those encumbrances, health insurance and pension plans.”

(Perish the thought.  And quite possibly the bodies producing said thoughts, but that’s a whole other issue, currently in the capable hands of the former CEO of TUI.  We just had to know what was the worst that could happen.)

Doug is delighted to learn that he’s got a call from the son of that Murch woman–now he can get to work on the new show (working title The Gang’s All Here, there goes the motif).  He’s even more pleased to learn that he’s going to meet Dortmunder as well–the criminal mastermind.  (Hey, he is sometimes!)

He’s a bit nonplussed to learn he’s going to meet them across the street from his office on Third, at the outdoor cafe pertaining to a bar/restaurant named Trader Thoreau.  (We are spared a description of the thematically decorated walls inside, since they never go inside).

The meeting is short, not at all sweet, and mainly involves Fairkeep trying to get pictures and tape recordings of our heroes, while they make very sure he gets no such thing to hold over their heads. And then politely suggest that they might throw him under a slow-moving bus if he keeps trying.  No shortage of those on Third.

The main thing is the offer, and it’s tempting.  20g per man, plus six hundred a day in working expenses.  The storyline, to unfold over one season, is them finding a place to rob, planning the job, then pulling it.  And the sticking point is how they can legally commit an illegal act on national TV.

(There is a poignant moment where Marcy, tasked with taking surreptitious photos of the duo with her smartphone only to have it confiscated, makes a plaintive request for its return, saying her entire life is on that phone.  Stan deletes the photos, hands it back.  Chivalry is not dead.  Certain other things, perhaps….)

Kelp is brought in to consult, and he brings in The Ultimate Consultant, as you see up top.  Doug consults on his end with his boss, Babe Tuck, a former foreign news correspondent, who has seen it all before, or so he thought.  Just a preliminary consult, they’re not ready to commit to the concept yet, and even Babe, who has been held hostage by terrorists, is somewhat taken aback at the threat of bus-related violence on Third Avenue.

“I didn’t take it literally,” Doug assured him. “I took it to be Stan telling me he would do what it took, so he was showing me the extreme case. Naturally, I gave him the recorder before we got anywhere near there.”

“So there’s a threat of violence,” Babe said, “without the actual violence. That’s good, I like that.”

“These guys,” Doug said, “have a certain grungy kind of authenticity about them that’ll play very well on the small screen.”

Nodding, looking at his notepad, sucking a bit on his lower lip, Babe said, “What are they gonna steal?”

“That’s up to them,” Doug said. “We didn’t get that far.”

“No widow’s mites,” Babe cautioned. “No crippled newsie’s crutches.”

“Oh, nothing like that,” Doug said. “Our demographic would like to see some snooty rich people get cleaned out.”

(For all we know, many similar conversations have taken place at production offices with regards to many a Dortmunder movie that did or did not happen, as well as the TV pilot threatened in the trades a short while ago, of which nothing has been heard since.  Marcy should try applying for a job on one of those, they have writers. Kind of.)

Doug gets a call from Dortmunder.  He and Kelp are waiting to see him.  In his apartment.  (Kelp must have decided this was too interesting a meet to pass up, Post-Google).  They tell him to bring a sixpack.  Heineken, please.  It was Beck’s at Trader Thoreau, so I’m guessing the beer choice is Andy’s.  (Nobody ever has DAB in stock these days. My dad used to like that.)

And the moral here is that Google is a very good thing indeed–when you are the Googler.  As opposed to the Googled.  Googlee?  Whatever.

Doug is having mixed emotions about these people.  On the one hand, they’re breaking into his place like it’s no big deal, making themselves at home, pawing through his personal effects, learning about him while they wait (Like Google in three dimensions.  With lockpicks.) On the other hand, this does prove they’re–you know–for real.  That’s what he wanted, right?  Reality.  Of course, for people in his business, the meaning of the word is more flexible

Let’s say we rent a house, and we furnish it,” Fairkeep said, “and we put spycams all through the house, and we get a bunch of college kids, boys and girls, and we pay them to live in the house. But the gimmick could be, they have to spend the whole summer vacation there, they can’t ever step outside the house. Anybody leaves the house, they’re out of the game. We ship in food, and they can watch TV, and like that. And they don’t know each other before they start. And we can make up any rules we want to make up, make it different from any other show like that.”

Dortmunder said, “And you get people to do this? All summer?”

“We’ve got waiting lists,” Fairkeep said.

Dortmunder nodded. “And people watch this.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“I am surprised.”

“The point being,” Fairkeep said, “in a situation like that, what’s gonna happen? Who falls in love, has a fight, can’t hack it. We do the setup, but then they just do themselves. Same with you.”

Andy said, “Only, where’s our setup?”

Which in Kelp-speak means “What do we steal?”  This remains the sticking point.  And the logical solution would be that they’d steal from Get Real, or one of its sister companies–a sanctioned theft, indemnified under the corporate umbrella.  Doug doesn’t like this logic, but he has no convincing counter to it.  If Dortmunder & Co. can’t commit legal larceny, the show will not go on.

Doug protests that Get Real doesn’t have anything worth stealing–the other companies have things like aircraft engines that make for an impractical heist.  Having done his Googling well, Kelp knows how rich the corporate tapestry is, rattles off a list of names, knocking Doug even further off-balance.

Dortmunder, focusing on the essentials, insists that somewhere in this capitalist crochet there must exist some cash.  Hearing this assertion, Doug Fairkeep hesitates for a nanosecond, then issues a rote denial.  It’s all electronic impulses now, no cash anywhere (this in spite of the fact that he’s already told them he pays restaurant checks in cash so he can skim his expense account).

The thieves spot this wobble like a shark smells blood in the water.  So. There’s cash.  And it has to be somewhere Doug could have seen it.  The game’s afoot!

Next, we are with young Judson Blint, still slaving away at the enviable behest of the enticing J.C. Taylor, keeping her minor fraudulent operations afloat, while she busies herself with the great nation of Maylohda she conjured out of thin air to scam the entire planet.  She tells him to go have some fun.  He says yes ma’am.  She does not like that.

“Ma’am,” she said, with a scornful look, and left. Judson shrugged—it was so hard to know the right reactions to people when you were barely a person yourself at nineteen—and went back to, face it, work.

He always saved the music business for last, because those people were the most fun. The people who just wanted to be a detective at home in their spare time or just wanted to look at dirty pictures at home in their spare time were pretty cut-and-dried, merely sending in their money, but the people who sent music to Super Star Music to have lyrics set to it, or alternatively, lyrics for an infusion of music (sometimes A’s request meshing just fine with B’s, so what came in could be shipped right back out again, neither participant any the wiser), tended to write confessional letters of such mawkish cluelessness that Judson wished there were, somewhere in the world, a publisher gutsy enough to put out a collection of them.

But that was not to be, since dispassionate self-knowledge is not a quality held in much esteem by the majority of the human race, so not enough people would find the product funny. Oh, well; at least he could enjoy the sincerity of these simpletons, to ease his own stress in the workaday world.

Ah; this grandmother of eight had been compelled at last to her true vocation as love-song lyricist by the flaming car-crash death of her favorite seventeen-year-old grand-daughter. Well, Grandma, lucky for you she bought it.

He’s only delighted when Dortmunder calls, saying something about getting the group back together.  To play a very different kind of song.

And for the penultimate time in the annals of world literature–stop booing, it’s not my fault!–

When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Wednesday night at ten, the big low-ceilinged square room was underutilized. The booths along both sides and the tables in the middle were all empty. At the bar, along the rear of the room, Rollo the meaty bartender, off to the right, was slowly carving tomorrow’s specials onto a black blackboard with a stub of white chalk, a gray rag in his other hand. The regulars, as usual, were clustered along the left side of the bar.

It being April, the regulars were discussing taxes. “I might declare my bowling ball as an expense,” one said.

The guy to his right reared back. “Your bowling ball!”

“We wager certain amounts,” the first regular explained. “Only then I’d have to declare how much I won, and then pay tax on that. I asked the guy at the drugstore, which way do I come out ahead, he said he’d get back to me on that.”

As Dortmunder angled toward Rollo, he saw that the barman was groping in the direction of “lasagna,” but hadn’t quite reached it yet. Seeing Dortmunder, he nodded and said, “Long time no see.”

“I been semiretired,” Dortmunder told him. “Not on purpose.”

“That can be a drag.” Rollo pointed his jaw at the black-board. “Whadaya think?”

Dortmunder looked: LUHZANYA. “I don’t know about that H,” he said.

(I don’t know I’d necessarily want to eat lasagna at the OJ, no matter how it’s spelled, but if that was the price of attendance, gladly would I pay it. That’s what they invented Bismuth Subsalicylate for. )

Dortmunder and the next-to-arrive Kelp proceed to the back room, as one of the regulars insists that the flat tax means you owe the Feds the equivalent of one month’s rent.  Past the pointers and setters, past where the phone booth used to be when there were still phone booths.  They take a seat, pour themselves some Amsterdam Liquor Store bourbon (Our Own Brand), and wait.

Not for long.  Thunderous footfalls sound in the distance, like you hear at the opening of a Kaiju Eiga film.  Want to see how you spell Tiny Bulcher in Japanese?

As Dortmunder nodded, the doorway filled with enough person to choke Jonah’s whale. This creature, who was known only to those who felt safe in considering him their friend as Tiny, had the body of a top-of-the-line SUV, in jacket and pants of a neutral gray that made him look like an oncoming low, atop which was a head that didn’t make you think of Easter Island so much as Halloween Island. In his left fist he carried a glass of what looked like, but was not, cherry soda. When he spoke it wasn’t a surprise that bass notes of an organ sounded: “I’m late.”

Judson arrives, and behold–he’s got his own drink.  From now on, Rollo the Bartender will refer to him in absentia as the Campari and Soda, we may safely infer.

So everybody gets into the loop with the Get Real thing, and the meeting at Fairkeep’s apartment, and the momentary wobble when they asked if he knew of a place that had cash.  Incidentally–

Dortmunder said, “Andy and I had a discussion with the guy this afternoon, at his apartment.”

Stan said, “Oh? Where’s that?”

“One of those Trump buildings on the west side.”

“And how is it?”

Dortmunder shrugged. “Okay.”

“A little too bronze,” Kelp said.

Tiny said, “Over here, I’m still working around this.”

“Okay,” Dortmunder said.

“Andy did some computer trick—”

“It’s no trick,” Kelp said. “I Googled.”

“Oh, sure,” Stan said.

“Whatever,” Dortmunder said. “Turns out, this guy’s little company is owned by a bigger company, owned by a bigger company, and like that. Like those cartoons where every fish is getting eat by the bigger fish behind him.”

So Trump now officially exists in the Dortmunderian universe.  As if they didn’t have enough problems there.  But leaving that to one side, the gang being all here, they try to figure out exactly what Doug’s little wobble would signify, and of course the Campari and Soda nails it.

“Oh!” said the kid. When they all looked at him, he had a huge happy grin on his face. Lifting his glass, he toasted them all in Campari and soda, then knocked back a good swig of it, slapped the glass down onto the felt, and said, “Now I get it!”

That was the annoying thing about the kid, who was otherwise okay. Every once in a while, he’d get it before anybody else got it, and when he got it, he got it.

So Tiny said to him, “If you got it, give it to us.”

“Bribes,” the kid said.

They looked at him. Stan said, “Bribes?”

“Every big company that does business in different countries,” the kid said, “bribes the locals when they want to come do business. Here, buy our aircraft engines, not that other guy’s aircraft engines, and you look like you could use another set of golf clubs. Here’s a little something for the wife. Wouldn’t you like to run our TV show on your station? I know they don’t pay you what you deserve; here, have an envelope.”

“I’ve heard about this,” Kelp said. “There’s a word everybody uses, it’s chai, it means ‘tea,’ you sit down together, you have a cuppa tea, you move the envelope.”

Tiny said, “So? That’s what they call business.”

“Somewhere around thirty years ago,” the kid said, “the US Congress passed a law, it’s illegal for an American company to bribe foreigners.”

Stan said, “What? No way.”

“It’s true,” the kid said. “American companies have to be very careful, it’s a federal crime, it’s a felony, they all gotta do it, but they really don’t wanna get caught.”

Kelp said, “So we’re shooting ourself in the foot, is what you’re saying.”

“Both feet,” said the kid. “And not for the first time. Anyway, what this guy Doug saw was the courier, the guy who carries the cash. He’s a known guy to everybody, he works for this television outfit, he travels for them all the time, they’re used to seeing him go back and forth, he always carries all his movie equipment with him.”

Tiny said, “That’s very nice.”

“And one time,” the kid said, “maybe more, Doug saw the cash going into the DVD boxes. So the guy who carries the money works in Doug’s outfit.”

“Him,” Dortmunder said, “we’ll find. It may take a little time, but him we’ll find.”

“What’s extra nice about this,” Tiny said, “it’s like those guys that knock over drug dealers. You heist somebody already committing a crime, he doesn’t call the cops.”

“At last,” Kelp said. “The perfect crime.”

I was somewhat bothered by the assembled thieves’ stern disapproval of sound anti-corruption legislation, but then I remembered–they’re thieves.  There really is nothing objectionable about small time crooks snookering major leaguers.  Inverting that cartoon of the big fish eating the little ones.  You never heard of piranha?

I don’t know about that H, but I do know that as they walk out of the OJ, and Rollo has lasagna spelled correctly on the blackboard because he called The Knights of Columbus to check, I have to restrain myself from hugging him.  Could be misinterpreted.  With the exception of a brief episode near the end, what we get from now on is a simulacra Rollo, overseeing an ersatz OJ.  In a tediously predictable Part 2 to this review.

I used to be a lot terser when I started doing this.  As the blog rolled on, the books got longer, more sophisticated, the author finding new ways to restate his themes, and of course he wasn’t writing short paperbacks anymore–I found myself getting lost in the devilish details.  And there is no pleasanter place to go astray, but even so, I miss the pithier me, sometimes.

All the same, I thought I might manage one final one-parter for this one.  It’s one of the shorter books in this series, bit of a throwback to the early days.  Westlake was focused here, not going off on tangents, not introducing a lot of character arcs that don’t go anywhere, not taking elements he might have intended for some other novel he never wrote and retro-fitting them for Dortmunder.

There are the usual satiric asides–it’s never just about quirky crooks pulling half-assed heists–but the satire here stems entirely from the A-Plot, and there is no B-Plot. Very focused indeed.  Almost as if the author knew he didn’t have much time left.  For as Dr. Johnson said, nothing focuses the mind like the realization you’ll hang tomorrow.  Let’s see how well that axiom applies to Fred Fitch.

Those who want to hold off paying their bets until next time will not be considered welshers.  There will be no Part 3.  (Unless it becomes unavoidable)  I only have two more (nearly identical) cover images.  And no more novels at all  Get ready.  The end is nigh upon us.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s So Funny?, Part 2

“What it is,” Mr. Dortmunder said, “we got a real problem getting at that thing down in that place, like I told you last time.”

“I’m sorry this whole thing got started,” she said.

“Well, so am I, but here we are.” He shrugged. “The thing is,” he said, “your grandfather and the guy working for him, they’re pretty set on getting that thing. Or, I mean, me getting that thing.”

She felt so guilty about this, much worse than mistaking him for a beggar. “Would it help,” she said, “if I talked to my grandfather?”

“Defeatist isn’t gonna get far with him.”

That sounded like her grandfather, all right. Sighing, she said, “I suppose not.”

“But there maybe could be another way,” he said.

Surprised, ready to be pleased, she said, “Oh, really?”

“Only,” he said, “it’s gonna mean I’m gonna have to ask you to help out.”

She stopped, absorbed a couple rabbit punches from the hurrying throng, and said, “Oh, no, Mr. Dortmunder!”

They’d reached the corner now, and he said, “Come on around here, before they knock you out.”

The side street was easier. Walking along it, she said, “You have to understand, Mr. Dortmunder, I’m an attorney. I’m an officer of the court. I can’t be involved in crime.”

“That’s funny,” he said. “I’ve heard of one or two lawyers involved in crime.”

“Criminal lawyers, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

This title begs a rhetorical question–and the answer is “lots, but not the title itself.”  Rather generic, isn’t it?  You’d think Westlake could have stuck a chess reference in there, given the subject matter.  Kings, queens, knights, bishops, castles, gambits, sacrifices, isolated pawns–it’s endless.

The Dortmunder titles (and many other non-Dortmunder titles of Westlake’s) are often popular turns of phrase, turned on their heads.  But I can’t see how that’s the case here.  The word ‘funny’ appears an unremarkable nine times in the book (thank you, Kindle), one of which you can see in the quote up top, but nothing close to this specific phrase ever appears (whereas, in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, the titular phrase serves as a leitmotif, a much-repeated rhetorical question that keeps getting answered in ways that are all too sadly predictable, much like the currently breaking news stories that refuse to stop breaking, no matter how you beg.

If he didn’t want to get all inside-chessball, Your Move would have worked better than What’s So Funny?  Too Many Rooks would work, but is derivative of an earlier story. Every Rook and Plan B?  I’m not saying the title couldn’t be worse, you understand.

This becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that Westlake did not shun chess-themed titling when it came to the internal structure of the book, divided as it is into two roughly equal parts–Knights Errand and Pawn’s Revenge.  Part Two begins with Chapter 33.  (I’ve given up trying to figure out how Westlake decided whether the chapter count should be reset when he started a new section.  Maybe he flipped a coin?  Or the bird?)

Pawn’s Revenge would seem to refer to Dortmunder’s retribution against newly minted private investigator, Johnny Eppick.  This comes, paradoxically, towards the end of Part One, after Dortmunder is told his services won’t be required after all, and he won’t be paid for his time, which predictably triggers his less lethal version of Parker’s reaction to being shortchanged.

He holds Eppick responsible for this indignity, even though it’s Hemlow who is stiffing him.  It was Eppick who put a handle on his back, forced him into a job he never wanted, by finding proof of his involvement in a minor burglary.  Eppick’s the one who has to pay.

A few weeks pass, and then the cocksure retired police detective, enjoying his little private eye fantasy (and hoping to somehow make it pay) finds his own office has been burgled, clearly by a seasoned pro, who defeated his security system with contemptuous ease.  Everything there worth stealing is gone.  The evidence against Dortmunder has mysteriously disappeared (along with the computer it was stored on).  Takes him a while to figure out whodunnit (not much of a sleuth, when you get right down to it).

This is the pawn’s revenge, and I’m not sure I see how what follows in Part Two is revenge of any kind.  Dortmunder is only interested in profit after that.  So I’m even quibbling over the sub-titles.  Enough about the titles, already.  I’ve some of my own to think up, as I finish this one out.  How about we start off with–

Isolated Porn:

This is a subplot that straddles both parts of the book.  In the early stages of planning the heist of the chess set, Dortmunder and Kelp are chauffeured to a Hemlow’s hunting lodge in the wilds of northern Massachusetts, which nobody in his family wants to use anymore, and he figures would be a good place to stow the goods until the heat fades.

They check the place out, and it’s definitely isolated.  What they miss out on is the porn.  See, there’s two kids from Nebraska holed up there, and I use that phrase advisedly.

Brady tried find his place in the Kama Sutra even while Nessa kept on galloping beneath him at cheetah speed, putting him in a position similar to the person who has to rub his belly and pat his forehead at the same time. Got it; that page! Brady bent to his lesson, and Nessa abruptly stopped.

Brady reared back. “Already? No!”

An urgent hand reached around behind her to grasp his hip. “A car!” she cried, her words only half muffled by the pillow.

Now he too heard it, the throaty purr of some expensive automobile rolling up toward the house. Flinging the Kama Sutra away, he leaped off the bed and ran across the large master bedroom toward the front windows, as behind him Nessa scrambled into her clothes.

A long sleek black limousine rolled to a stop at the garage door behind which Brady’s battered Honda Civic sat, as Brady peeked around the curtain. The car doors opened down there and four men climbed out, one at first on hands and knees until two of the others helped him up. The one from the front seat in the chauffeur’s hat would be a chauffeur, and he’s the one who led the others toward the house, taking a key ring from his pocket.

The door wasn’t locked! Racing back across the room, grabbing his jeans from the floor but nothing else, Brady shrilly whispered, “Hide everything!” and tore out to the hall as behind him Nessa, already hiding the Kama Sutra under a pillow, wailed, “Oh, Brady!”

Brady and Nessa are basically ripped straight out of the ‘sleaze’ novels Westlake used to write in the late 50’s/early 60’s, which he’d sent up memorably in Adios, Scheherazade.  Less memorably here, but it’s the same basic story, only without all the deconstruction and soul-searching.  Porno-picaresque.  Brady took one look at Nessa, decided she was all he was ever going to be interested in, and they took off to see the world and each other’s genitals, not necessarily in that order of significance.

Brady, who thinks of himself as a real operator, found a way for them to get into the lodge undetected, and they’ve been living there a while now, raiding the freezer, and hiding whenever somebody shows up to do a bit of maintenance work.  They similarly avoid detection by these new interlopers, and Brady can’t help but listen in with interest, as Kelp (not that Brady ever knows his name) once again shows us he’s a reader.

“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.

Both of the others seemed stymied by that. Johnny finally said, “Was that supposed to be something?”

“Short story by Edgar Allan Poe,” the chipper one said. “Whatsamatta, Johnny, you never went to high school?”

“Yeah, that’s all right,” Johnny said. “What’s this letter? We’re not talking about a letter.”

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

“We’re talking about something where you hide it,” the chipper one told him, “that nobody’s gonna find it. In the story, it’s a letter. And where the guy hid it, turns out, was right there on the dresser, where nobody’s gonna see it because what they’re looking for is something hidden.”

“Crap,” Johnny announced.

The weary one said, “You know, Johnny, maybe not. You got something, you can’t find it, turns out, it’s right in front of you. Happens all the time.”

“Nobody’s gonna look at that set,” Johnny insisted, “and not notice it.”

Set? What the hell is it? Brady was about to go out and ask, unable to stand it any more.

But then the chipper one said, “How about this? We get it. On the way up here, we get cans of spray paint, black enamel and red enamel. We paint ’em all over, this team red, this team black, nobody sees any gold, nobody sees any jewels, it just looks like any chess set. We can leave it right out, like on that big table over there with all that other stuff.”

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

Tiptoeing as fast as the first night he ever sneaked into Nessa’s house back in Numbnuts, Brady made his way to the second floor, where Nessa, tired and sweaty, was just finished bringing all their dirty used stuff up from the kitchen. “Baby!” he whispered, exulting. “We’re in!”

More (heavily euphemized) sex follows (That’s what you paid your thirty-five cents for, right?  Wait, you paid how much?), but here’s the thing about Mr. Westlake and the pseudo-porns he wrote to pay bills.  I’ve read enough of them to know that he was satirizing this shortlived publishing niche even while he was working in it.  And he does it again here, nostalgically, you might say.

Brady is determined to heist the heist, but Nessa thinks these were just three idiots shooting off their mouths, and is getting cabin fever out there at the lodge.  She insists they leave, and then she leaves Brady for another guy, and that guy for yet another guy, and turns out she was the protagonist of the sleaze novel within the heist novel after all, a sexual adventuress sowing her wild oats, a figure we saw more than once in the Westlake sleazes of bygone days, and one last time here.

Which is why she’s back in Part Two, and Brady is seen no more after Part One ends, having returned to the much-despised Numbnuts (there are towns with much weirder names out there in the American hinterlands).  He lands a job at Starbucks, nothing interesting ever happens to him again, and he only occasionally wonders what happened with that purloined chess set.  Not that he’d believe it if you told him.

But would you believe in–

The Wicked Witch of the East Side:

Mrs. W (as she preferred to be called by the staff) was, for instance, on the boards of many of the city’s organizations, as well as a director of a mind-boggling array of corporations. Beyond that, she was a tireless litigant, involved in many more lawsuits than merely those involving her immediate family. Solo, or as a very active member of a class, she was at the moment suing automobile manufacturers, aspirin makers, television networks, department stores, airlines, law firms that had previously represented her, and an array of ex-employees, including two former personal assistants.

While passionately involved in every one of these matters, Mrs. W was not at all coordinated or methodical and never knew exactly where she was in any ongoing concern, whom she owed, who owed her, and where and when the meeting was supposed to take place. She really needed a personal assistant.

And Fiona was perfect for the job. She was calm, she had no ax to grind, and she had a natural love for detail. Particularly for all the more reprehensible details of Mrs. W’s busy life, the double-dealing and chicanery, the stories behind all the lawsuits and all the feuds and all the shifting loyalties among Mrs. W’s many rich-lady friends.

And, just to make Fiona’s life complete, Mrs. W was writing an autobiography! Talk about history in the raw. Mrs. W had total recall of every slight she’d ever suffered, every snub, every shortchanging, every encounter in which the other party had turned out to be even more grasping, shrewder, and more untrustworthy than she was. She dictated all these steaming memories into a tape recorder in spurts of venom, which Lucy Leebald, Mrs. W’s current secretary, had to type out into neat manuscript.

Perhaps predictably, Westlake’s deep animosity towards the very rich abated just a touch when it came to very rich women.  Not that they were ever fetching fantasy figures in his fiction.  But he could appreciate that great wealth, inherited or otherwise, was one means whereby a woman could be absolutely unequivocally herself in a chauvinistic society, without anybody calling her on it.   Or at least anybody whose opinion she is obliged to give two shits about.  Whether this is a good thing or not, is, of course, a different matter.  But it’s a thing.

Livia Northwood Wheeler is a dominating presence in this book, and not only because she is at least part-owner of this chess set Dortmunder is out to steal, which she knows literally nothing about except the fact that she doesn’t want her scheming relations to get it. She has no idea her grandfather stole the set from his army buddies, and used it to build a real estate empire that has given her the position in life she now enjoys.  She’s never laid eyes on it. But Fiona’s seemingly innocent questions about it, that led indirectly to her now being very happily in this dragon lady’s employ, have made the dragon lady ask some inconvenient questions.

“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”

“Of course it is. But it’s a different history I want you to think about now.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Do you remember a discussion we had—two discussions, I think—about the Chicago chess set?”

Oh, dear. Fiona had been afraid to even mention the chess set, but wanting to help her grandfather in his quest—even if at the moment he believed he’d given it up—she had given it a try. She’d even—when they were looking together at the photos of the pieces on Mrs. W’s computer—managed to “discover” the mismatch in weight among the rooks.

But that had been some time ago. She’d given the effort up when she’d seen she was getting nowhere and might even be putting herself at risk. But now Mrs. W herself had raised the issue; for good, or for ill?

Heart in her mouth but expression as innocent as ever, Fiona said, “Oh, yes, ma’am. That beautiful chess set.”

“You noticed one of the pieces was the wrong weight.”

“Oh, I remember that.”

“Very observant of you,” Mrs. W said, and nodded, agreeing with herself. “That fact kept bothering me, after our discussions, and I soon realized there was far more mystery surrounding that chess set than merely one unexpectedly lighter rook.”

Looking alert, interested, Fiona said, “Oh, really?”

“Where is that chess set from?” Mrs. W demanded, glaring severely at Fiona. “Who made it? Where? In what century? It just abruptly appears, with no history, in a sealed glass case in the lobby of my father’s company, Gold Castle Realty, when they moved into the Castlewood Building in 1948. Where was it before 1948? Where did my father get it, and when? And now that we know the one piece is lighter than the rest, and is a castle, now we wonder, where did my father get his company name?”

“Gold Castle, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

Knowing how she could answer every last one of Mrs. W’s questions, but how doing so would be absolutely the worst move she could make, Fiona said, “Well, I guess he had to have it somewhere else before he put up the new building.”

“But where?” Mrs. W demanded. “And how long had he had it? And who had it before him?” Mrs. W shook her head. “You see, Fiona, the more you study that chess set, the deeper the mystery becomes.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“History and mystery,” Mrs. W mused. “The words belong together. Fiona, I want you to ferret out the history and the mystery of the Chicago chess set.”

I am being given, Fiona thought, the one job in all the world at which I have to fail. I’m the mystery, Mrs. W, she thought, I’m the mystery and the history, my family and I, and you must never know.

So this is Fiona’s latest identity crisis, but I see nary a one for Mrs. W.  She never, at any time, questions her right to the massive wealth and influence she inherited.  She does, eventually, learn of her grandfather’s crime, and she finds it appalling, and never does she make the slightest existential query as a result of that.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the very rich, and most particularly those who were born that way, are very different from you and me–not because they have more money, but because they just assume it’s their natural inalienable right to have all that money.  And in their position, so would you.

The Devil Wears Prada was published in 2003, perhaps around the time this book was written, and there is a hint of the relationship between that novel’s title character and protagonist and that between Mrs. W. and Fiona.  However, it’s a very different thing to scratch and claw your way to the top, and to simply be born there as a result of somebody else’s scratching and clawing.

So perhaps fortunately for Fiona, there is no friction between her and her new employer. Mrs. W. can never see her as a rival, let alone a protégé.  Simply one in a long chain of people who exist to service her needs.  It may have seemed as if she was making it up to Fiona by hiring her on after accidentally getting her fired from her law firm, but who ended up with the perfect assistant as a result?   At her most altruistic, she is still helping herself more than anyone else.  Well, that’s the unfortunate part of it, you see.

When Mrs. W. learns of the secret connection between their families–and she knows Fiona was born into a moneyed family as well, even though she’s clearly not inheriting any great wealth–she’s politely apologetic, and not the least bit sorry.  The fact is, it’s all working out in her favor, as things pretty much always tend to do.  And she’s not done helping herself yet.

Fiona has a live-in boyfriend, named Brian, who works at some youth-oriented cable channel, that does a lot of snarky youth-oriented programming.  Brian was definitely not born into a moneyed family, but clearly wishes he was, and his interest in Fiona is pretty clearly motivated at least in part by her proximate connection to great wealth, though the life they lead is anything but lush.

He’s delighted when Fiona gets the job with Mrs. W, and wants to find some excuse to meet the old gal.  He finally hits on inviting her to this ‘March Madness’ party at his office–which is a costume party.  He invariably goes as a character from one of the shows his network puts on. The Reverend Twisted.  Fiona seems to always go as herself, and never really fits in with all the pretenders.

But who will Mrs. W. appear as?  She keeps it a secret to the last possible moment.

Yes; that was it. The clunky black lace-up shoes; the black robe; the tall conical black hat; the outsize wart on nose; the green-strawed broom held aloft. It was Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz to the life; to the teeth. “And that goes for your little dog, too!” she cried, exiting the elevator and announcing her presence.

She was an instant hit. Awareness rippled outward through the hall, and people were drawn as by magnets in her direction. People crowded around her, people applauded her, people tried to hold conversations with her, people gave her about thirty drinks. The only sour note in the event, as it were, was the band’s attempt to play “Over the Rainbow”; fortunately, most people didn’t recognize it.

The first excitement and delight soon passed, and the party returned to approximately where it had been before Mrs. W had made her appearance, only with an extra little frisson created by this new presence in their midst. It isn’t every party that has a drop-in from the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps the most beloved and certainly the best-known villainess in pop culture.

With the theater ticket sales to prove it.  So rich she was able to order a rewrite, with herself as the beautiful young heroine!  Wicked opened on Broadway the same year The Devil Wears Prada saw print, and that does not seem like a coincidence to me, but who the hell knows?

What Fiona knows, watching her employer dance with her boyfriend, while she sits on the sidelines, holding the witch’s broom, is that she is definitely getting the short end of the stick.  But we can talk about that later.  Right now, we’re going to be–

Watching The Detectives:

In the earliest days of his retirement years, Eppick had thought about hiring on somewhere, but a life on wages after so many years on the Job had just seemed too much of a comedown.  It was time to be his own boss for a while, see how that would play out.  So he got his private investigator’s license, not hard for an ex-cop, and set up the office down on East Third because it was inexpensive and he didn’t feel he was going to have to impress anybody.  All he needed was files and a phone.  Besides, private eyes were expected to office in grungy neighborhoods.

Jacques Perly was the only private detective Jay Tumbril knew, or was likely to know. A specialist in the recovery of stolen art, frequently the go-between with the thieves on the one side and the owner/museum/insurer on the other, Perly was a cultured and knowledgeable man, far from the grubby trappings associated with the term “private eye.”

Tumbril had known Perly slightly for years, since the Feinberg firm had more than once been peripherally involved in the recovery of valuable art stolen from its clients, and now, although Fiona Hemlow could not fairly be described as either “stolen” or “art,” Jacques Perly was the man Jay Tumbril thought to turn to when there were Questions to be Asked.

They met at one that Monday afternoon for lunch at the Tre Mafiosi on Park Avenue, a smooth, hushed culinary temple all in white and green and gold, with, this time of year, pink flowers. Perly had arrived first, as he was supposed to, and he rose with a smile and an outstretched hand when Tony the maître d’ escorted Jay to the table. A round, stuffed Cornish game hen of a man, Jacques Perly retained a slight hint of his original Parisian accent. A onetime art student, a failed artist, he viewed the world with a benign pessimism, the mournful good humor of a rich unmarried uncle, who expects nothing and accepts everything.

Westlake made a very interesting choice here, in giving us two private detectives to watch, one of them trying to arrange a heist, the other trying to prevent it.  But we’re not supposed to root for either of them.  Just watch them, and note the differences.  A study in contrasts, something he was always good at.

What he always had trouble with was identifying with detectives–that is to say, with those who have made it their business to sniff out secrets, solve mysteries, tiptoe around in gum-soled shoes–as far back as Killing Time, his mistrust of them was made clear.  (Though the Mitch Tobin mysteries rank with his very best work, and in my estimation are a cut above all but a handful of stories written in this subgenre, that’s basically an anti-detective series.)

To write about detectives, he needed to subvert the formula, defeat expectations, because he just did not believe in detectives, though he was fascinated by the idea of solving puzzles.  There could be many reasons for that, but I’d assume one of them would be that it was detectives working for the NY state police who caught him stealing in college, and threw him in a cage for a few days.  They humiliated him, and he spent the rest of his life returning the favor with interest.  (We Irish are noted for our long memories.)

So you would think, wouldn’t you, that it would be Eppick, the retired cop, ready to put our beloved Dortmunder in a cell for the rest of his life if he won’t cooperate, who’d be the nemesis here.  Maybe he was originally intended as such, and Westlake changed his mind.

There are darkly ominous moments relating to Eppick, such as when he surprises May at her job, getting in the checkout line at the supermarket, to send a message to Dortmunder that he knows his every weak spot.  His interest in the chess set seems much more than just professional; his distress when Hemlow calls the whole thing off for a time is palpable. But he likes the life he’s got, and the wife he’s got, has no interest in going off to build a new identity with ill-gotten goods.  This is just a way to pass the time for him.  He’s enjoying the drama, the intrigue, and quite honestly, the company of men he used to incarcerate for a living.

This is the second time I’ve read this, but memory is a sieve, and again I found myself thinking Eppick was going to try a cross, steal the stolen chess set for himself, leave Dortmunder & Co. holding the empty bag–and clearly we’re supposed to expect that, but that’s not what happens.  Both detectives ultimately prove honest, each after his own fashion.  Westlake ultimately sides with the one who proves to be an honest crook.

Eppick ultimately gets his drama, and Jacques Perly gets the shaft (and I don’t mean the one who’s like a sex machine with all the chicks).  Perly gets hired by the same high-powered lawyer who fired Fiona, because he’s worried–Mrs. Wheeler, his very lucrative litigious client, wants that chess set taken out of the bank vault and examined by experts.  For no other reason, really, than that Fiona has aroused her curiosity about it.  Her squabbling relations have no objection, probably because they’ve always been curious about it themselves.  None of them has ever laid eyes on it (and none of them ever will).

Perly is supposed to find out if there’s some nefarious scheme behind all this, and his suspicion somehow falls on poor Brian, who may have some vague designs on Mrs. Wheeler’s money, but could not care less about the chess set (whose real story he knows from Fiona).

Here’s the problem with this approach–knowing there’s some kind of scheme afloat, and knowing what it is–two different things.  A good detective, like a good scientist, doesn’t shape the facts to fit his theory.  Perly, a polished professional lackey to the rich and powerful, knows everything but what he doesn’t know, but that’s the most important thing anyone can ever know.  Once his instincts tell him Brian is the malefactor, he can’t let go of that assumption, and it irreparably warps his ratiocinative processes.  The narrative builds towards that moment in every mystery book, where The Great Detective unmasks the villain–and we watch with some satisfaction as he falls flat on his smug round face.

Eppick, by contrast, is not significantly better or worse off by the end–he had his fun, and he’ll probably never have another case half as good (though maybe he’d have shown up in future books, if there had been more than just one more book in the future).  He’s actually advocating in good faith for Dortmunder & Co. with Hemlow–a hireling  himself, and perhaps more of a rogue than he ever dreamed, he identifies more with them than with his employer.  What you’re watching in him is a detective and former cop finding out he prefers the black side of the chess board after all.  Maybe he started out as the antagonist, but he ends as decent enough guy, who holds no grudges against Dortmunder for burgling his office.

The Irish have a long memory for slights, as I said, and I don’t know offhand of any ethnicity with a short one–but I’d guess Westlake had made the acquaintance of many a police officer since his youthful disgrace.  He must have had a fair few fans among them, and some would have perhaps aided his research.  Privately, some might even have been willing to admit to the failings of their profession, and in the words of Lucius O’Trigger, “An affront, handsomely acknowledged, becomes an obligation.”   An obligation to at least be an honest dealer, but since the pleasure of a Dortmunder novel is dishonest dealings, it’s time we move on to–

Parkeur Brothers:

Gansevoort Streeet is part of the far West Village, an old seafaring section, an elbow of twisted streets and skewed buildings poked into the ribs of the Hudson River. The area is still called the Meatpacking District, though it’s been more than half a century since the elevated coal-burning trains from the west came down the left fringe of Manhattan to the slaughterhouses here, towing many cattle cars filled with loud complaint. After the trains were no more, some cows continued to come down by truck, but their heart wasn’t in it, and gradually almost an entire industry shriveled away into history.

Commerce hates a vacuum. Into the space abandoned by the doomed cows came small manufacturing and warehousing. Since the area sits next to the actual Greenwich Village, some nightlife grew as well, and when the grungy old nineteenth-century commercial buildings started being converted into pied-à-terres for movie stars, you knew all hope was gone.

Still, the Meatpacking District, even without much by way of the packing of meat, continues to present a varied countenance to the world, part residential, part trendy shops and restaurants, and part storage and light manufacturing. Into this mix Jacques Perly’s address blended perfectly, as Dortmunder and Kelp discovered when they strolled down the block.

Perly had done nothing to gussy up the facade. It was a narrow stone building, less than thirty feet across, with a battered metal green garage door to the left and a gray metal unmarked door on the right. Factory-style square-paned metal windows stretched across the second floor, fronted by horizontal bands of narrow black steel that were designed not to look like prison bars, to let in a maximum of light and view, and to slice the fingers off anybody who grabbed them.

The single best part of the book is not the heist itself, but Dortmunder and Kelp doing a bit of scouting in advance of the heist.  In fact, it’s one of the best pieces of writing in any Dortmunder book, or even any Westlake book–worth the price of admission all by itself.  And if you found some way to sneak in and read it for free, well that’s entirely appropriate.

Dortmunder knows the chess set is coming out of its grim redoubt, and he knows that Jacques Perly has, perhaps imprudently, volunteered his own office on Gansevoort Street, as the site where it will be evaluated by experts.  Security will be tight as hell–they’re going to need to know the set-up in advance.  So he and Kelp head down there at night, and look for a way to break in without triggering any alarms or leaving any trace of their presence.

They find an apartment with a window that looks down on the small building the detective agency is headquartered in.  (The resident of said apartment is out enjoying the nightlife.)  Maybe they can go in by the roof.  Kelp goes out the window to try and find out.  Dortmunder waits for him to come back, but you know what?  Sometimes people come home earlier than you’d think.  He hears a key in the door.  He sees light in a nearby hallway.  Time to improvise.

Dortmunder didn’t go in for agile, he went in for whatever-works. He managed to go out the window simultaneously headfirst and assfirst, land on several parts that didn’t want to be landed on, struggle to his feet, and go loping and limping away as behind him an outraged voice cried, “Hey!”, which was followed almost instantly by a window-slam.

Dortmunder did his Quasimodo shuffle two more paces before it occurred to him what would be occurring to the householder at just this instant, which was: That window was locked. Once more he dropped to the roof, with less injury to himself this time, and scrunched against the wall to his left as that window back there yanked loudly upward and the outraged voice repeated, “Hey!”

Silence.

“Who’s out there?”

Nobody nobody nobody.

“Is somebody out there?”

Absolutely not.

“I’m calling the cops!”

Fine, good, great; anything, just so you’ll get away from that window.

Westlake had been working on this type of parkeur-esque escape scene for a long time now, at least as far back as God Save The Mark–Manhattan is a vertical environment.  Cliffs, plateaus, canyons and arroyos, made of masonry and brick and glass and lots of empty air a person could fall through on his way to the very hard ground below.  There are people who have fun by learning ways to negotiate this hazardous terrain.  Dortmunder would think those people are nuts.  But he’s in a poor position to throw stones right now.

Kelp is nowhere to be seen, obviously he heard the shouts, knows what’s going on, took a powder.  Dortmunder figures Kelp found his way into Perly’s building, and that seems as good an escape route as any.  He can’t just wait around here for some curious cop to show up in response to the householder’s distress call.  But there’s no way into the building from its roof–how can he find his way to some useful doorway?

Rungs. Metal rungs, round and rusty, were fixed to the rear wall, marching from here down to the wrought iron. They did not look like things that any sane person would want to find himself on, but this was not a sanity test, this was a question of escape.

Wishing he didn’t have to watch what he was doing, Dortmunder sat on the low stone wall, then lay forward to embrace it while dangling his left foot down, feeling around for the top rung. Where the hell was it?

Finally he had to shift position so he could turn his head to the left and slither leftward across the stone wall toward the dark drop which, when he could see it, was nowhere near dark enough. In the lightspill from across the way, many items could be seen scrambled together on the concrete paving way down there: metal barrels, old soda bottle cases with soda bottles, lengths of pipe, a couple of sinks, rolls of wire, a broken stroller. Everything but a mattress; no mattresses.

But there was that damn iron rung, not exactly where he’d expected it. He wriggled backward, stabbed for the rung, and got his foot on it at last.

And now what? The first thing he had to do was turn his back on the drop and, while lying crosswise on the stone wall, put as much of his weight as he could on that foot on the rung, prepared at any instant to leap like a cat—an arthritic cat—if the thing gave way.

But it didn’t. It held, and now he could ooch himself backward a little bit and put his right foot also on the rung. One deep breath, and he heard that far-off window fly up, and knew the householder was looking for him again. Could he see this far into the darkness, at the shape of a man lying on a stone wall?

Let’s not give him enough time to pass that test; Dortmunder clutched the inner edge of the wall with both hands in a death grip, and slid back some more, letting the right foot slide on down past the safety of that rung, paw around, paw some more, and by God, find the next rung!

The transition from the second rung to the third was easier, but then the transition to the fourth was much worse, because that was when his hands had to leave the stone wall and, after several slow days of hanging in midair, at last grasp the top rung tightly enough to leave dents.

Overcome, he remained suspended there a minute or two, breathing like a walrus after a marathon, and then he progressed down, down, down, and there was the porch which was really just an openwork metal floor cantilevered from the building, with a skimpy rail at waist height.

Next to him. The rungs did not descend into the railed metal floor but beside it. So now he was supposed to let go of these beautiful rungs and vault over the goddam rail?

He manages, somehow, to overcome this Escherian nightmare.  Down the fire escape, into a little courtyard with a back door to the building waiting for him.  Of course it’s all walled in, no way out to the street, he’s got to go inside, as he still thinks Kelp has done, without leaving any trace of tampering with the lock–very nice work–he pulls out his set of lockpicks.  He wants to do just as well as his comrade in arms.  Professional pride and all.

So he’s in.  Might as well look around.  Has one of those tiny powerful flashlights that most people use as keychains–civilization will eventually provide an industrious thief with every tool he could ever desire.  One door leads to another, and he’s got the run of the place. Scopes it out, seeing its potentials, its vulnerabilities.  He sees a nice wooden door he deduces must lead to Perly’s office.  Locked of course.  Easily unlocked, of course.

And within this holy of holies, right there on Perly’s nice desk, he finds Perly’s extensive notes on the security provisions that will be in place the day the chess set arrives.  And there’s a photocopier he can use to bring them home with him with none the wiser, so helpful.  A bit more poking around yields a garage door opener that can get him and his buddies in there anytime they want.

In his mind, Dortmunder has been following Kelp through this labyrinth, the way Professor Lidenbrock was following Arne Saknussemm to the center of the earth.  But that, he learns, was all in his mind.  Kelp’s parkeurian path led him in an entirely different direction.  So when they meet up later, Dortmunder has to tell him the whole story (and we get to enjoy it all over again).

Kelp was astonished, and said so. “John, I’m astonished.”

“No choice,” Dortmunder said. “Down the rungs, down the fire escape. What got me was how clean you went through that basement door.”

“What basement door?”

“Into Perly’s building. What other way was there?”

Kelp was now doubly astonished. “You went into Perly’s building?”

“What else could I do?”

“Did you never turn around?” Kelp asked him. “Did you never see that humongous apartment house right behind you? You get thirty-seven windows to choose from over there, John.”

Dortmunder frowned, thinking back. “I never even looked over there,” he admitted. “And here I thought how terrific you were, you got through that basement door without leaving a mark, got through and out the building and not one single sign of you.”

“That’s because I wasn’t there,” Kelp said. “Where I was instead, I went into an apartment where there’s nobody home but there’s a couple nice de Koonings on the living room wall, so I went uptown to make them on consignment to Stoon, and then I went home. I never figured you to come down that same way. And wasn’t that a risk, you go in there before we want to go in there? Did you leave marks, John?”

Insulted, Dortmunder said, “What kind of a question is that? Here I tell you how impressed I am how you didn’t leave any marks—”

“It was easier for me.”

“Granted. But then, back last night, you were like my benchmark. So what I left was what you left. Not a trace, Andy, guaranteed.”

“Well, that’s terrific, you found that way in,” Kelp said. “Is that our route on the day?”

“We don’t have to do all that,” Dortmunder told him. “While I was in there anyway, I looked around, I picked up some stuff.”

“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”

“Come on, Andy.”

“You’re right,” Kelp said. “I know better than that. Maybe I’m like Eppick, I’m getting a little tense. So what stuff did you come out with?”

“Their extra garage door opener.”

Kelp reared back. “Their what?”

And all he got was a couple de Koonings.  Actually, as matters arrange themselves, Andy probably ended up doing better out of their night’s work, but there’s no question in either man’s mind which of the Parkeur Brothers did the niftier bit of burglary that night.  There’s always a friendly competition going on between those two, and Andy, to his credit, is only delighted that John got the better of him this time.

You know, all these long quotes are really piling up the word count.  Sorry, I just recently found out how easy it is to copy/paste from Kindle, and it’s going to my head.   Not going to do a Part 3.  Not really feeling the need to cover everything in this book–I’ve spent almost three straight months now, reviewing Dortmunder stories, more than I ever have before–and that’s fitting, since Westlake was likewise writing more Dortmunder than he ever had before.

The results were a bit mixed, but far from unhappy.  This book is a very fine bit of late Westlake, well worth reading.  However, while it’s  a more organic bit of storytelling than the last two, its principle pleasures are still to be found more in the individual bits and pieces than in the finished whole.

I think we’d best move to the endgame now.  Hmm, ‘Endgame’ is too obvious a subheading, and this isn’t Samuel Beckett we’re talking about here.  I wouldn’t say chess was ever the true theme of this novel (I rather doubt Mr. Westlake played it well, if at all), but it was, you might say, a stylistic motif.  How about we go with–

En Poe-sant:

Before dinner, Mr. Hemlow read to them, in the big rustic cathedral-ceilinged living room at the compound, with a staff-laid fire crackling red and orange in the deep stone fireplace, part of a paragraph from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue on the subject of chess: “Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”

Closing the book, nodding his red-bereted head this way and that, Mr. Hemlow said, “What Poe calls draughts is what we know as the game of checkers.”

Kelp said, “I like checkers.”

Eppick said, “That’s easy. Everybody likes checkers. Shall I put the book back on the shelf, Mr. Hemlow?”

“Thank you.”

The heist does not go off quite as planned, because Perly, that eager beaver, shows up earlier than expected, forcing them all to scramble for hiding places.  But the gang somehow avoids having The Great Detective, you know, detect them. Dortmunder figures out a way to conceal himself in the shower of Perly’s private bathroom.

Dortmunder had it all worked out how they were going to disguise themselves as the private security detail (from the unfortunate Continental Detective Agency, that seems perpetually doomed to keep crossing paths with Dortmunder & Co.), and make away with the goods.

But that all goes into a cocked hat, as you’d expect, and Dortmunder improvises a bold gambit.  Thankfully, things don’t go wrong just for him–the armored car with the chess set won’t fit into Perly’s garage, gets stuck on the way in. That’s from an entirely different security company, which means you have a bunch of unrelated security guys milling around–the problem with hiring a lot of extra security is that you end up with a lot of extra security guys who don’t know each other.  Or what the hell is going on.  Until it’s too late.

The gang, improvising to beat the band, poses as yet another layer of security hired by Perly, just take the chess set, put it in their own van, and leave.  He closes the garage door with the garage door opener.  By the time the befuddled rent-a-cops have gotten it open again, the Chicago Chess Set is long gone.  Like a turkey in the corn.  And Perly may never get that armored car out of his garage.

Dortmunder isn’t the type to plan a cross, so they drive the set out to Hemlow’s country place, as planned.  They spray-paint the pieces to disguise them, as planned.  Hemlow comes out with Eppick to view his long-sought holy grail, as planned. And then Nessa and her latest none-too-bright boyfriend, who got into the house the way Brady showed her months before, come out of the woodwork.  Nessa decided Brady had an idea there after all.

They load the heavy gold bejeweled playing pieces, two of which are fakes, into a bright red Cadillac Colossus with MD plates that Kelp picked up back in the city.  (Westake’s final fake car name?  We shall see.)  All that remains is the very nice ebony and ivory chessboard, and a fat lot of good that does anybody.  What was it Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans?  Oh wait, that was schemes.  Same thing, really.

Hemlow is disgusted, but at the same time philosophical.  He gets a bit less philosophical when the sticky question of payment for goods received yet not retained arises, but he reluctantly agrees the laborer is worthy of his hire, and the gang reluctantly agrees to a stiffly reduced fee.  And they just decide to keep it to themselves that Anne Marie’s jeweler friend cooked up a fake queen, and they still have the real one.  I mean, any landing you walk away from is good, right?

Elsewhere, a more successful heist is pulled–Perly insisted that Brian be hauled in and interrogated.  He’s no genius, but he knows enough to keep his mouth shut.  Perly’s case, such as it is, falls to pieces when he triumphantly produces security footage of Brian in the vicinity of his office, in the company of this older woman who he thinks may be a real Ma Barker type.

It’s Livia Northwood Wheeler.  They went to this hot new nightclub down on Gansevoort Street, after the March Madness party.  If Mrs. W. is secretly flattered to be described as a criminal mastermind, she hides it very well, and there is very little in this world as intimidating as an outraged rich lady with all the lawyers in the world at her disposal.  All charges are dropped, and Perly’s reputation is in tatters, much like his garage.

There is also very little as nakedly acquisitive as a rich lady–she’s lost the chess set she never really gave two figs about, but somehow ends up with a badly traumatized and deeply grateful Brian in her tender custody–had her eye on him ever since the party, just like he’s had an eye on her money.  What Livia wants, Livia gets.  Leaving Fiona out in the cold.  It must be in their genes, she thought.  Her father stole my great-grandfather’s future.  And now she’s stolen my boyfriend.  (You ask me, our mouse is better off without her social-climbing louse, but that’s not going to be much comfort in the moment, is it now?)

As to the chess set, fear not.  It finds a good home.  Nessa and whatshisname never stopped to consider that the car they stole in order to steal the chess set might itself be stolen.  The cops get them in New Hampshire.  Nessa claims she never saw this boob before he picked her up.  He’s going down for grand theft auto, she’s off to her next sleazy adventure, while Brady writes people’s names on paper cups in Numbnuts Nebraska.

The incognito Chicago Chess Set, the theft of which New Hampshire policemen neither know nor care about, winds up in the custody of–wait for it–the Little Sisters of Eternal Misery.  Yes, I believe we can assume this is the same order that raised the infant Dortmunder, after he was abandoned on their doorstep, in Dead Indian, Illinois.  They seem to have dropped the Bleeding Heart part of their name, perhaps that was deemed excessive.

They run a home for the elderly in the town.   Old people like to play games to pass the time.  And the pieces are so heavy, it’ll give them a nice bit of cardio to boot (maybe a hernia or two).  Eventually, the paint will start to chip away, and looks like Dortmunder just paid his childhood benefactors off with considerable interest.  He’d be so pleased to know that.

And there’s just one Dortmunder novel remaining–which will mark the end of the main part of my reviewing project.  Still a few months away.  Next in view is a novel that might well have remained forever unpublished, if not for the hard cases at Hard Case Crime.  A James Bond novel–without James Bond.  Without Spectre.  Without gratuitous sex. Without even a single car chase.  And most definitely without easy answers.  But some rather troubling questions.

So you go get the popcorn, and I’ll just put on a little mood music.  This is very definitely the mood I’m in about now.  Don’t know about you.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized

Review: What’s So Funny?

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May knew John had a very bad tendency, when things got unusually difficult, to sink with an almost sensuous pleasure into a warm bath of despair. Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.

May knew it was her job, at moments like this, to pull John out of the clutches of despair and goose him into forward motion once more. After all, it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s just you have to be in the goddam game.

I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

(Donald Westlake did not write this.)

Look what I found, rummaging about the dust-free virtual attic–a cops and robbers chess set!  Pretty cool, huh?  This leads, as ever, to a question–if you were going to make a Dortmunder-themed chess set, how would you arrange it?  Obviously Dortmunder, simultaneously peripheral and central to everything, vulnerable and fugitive at all times, is the king.  Of crime.  And kvetching.

The queen must needs be female, someone with great power and freedom of movement, so I’d go with J.C. Taylor, no slight intended to May, who is nothing if not supportive of her larcenous liege in this story, but not a major player in it, not that J.C. is either.   May’s got old movies to watch, and this is not her game.  I’d say that’s maybe Parcheesi.  Mah Jongg?

Knight is the easy one, that cute bastard, always moving in a crooked line.  You never see him coming.  Drops in unannounced and helps himself to a beer.  Do I even have to say it?

Tiny Bulcher would be the castle.  Because he’s massive.  And comes straight at you.  Best not call him a rook.  He might take it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t chance it.

I guess that makes Stan Murch the bishop by default?  Is there an automotive angle to work with here, as with the cops & robbers chess set?  Maybe his mom could be the other bishop.  She’d be in her cab, him in a purloined getaway car (that only goes slantways).  Problem solved, but then I wonder if Rollo the bartender would be better suited to that role.  The Bishop of Bourbon.  I bet that used to be a thing. (checks)  Well, I was almost right.

Dortmunder begins as something of a pawn in this novel, and a fair few others.  So a looming confident Dortmunder as king, and a bunch of shrunken furtive-looking Dortmunders as the pawns?  Or make them all unique quirky supporting characters who only showed up now and again, your Herman X’s, your Wilbur Howeys, your various Wallys?  Aesthetically pleasing, but expensive to manufacture and confusing to play.

Arnie Albright is in the pawn game, you might say, but imagine looking at eight of him.  You’d be sacrificing pawns right and left just to settle your stomach.  The other pieces would sacrifice themselves to get away from him.  Are pawns even appropriate in the context of a writer who celebrated the individual?

As to the other side of the board (which no decent person would even want to play), an assortment of vindictive lawmen, arrogant tycoons, crooked foreign dignitaries from fictive nations, and I guess we could fit Tom Jimson in there somewhere (a very dark knight indeed).  Pawns could just be burly no-neck security men.

These things always break down when you think about it too much.  Chess, as we play it now, is based on the old feudal system, and when we try to update the roles, the analogies get strained.  Sets based on Japanese feudalism work beautifully, but most others fall apart.  I mean, the American Civil War was a lot of things, but it wasn’t feudal, and both sides are always blindingly white, so how do you even know who moves first?  Point is, we already know who moved last.

Putting such distractions aside, I ponder the central question further, and a ray of light appears–make it specifically a Good Behavior themed set–that book is about neo-feudalism, so it works.  Sister Mary Grace could be Dortmunder’s bishop.  (I suppose the Curia might object, but the Pope is cool, we’d get a dispensation.)  A What’s The Worst That could Happen? set also has its attractions, but the temptation to make Max Fairbanks look like You Know Whom would be overpowering, and we’d get tied up in court for eons, possibly jailed for lèse-majesté.  Please feel free to make further suggestions in the comments section, especially if you have access to a 3D Printer.

I prefer checkers myself.  Draughts, if you want to be British about it. Also referenced in this book.  But you can’t do themed checkers sets.  How about Dortmunder Stratego?  Risk seems too obvious to mention.  Chutes and Ladders?  Monopoly is definitely not his game, and anyway it’s trademarked. Okay fine, we’ll talk about the book.

This is one of the longest Dortmunders, 359 pages in the first edition.  Like all the longer books in this series, it has a lot of extraneous material in it–I’m tempted to call it Six Subplots in Search of an Author.  But once I worked my way through through a somewhat muddled opening gambit, I was pleased to find the author does in fact show up to play.  Pirandello he ain’t, but he has his own decided take on theater of the absurd.

It’s not mainly about the heist, but the heist is great.  It’s got a lot of fol-de-rol in it about characters we’ll never see again, who are only tangentially involved with the heist, but somehow Westlake does a better job here making them mesh with the overall story than he did with the previous two, which ended up feeling like several different books stitched together.  At this point, as previously discussed, it’s almost impossible for him to find anything new to say about Dortmunder & Co.  He needs new characters with new identity crises to work on.  Or else it’s going to be a short book (like the next and final one, which does somehow find one more thing to say about the main cast).

It’s got two very different rich people as pivotal characters, and surprise–they’re both oddly likable, and neither is Dortmunder’s nemesis.  Neither is an aggressive narcissistic billionaire, either–both have some irritating rich people quirks, but they’re not villains, per se.  The rich are human too.  No, seriously.

It’s also got two very different private detectives (another peevish pet of Mr. Westlake’s), and that’s a more complicated discussion.  It’s got a variety of very different young people seeking their footing in the world, variously finding and/or losing it.  All this plus Captain Francis X. Mologna, the somehow still solvent Continental Detective Agency, perhaps the finest extant sample of Dortmunder parkeur, a golden bejeweled chess set, a subplot ripped straight out of a sleaze paperback, and Edgar Allan Poe.  Still not a patch on the early classics, but I might go so far as to call it a late one.

Let’s just lay out the set-up.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, and wonders why none of the regulars are talking about things they don’t know about, or talking at all, for that matter.  Because there’s a cop in the bar, that’s why.  Not in  uniform, but he might as well be, with the ‘plainclothes’ he’s wearing.  Not a man, woman, child, or dog there couldn’t spot a cop blindfolded, if he came in dressed like Quentin Crisp.

As if that’s not bad enough, Dortmunder realizes, to his horror, that said cop is there to see him.  For which crime, he wonders?  Remember, Dortmunder is now, as ever, on double secret probation with the law–one more strike and he’s out–of circulation, ’til death or compassionate release, whichever comes first, and they’d amount to the same thing, really.

When is a cop not a cop?  When he’s done his twenty, retired from the force, and his wife in the ‘burbs told him to find something to do with himself before they both went nuts.  This is how Johnny Eppick (for hire), formerly of the NYPD, ended up a P.I., duly licensed, with an office on East 3rd St., far east as you can go without drowning.    He could have just taken a job with some security outfit, which is what most retired cops who decide retirement sucks do. But there’s a romantic streak in Mr. Eppick (that’s why his card says ‘Johnny,’ instead of merely ‘John.’)

Having hung out his shamus shingle quite recently, Eppick lucked his way into the kind of job most real P.I.’s only encounter when they’re watching TCM.  An eccentric millionaire named Hemlow, an inventor no less, in a wheelchair no less, wants him to help recover a priceless chess set, made of (almost) solid gold, encrusted with precious gems, heavy as hell, with a fascinating history behind it that of course they insist on sharing with Dortmunder, who is no more successful at preventing them from doing so than Parker was with that Lost Mourner of Dijon, and you’re not skipping the history lesson either, so there.

Hemlow’s father and his army buddies found the chess set in an abandoned warehouse in the port city of Murmansk, while involved in the ill-fated American military expedition to Russia after WWI. It had been meant as a gift to the czar and his family, but that ship had already been shot and bayoneted multiple times.  These shivering young shavetails dreamed of using it to become pioneering media moguls in radio once their government let them come in out of the cold.

But instead, their sergeant, a sly bastard named Northwood, made off with it, dropping from sight, along with their dreams.  Hemlow’s father never recovered from the loss, his family has never stopped grousing over this injustice, even as his chemical patents made them all quite comfortable. But where’s the romance in chemical patents, I ask you?

It was his lawyer granddaughter, an amateur historian, who much to her surprised fascination, found out that Northwood used the set to set himself up in real estate (no better field for an unrepentent cad), and he’s long dead of course, but his very wealthy family is still fighting over his estate–including the chess set.  Now ensconced in a bank vault in the subbasement of the very building she works in, she being a minor functionary in a major law firm, which represents one of the squabbling heirs.

I mean, put yourself in the dick’s flat feet.  This is the stuff dreams are made of, schweetheart.

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(I couldn’t find a Maltese Falcon chess set.  Maybe the black birds could be different colors, sizes? Wear crowns, miters, perch on tiny castles, horses, etc?  Different species of falcon?  I’ll get to work on that right after the Dortmunder chess set sells its first million units.)

Since the gumshoe part of the program has already been attended to by the granddaughter, what’s left for Eppick?  Well, the ailing Hemlow wants to get that chess set back before he dies.  Legally speaking, he’s got no leg to stand on (that was insensitive), no way to prove prior ownership of something the gypped GI’s didn’t technically steal, and didn’t technically own, either.  He’d die long before the lawyers finished collecting their fees.  He doesn’t need the money himself, but dreams of righting past wrongs, seeing that the other families get their rightful wrongful due.  You know–closure.

Hence–a heist.  Eppick is to seek a suitably skilled specialist then solicit the sap to steal the serially stolen set.  And what’s to stop a professional thief from just making off with the goods?  Why would he even attempt such a risky job for the relative pittance of a fee that Hemlow shall provide?

Leverage.  Eppick did his research, figured Dortmunder was the right wrong guy for the job, and obtained images from surveillance footage of him burglarizing a store.  Blurry images, but if Dortmunder declines the job offer, all Eppick has to do is point and his cop buddies shall descend like vultures upon our hero’s slope-shouldered carcass.  Even if they can’t make that particular charge stick, they’ll find something. And he’ll find his old cell waiting for him.  As he will if they catch him trying to get that chess set.  And anyone trying to get into that bank vault and back out again with a 680 pound chess set tucked in his pockets is getting caught.  Catch-22.

Much as he hates the idea, rather than plagiarize Joseph Heller, our metropolitan mutt considers leaving New York forever.  This passage contains one of those lines people always quote without necessarily remembering exactly how it goes or which book it came from.

Riding down, alone this trip, he thought his best move now was to go straight over to Grand Central, take the first train out for Chicago.  That’s supposed to be an okay place, not that different from a city.  It could even work out.  Meet up with some guys there, get plugged in a little, learn all those new neighborhoods.  Get settled, then send word to May, she could bring out his winter clothes.  Chicago was alleged to be very cold.

(I believe that is a known fact about Chicago.  The city thing remains a matter of opinion.)

Eppick, wise to the ways of felons, anticipates this fantasy of setting out for the territories, and shuts it down cold.  Police departments are communicating much more than they used to, via the internet.  He’d put out feelers, and the blue network would find Dortmunder, no matter what godforsaken hole he curled up in.  Oh now, Chicago, don’t be so sensitive, you’ve got that deep-fish pizza or whatever and that tower named after a nigh-defunct chain of department stores.  And did you just win a World Series recently?  Twice in the last century?  That’s cute.

(Tiny later informs Dortmunder the loophole to Eppick’s outreach would be someplace like Biloxi–southern cops still don’t talk to Yankee cops, let alone those that root for the New York Yankees–Biloxi is not even theoretically a city, so that still wouldn’t work. He might as well try Mayberry.  Maybe he did, lot of eps I never got around to watching.)

Though initially, after they see him with Eppick,  his felonious friends treat him like he’s come down with a mild case of plague, loyalty mingled with curiosity mingled with greed brings them in to confer.  Maybe there’s some way they can get this thing.  Maybe there’s even some way they can keep it.

Eppick knows quite well that Dortmunder can’t pull this job by himself, and is pleased when he learns Kelp has come in–a bit less pleased when Kelp turns out to be his opposite number in more ways than one, and not the least bit intimidated by Eppick, now that he knows this isn’t a real cop anymore, and (more to the point) that he’s actively engaged in soliciting an illegal act.  Kelp, more into pool than chess, sees angles to be played here.  Question is, what angle is Eppick playing?

The string in this one is composed of Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch, Tiny, and Judson Blint, who was only introduced in the last book, and is still working his day job with J.C., keeping her old mail order cons alive, while she concentrates on being her own country. That’s a photo of four of them up top.  Murch isn’t there, must be working on the warp drive or something.  I think you can guess which one Judson is.  Oh, that was mean.  But it gives us an opening for–

The Crusher Conundrum:

Kelp said, “You know, we got another little conundrum here. I know it isn’t as important as the main problem—”

“The vault,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s the problem I was thinking of,” Kelp agreed. “Anyway,” he told the others, “you see these pictures of these two rooks.”

“Those are castles,” Stan said.

“Yes, but,” Kelp said, “rook is a name for them in chess. Anyway, everything weighs the way it’s supposed to, except this one rook here is three pounds lighter than the other rooks.”

They all leaned over the pictures, including Judson, who got up from the radiator and came over to stand beside the table, gazing down.

Stan said, “They look alike.”

“But you see the weight,” Kelp said. “They wrote it down right there.”

Stan nodded. “Maybe it’s a typo.”

“This stuff is all pretty careful,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder said, “I don’t find this as gripping as the main problem.”

“No, of course not,” Kelp said. “It’s just a mystery, that’s all.”

“No, it isn’t,” Judson said. “That part’s easy.”

Judson Blint is something of a prodigy, something of a ‘Nephew’, and 100% a Wesley (I should not need to explain).  And maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, Westlake’s idealized younger self, stepping into an exciting criminal underworld, and grasping its finer points with alacrity.  The amateur learning how to be a pro.

And he’s all over this book, even though little further attempt is made to develop his character.  He’ll be playing this role for the remainder of the series, which isn’t saying much.  He figures out things the more seasoned heisters, including Dortmunder, are baffled by.  A fresh young mind.  Is this necessarily a good thing?  Well, it’s a thing, whether we think it’s good or not.

Hence The Mystery of the Cooked Rook.  Looking at the vital statistics of the set provided them by Hemlow’s granddaughter, Kelp notices one of the pieces is much lighter than it should be.  It’s Judson who has the sleuthly flash of insight that this is because Northwood, having stolen the set, needed some ready cash in order to get out of town and then make his fortune with it as collateral.  He raised it by selling the gold and jewels from one of the castles–and replacing it with a clever copy, so as to seem not to have broken up the set, thereby reducing its value.

This later leads to the gang doing the same thing themselves, Anne Marie knowing a jeweler of flexible ethics in DC (yes, we all get the joke, Mr. Westlake). But it does not solve the problem of how to get into the vault, and when asked how they do that, Judson says they can’t.  It’s impossible.  The gang wracks its collective brains and comes up with zip.  Dortmunder is in despair, and Judson feels bad.

It’s Dortmunder, the full professional, with more than amateur brilliance to guide him, who will find the answer.  But this answer doesn’t come to Dortmunder immediately,  and in the meantime Judson is at the bank building (the good old Capitalists and Immigrants Trust from Bank Shot, called C&I International here), casing the joint to try and find the solution himself, and Kelp comes along to tell him he’s doing it wrong, drawing too much attention to himself.  Kelp continues to take Judson under his wing, because Kelp is the Riker in this crew.  Dortmunder is Data.  Tiny is Worf.  Murch would be some combo of La Forge and O’Brien.  There is so not a Picard here.  There are a whole slew of Trek-related chess sets we might look at, but let’s don’t.

Rather, let’s take a closer look at a character not much older than Judson Blint, who plays a somewhat less intrepid role here, but also a more important and interesting one.  But though her role be large, she herself is not.

Ode to a Mouse:

“So you found this thing,” Dortmunder began. “This chess set.”

She laughed. “Oh, Mr. Dortmunder, this is too good a story to just jump in and tell the end.”

Dortmunder hated stories that were that good, but okay, once again no choice in the matter, so he said, “Sure. Go ahead.”

“When I was growing up,” she said, “there was every once in a while some family talk about a chess set that seemed to make everybody unhappy, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was gone, or lost, or something, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal.”

She drank Diet Pepsi and give him a warning finger-shake. “I don’t mean the family was full of nothing but talk about this mysterious chess set, it wasn’t. It was just a thing that came up every once in a while.”

“Okay.”

“So last summer it came up again,” she said, “when I was visiting my father at the Cape, and I asked him, please tell me what it’s all about, and he said he didn’t really know. If he ever knew, he’d forgotten. He said I should ask my grandfather, so when I got back to the city I did. He didn’t want to talk about it, turned out he was very bitter on that subject, but I finally convinced him I really wanted to know what this chess set meant in the family, and he told me.”

“And that made you find it,” Dortmunder said, “when nobody else could.”

“That’s right,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated by history, and this was history with my own family in it, the First World War and invading Russia and all the rest of it. So I took down the names of everybody in that platoon that brought the chess set to America, and the other names, like the radio company they wanted to start, Chess King Broadcasting, and everything else I thought might be useful, and I Googled it all.”

Dortmunder had heard of this; some other nosey parker way to mind everybody else’s business. He preferred a world in which people stuck to their own knitting, but that world was long gone. He said, “You found some of these people on Google.”

Fiona Hemlow, daughter of Hemlow Senior’s third son, is in her middle 20’s, black of hair, slight of stature, efficient, decent-natured, and mainly a stranger to herself.  Like many people just out of law school, she’s a very small part of a very large firm–a ‘wee beastie’ she terms herself, and you know where that term derives from, dinna ye not?  A modern girl, probably not fluent in Lallans, she wouldn’t describe herself as sleeket, cowran, or tim’rous.  But aren’t we all, sometimes?  Us and all our best-laid schemes.  Beware of murd’ring pattles.

Fiona, like any mouse, has a tendency to poke her curious whiskers where they are not welcome. She’s clearly bored with her job, and to find that the fabled chess set of family lore is being kept in a vault beneath her tiny feet is not something she could be expected to keep to herself, so off she runs to the grandfather, the patriarch of her clan, the one whose inventiveness and drive brought them all up in the world with him, and no doubt paid for her schooling.

She herself is not to be involved in any way with the theft, naturally–Hemlow Sr. is repeatedly at pains to warn Dortmunder about that, wracked with guilt at any thought his granddaughter might suffer for his pursuance of an old vendetta. And yet here she is, talking to Dortmunder about it, in her own office, and feeling guilty about having put the poor man in this situation.  Her worries will be closer to home soon enough.

It’s a bit like the Stone Soup.  Seems so simple at first, then you get lured in, one ingredient at a time.  Dortmunder needs the specs on the set, he needs to know more about the heirs, he needs this, he needs that, or the soup will never be ready.  And Fiona self-evidently wants to play the sleuth as much as Judson does, but she is constrained by her position.  She can’t commit to the game, as Judson does, because she’s playing too many different games at once.

She forces herself to personally address one of the squabbling heirs, just because it’s such a thrill to meet a member of the family her family has had a shadow-feud with all these years.  Mrs. Livia Northwood Wheeler, who does not bear fools gladly, or at all (though she herself has never worked for a living in her life, would be mortally offended if you suggested she should).

Fiona makes up a story about how she’s always admired this woman, her guts, her refusal to ever let anyone get the better of her (least of all her own family), and only later realizes she really does admire Mrs. Wheeler for that, because that’s how she’d like to be (but such is not a mouse’s lot).

Mrs. W, as she’s known for most of the book, suspects a ploy (because she always suspects a ploy, literally every day of her life) and goes to Fiona’s boss, Mr. Tumbril (the term for the carts used to convey prisoners to the guillotine; you ever wonder how much time Westlake spent on names alone?)  She assumed Fiona was questioning her on Tumbril’s behalf.

Mrs. W., not quite the dragon she appears, Fiona’s fellow mortal (and female, in a man’s world), only realizes her mistake when Tumbril decapitates Fiona (in a professional sense) right in front of her.  A stunned Fiona mails out the intel Dortmunder needs, right before she cleans out her desk, with security watching her, and is conveyed in disgrace (but not in a cart) to the street outside.  Her wee-bit housie in ruin.

And the end result of this bleak December wind?  She winds up as Mrs. W’s personal assistant, in a fantastic office with a view of Central Park, a spy in the enemy’s camp, but really more of a double agent, because as mentioned, she truly does admire and like her curmudgeonly new employer, and is grateful for her suddenly improved prospects–but she’s embroiled in a plot to steal from her. How long before the cruel coulter (no, not that one) slices through her cell once more?  Forward tho’ she canna see, she guesses and fears.

Oh, and there’s some stuff about her no-good boyfriend (spoiler alert), but that can wait for later.

What could have waited for always is the one subplot (in this book crammed to the gills with them) I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s there.  Maybe you can pierce the puzzle of–

Murch’s Muddled Mecca:

“I’m happy for them,” John said. “But up till now I don’t see your idea in here.”

“The dome,” Stan said.

John just looked at him, ostrich or bison visible in his open mouth.

So Stan said, “The dome got delivered before they shut down, and it’s gold. Not solid gold, you know, but not gold paint either. Real gold. Gold plate or something. It’s sitting out there on this empty construction site, it was delivered when the walls were supposed to be up, but of course the walls weren’t up, so it’s sitting there, with this crane next to it.”

“I think I’m getting this,” John said. “It’s your idea, we use the crane, we pick up this dome— How big is this dome?”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high.”

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high. You wanna pick this up and take it away.”

“With the crane, like you said.”

“And where you gonna stash this thing?”

“That’s part of what we gotta work out,” Stan said.

“Maybe you can take it to Alaska,” John said, “and paint it white, and make everybody think it’s an igloo.”

“I don’t think we could get it that far,” Stan told him. “All the bridges. And forget tunnels.”

Poor Stan.  The world’s greatest getaway driver, the human GPS, and he gets no respect, no respect at all.  He never even gets to outrun the cops in a thrilling chase scene (because seriously, if you’re being chased by the cops, probably with news choppers overhead, the heist is already ruined, and you’re going away for a long time, to watch the chase footage in the prison rec room, over and over, on those damn reality shows).

So at least he gets a subplot here, but it goes nowhere.  He wants to heist the (partly) golden dome for a mosque under construction along the Belt Parkway–he drives past the site all the time, to and from Canarsie, and it’s calling out to him, “Stan!  Stan!  Come get me!”

Dortmunder really does not have time enough in the day to list all the ways in which this is an incredibly bad idea (he already had some kind of fatwah out on him in Why Me?, and that was just over a fucking ring).  He’s got this chess set to worry about, he’s got Eppick to worry about, and if anything, this dome job is even worse.  He gives a very hurt Murch the brush.

But Murch just won’t give up.  He gets Kelp out there, he gets Judson out there, they all have to go look at the golden dome, and they all think it’s a terrible idea to try and heist it, and finally Murch has to give up on it, and go along with this other job they’re all getting sucked into, because John (their brain, and down inside they all know it), is going to get sucked back into prison if they can’t manage to make it work.

What the hell was that about?  You keep waiting for it to get tied back into the main story (maybe they could hide the chess set under the dome?), and it never is.  Dortmunder subplots sometimes turn into dead ends, which is not typical of Westlake’s work as a whole.  The first three books were perfectly balanced–most of what followed was Westlake clearing out his mental attic, while spending time with old and cherished friends.

I would think Westlake himself was driving past a construction site for a mosque, or saw it on TV, and thought “hmmmm.”  And then “naaaaahhh!” Maybe this ties back to research he did for the first Samuel Holt novel, which hinged upon a newly built golden-domed mosque in L.A. (In that case, it was the entire four book series that went nowhere.)

Now I say he doesn’t tie it in to the main heist, but axiomatically speaking, you might say he does.  Because Dortmunder finally hits on it.  What they have to do in order to get that chess set.   That is in that vault.  The one even Judson says they can’t possibly get into and back out again.

“No, you were right,” John said. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along, there’s no way to get into that vault.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fuggedabodit. See, what it is I gotta do, I gotta stop thinking about getting into the vault because I can’t get into the vault. That’s the backwards part.”

Judson said, “It is?”

“The mountain,” John explained, “gotta go to whatsisname. Mohammed.”

Fearing the worst, May said, “John?”

“You know,” John said, and gestured vaguely with both hands. “He won’t go to that, so that’s gotta go to him. Same with the vault. We can’t get in at the chess set, case closed, no discussion, so what we gotta do is get the chess set to come out to us.”

“That’s brilliant, John,” Andy said. “How do we do that?”

“Well,” John said, “that’s the part I’m working on.”

Let’s work on it next time.  I’d say next week, but look how long it’s been since my last post.  Whenever.  Oh, and Murch to Kelp 2.  Check.  Your move.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Transgressions

When I was writing novellas for the pulp magazines back in the 1950’s, we still called them “novelettes,” and all I knew about the form was that it was long and it paid half a cent a word.  This meant that if I wrote 10,000 words, the average length of a novelette back then, I would sooner or later get a check for five hundred dollars.  This was not bad pay for a struggling young writer.

A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words.  Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words), it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain’t easy to write.  In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all.

Ed McBain.  AKA Evan Hunter.  AKA Salvatore Albert Lombino.

This assignment turned out to be more complex than expected.  Which is par for the course.  This is the mystery genre, after all.  Does a book detective ever have a less complex assignment than expected?

Originally, I was just going to review the Dortmunder novella Westlake contributed to the Transgressions anthology, edited by his longtime friend and mentor, Evan Hunter, under his more popular crime fiction pseudonym. This being far and away the shortest and simplest Dortmunder that isn’t a short story, I figured it wouldn’t take much time–but rereading it, I came to a realization regarding its true authorship, that had eluded me in the first reading.  So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that this time I read all three novellas in the paperback edition I’d originally acquired just to read Westlake’s.  The paperback reprints of the original collection were from Tor, a publisher Westlake probably assumed he’d never be involved with again after the Sam Holt debacle.  They broke up the original set into several, and it just happened that Westlake’s story shared a volume with McBain’s and Walter Mosley’s.

I know McBain fairly well but not intimately–I’ve read maybe half a dozen 87th Precinct novels, early books in the series, and hope to read a lot more (All of them?  Who says I’m living that long?)  I’m a fan, with a few minor reservations. I don’t think any mystery writer other than Doyle has been more identified with just one franchise.  And that’s the franchise represented here, one of the very last 87th Precinct stories ever written, if not the very last (or the very best, but McBain said novellas were hard).

Mosley I’ve only glimpsed from afar, till now–I was bemused at his introduction here (presumably written by McBain), which says he followed in the tradition of Chester Himes and John Carroll Daly, but ‘added the complex issue of race relations’–???–pretty sure Himes beat him to that by over three decades, with the Harlem Detective novels. But Himes left plenty of material for Mosley to work with.  He doesn’t write like Himes (no one did), and I don’t get the Daly reference at all.  I saw different influences.  And a writer I need to maybe move up in the queue.  We have some shared interests.

So this is, after all, The Westlake Review, and I could be pardoned for just skipping over the other two offerings here.  (I’m sure not reviewing all ten.)  I am, predictably, most interested in the Dortmunder story, which is, predictably, the best piece of writing on offer here.  But in certain respects, the other two are more interesting to me.  I can’t just ignore them, any more than when reviewing The Perfect Murder, I could pass over all the other contributors to that crazy quilt of a book.  Mr. Westlake said he and all his fellow authors swam in the same ocean together, and I would be doing him no service by ignoring his fellow swimmers.

The stories are billed in alphabetical order, then presented in reverse alphabetical order, and I’m going to reverse it yet again, and begin with McBain. Buckle up, we’re headed into Isola, for what is, unfortunately, still a very topical piece, entitled–

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

“So much hate in this city,” Meyer said softly.  “So much hate.”

McBain died in 2005, the year Transgressions was published.  At 78 (Aw geez, he died at 78? Invert that and cue the Twilight Zone theme.), his mind was still sharp and inquisitive, his passion for the city of his birth, that became the city of his imagination, still undiminished.  He was not quite the writer he had once been, and the 87th was now hopelessly lost in a sea of mediocre copycat procedural melodramas with the precinct as the protagonist.  Nothing succeeds like excess.

He was working on novels to the very end, he had assembled a truly prestigious group of authors for this collection (that presaged the recent resurrection of the novella, now once again commercially viable, thanks to e-readers), he had laurels to spare.  He could have turned in a standard bit of rigamarole; a sex criminal, a bank robber, maybe bring back The Deaf Man, super villains being hotter than ever in the 21st.

Instead, he chose to take on the issue of Muslim immigrant communities in the big city, post-9/11.  The  man never lacked for guts, but maybe he figured it was safer to hide this one in a crowd.   Or he didn’t have enough time left to do the research a full novel would call for.

But when he summoned up his narrator for these books–who I always think of as the wise and world-weary tutelary deity of Isola, looking down on his people with mingled admiration and despair,  seeing them all, knowing them all, willing them to combine their unique strengths, and live as one many-faceted collective organism–knowing that they will fall short of the ideal, calling upon his champions to try and fill the gap, heal the wounds–well, let him tell it.

Just when Carella and Meyer were each and separately waking up from eight hours of sleep, more or less, the city’s swarm of taxis rolled onto the streets for the four-to-midnight shift.  And as the detectives sat down to late afternoon meals which for each of them were really more hearty breakfasts, many of the city’s more privileged women were coming out into the streets to start looking for taxis to whisk them homeward.  Here was a carefully coiffed woman who’d just enjoyed afternoon tea, chatting with another equally stylish woman as they strolled together out of a midtown hotel.  And here was a woman who came out of a department store carrying a shopping bag in each hand, shifting one of the bags to the other hand, freeing it so she could hail a taxi.  And here was a woman coming out of a Korean nail ship, wearing paper sandals to protect her freshly painted toenails.  And another coming out of a deli, clutching  a bag with baguettes showing, raising one hand to signal a cab. At a little before five, the streets were suddenly alive with the leisured women of this city, the most beautiful women in all the world, all of them ready to kill if another woman grabbed a taxi that had just been hailed.

This was a busy time for the city’s cabbies.  Not ten minutes later, the office buildings would begin spilling out men and women who’d been working since nine this morning, coming out onto the pavements now and sucking in great breaths of welcome spring air. The rain had stopped, and the sidewalks and pavements glistened, and there was the strange aroma of freshness on the air. This had been one hell of a winter.

The hands went up, typists’ hands, and file clerks’ hands, and the hands of lawyers and editors and thieves, yes, even thieves took taxis–though obvious criminal types were avoided by these cabbies steering their vehicles recklessly toward the curb in a relentless pursuit of passengers.  These men had paid eight-two dollars to lease their taxis.  These men had paid fifteen bucks to gas their buggies and get them on the road. They were already a hundred bucks in the hole before they put foot on pedal.  Time was money. And there were hungry mouths to feed.  For the most part, these men were Muslims, these men were gentle strangers in a strange land.

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

(I can imagine Westlake thinking, “If Arthur Hailey had known what a writer is, this is how he’d have written.”  It’s sub-par McBain, the clichés are too thick on the ground–hmm, speak of the devil–but it still grips you.)

So somebody is killing Muslim cabbies, and spray-painting a Star of David on the windshield as a calling card.  Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer (who is Jewish) are assigned to the case, which means they have to talk to people who worked with the victims, lived with them, ate with them, prayed with them.  Bit by bit, the diversity of the Islamic community in Isola is laid bare, people from many parts of the world, united only by faith, and sometimes not even that.  Well, most believe a Jew did it, once they hear about the magen David.  That’s a kind of unity that hate can bring.

Even the first victim’s wife believes it, though at first she can’t understand why a Jew would kill her husband, since they came from Bangladesh.  But when she hears about the graffiti, she says “The rotten bastards.”  Clearly, whoever the murderer is, whatever the motive for the shootings, he or she intends to drum up discord between the tribes of Isola.  More than merely the usual hate.

Before long, a handful of Islamic extremists have set off bombs in public places, ostensibly in protest of the murders not being solved (dangling subplot, never gets resolved, McBain hadn’t written a novella in quite a long time). No attacks on synagogues or Jewish neighborhoods–just freeform hate.

Carella and Meyer keep looking for a motive, a suspect, doing all the rote things real detectives do, no great flashes of insight from 87th Precinct detectives, though Meyer has one great idea–figure out if the person who is spray-painting the symbol on the cabs is right or left-handed.  The killer isn’t a southpaw, so it doesn’t help much (I knew it must be those right-handed infidels!  And they call me sinister!)

One of their suspects, pointed out to them by a rabbi, is Anthony Inverni, an outspoken young Italian American, who wants to marry a young Jewish girl.  Her family is trying to stop them.  The rabbi thinks maybe he’s getting revenge by trying to pin the killings on Jews.  An aspiring author, very angry at the world, very anti-religious (one of two such characters in the book), Inverni says he’s going to change his last name to Winters, it’ll look better on a book cover (Hunter would also work, or McBain).

Inverni/Winters also admits he was sleeping around on the girl he means to marry, since he needs an alibi, treats it as no big deal.  Under any name, it is now a well-known fact that the compiler of this anthology was not a faithful husband for much of his life.  Hate can also be directed towards one’s younger self, particularly in old age.

What McBain does here is take what would have been just one plot skein in an 87th Precinct novel, and make it the whole story.  Too cramped for such an expansive topic–he tries to be fair, spends a lot of time in the heads of many different Muslims, showing us their varied lives and interests.

Putting myself in the place of a Muslim reader, I would see the good intentions, the genuine perceptions, and still find it wanting.  Too forced, too hasty, and the shock of 9/11 is still there, the wounds still fresh and raw.  I don’t buy that terrorist bombers are motivated by a few cab drivers getting whacked.  It is mentioned that Muslims died in the towers on 9/11–it is not spelled out whether that happened in Isola, since that would be openly admitting Isola is New York, which McBain was always loathe to do.  The problem with fictional cities being used to talk about specific real-life events.

He’s looking for some way to believe that these newest arrivals can also become fully part of his city, join the larger family, without abandoning their core identities.  It’s a noble project, that needed more time, more research–and perhaps a fresher eye.

He also doesn’t have much space to talk about his detectives–there’s lots of friendly banter between the two comrades, “a Catholic who hadn’t been to church since he was twelve, and a Jew who put up a tree each and every Christmas”–there’s also a brief cameo by the irascible anti-ideal, Andy Parker–but their personalities don’t really come through strongly here.  Nobody who hadn’t read the earlier stories would get a strong sense of who these detectives are.

Comes up short compared to some of his earlier books centered around Puerto Rican immigrants and their kids–who once upon a time were likewise believed to be incapable of assimilation, slotted as gangsters (they did some terrorism too).  It’s a long list of ethnic groups who have been declared social undesirables in America, and we’re all on it.  But you see how quickly he put this one together, wanting to make some personal contribution of his own to this project he’d embarked upon, wanting to make some final statement.  Not enough space, not enough research, not enough perspective.

Maybe he felt the ultimate deadline looming as he typed it.  But with so little time left, and nothing left to prove, what would make him care enough to attempt something so daunting, difficult, and controversial, that would profit him nothing?  Merely love.

And that was merely adequate, as a review, but at least I’ve read some McBain.  A strange thing to begin one’s acquaintance with an important mystery writer with something he wrote in a format he’d probably never attempted before (since the market for novellas had died out before he even got started).

This is an origin story, along the lines of A Study in Scarlet, with a first person narrator who is both protagonist in his own right and observer of a unique investigative mind.  Written as the starting point of a series of stories about two intrepid mismatched detectives–that ends up a bit like those unaired TV pilots you can sometimes see on cable, or get on home video–a series that never happened, stillborn.  All kinds of unrealized potentials that were never explored.  We can talk about why that is, while we’re–

Walking The Line:

There was a bookshelf in the bathroom.  The books were composed of two dominant genres: politics and science fiction.  I took out a book entitled Soul of the Robot by the author Barrington J. Bayley.  It was written in the quick style of pulp fiction, which I liked because there was no pretension to philosophy.  It was just a good story with incredible ideas.

Walter Mosley writes mainly detective novels, series fiction.  He started out with science fiction, broke big with mysteries, and wrote a fair bit of erotica on the side–hmm, who does that remind me of?  His various franchises are always based around a strong central character with well-established quirks and a memorable name–Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, Socrates Fortlow.  I’ve read none of their books.  No, I had to start with Archibald Lawless.  And his artsy antsy amanuensis, Felix Orlean (of the New Orleans Orleans.)

It’s not clear when he wrote this–there’s a slighting reference by Mr. Lawless to President Bush–probably Bush the Younger, going by context–but you can’t be 100% sure–maybe this dates back to before Mosley was a name, still into science fiction, dreaming of the pulp magazines that folded before he had a chance to write for them.

The narrator, doing Dr. Watson as a cultured young black man, encounters Lawless because he reads all the personal ads in multiple print newspapers.  Nobody seems to be using even flip phones, let alone the smart kind.  Computers and the internet are a thing, but not really used much.  There is a certain retro feel to this one, so Mosley could just be filtering some changes out (hmm, who does that also remind me of?).  I find it very hard to believe this was originally conceived in the 21st century, though going by the sarcastic reference to Bush being a legitimately elected President, it was written after the 2000 election (that ref could have been shoehorned in later).

McBain says in his intro that some writers who responded to his entreaties in the positive had ideas too slight for a novel, too involved for a short story–others had a character in mind they wanted to introduce, run him/her up the flagpole, see who saluted.  But I’d think a few had something written or half-written already, and just didn’t have a market for it before McBain sent out the call.  (In Westlake’s A Likely Story, the anthologist protagonist suspects many of the famous authors responding to his call for Christmas-themed pieces are simply dusting off some unpublished work and reworking it.)  Well, the provenance isn’t really the point.

The point is anarchism.  Felix needs a job to support himself while he studies at the Columbia Journalism School–for his temerity at rejecting the practice of law his father and grandfather and great-grandfather sacrificed much to attain success in, he’s been cut off from his wealthy New Orleans clan–he personally prefers the less well-heeled more ‘authentically’ black members of his large socially diverse family (he describes himself as being very light-skinned–as is Mosley himself).  His father whipped him with a belt as a boy, and he’s scared spitless of the man, was quietly delighted when dad told him to get out and never come back.  (But he still thinks about calling him when the cops haul him into a frightening holding pen on a bum rap, where he’s about ten seconds away from getting raped when Lawless pulls a few strings to spring him.)

The man he meets at a midtown office building is the polar antithesis of his father–an alternative authority figure, a modern-day crusader, whose enemy is authority itself.

The man standing there before me had no double in the present day world or in history. He stood a solid six three or four with skin that was deep amber. His hair, which was mostly dark brown and gray, had some reddish highlights twined into a forest of thick dreadlocks that went straight out nine inches from his head, sagging only slightly.  The hair resembled a royal head-dress, maybe even a crown of thorns but Mr. A. Lawless was no victim.  His chest and shoulders were unusually broad even for a man his size.  His eyes were small and deep set.  The forehead was round and his high cheekbones cut strong slanting lines down to his chin which gave his face a definite heart shape.  There was no facial hair and no wrinkles except at the corner of his eyes.

He takes an immediate liking to Felix, who quickly realizes this guy is at least a little bit crazy (more than just a little, as things work out)–but compelling. Convincing.  He’s not part of any organization, but he monitors the outpourings of fellow anarchists across the globe, recognizing that much of what they’re saying is demented gibberish (and that they can be as dangerous as the people they’re fighting), but sometimes they stumble across something real.  He says there are government and corporate assassins everywhere (calls them ‘killkills’). He sees a world most people choose not to see.  His office is full of file boxes containing endless conspiracies of the powerful against We The People.

Yeah, he’s Fox Mulder without the FBI, aliens, mutants, or the ability to hail a cab.  And Felix is Dana Scully without the sexual tension to distract you. Definitely conceived after 1993.  And just like that overblown accident of a cult show that ran far too long (and still ludicrously clings to half-life, like a TV zombie), the believer is always right, and the skeptic is always wrong.  And yet remains a skeptic.  I’ve always had issues with that dynamic. It’s very hard to get the balance right.

Mosley mainly doesn’t here, but Felix is a much better-realized sidekick than Scully–helps that he’s the first-person narrator, of course.  He even gets himself a waitress/music student girlfriend who shares his congenially complicated relationship with her ethnicity.  They enjoy a classic New York date at a classical music concert at The Cloisters, then a sweet raunchy sex scene, and I applaud Mr. Mosley for rejecting the old Chandleresque “Gumshoe meets nice interesting girl he could be happy with, but goes for the deadly noir-blonde siren instead” trope (Though that trope is here in force, her name is Lana Drexel, and she ends up working for Lawless too.)

Who knows if the girlfriend would remained part of the series, if there’d been one? Who knows if Felix would ever have been proven right about anything? The story itself is almost more of a mystery than the mystery its protagonists try to unravel.

So Felix can smell trouble all over this awesome anarchist; he himself is small of stature and timorous of nature, but he really needs the job, he’s got the investigative instinct of a hound dog, and he finds Lawless fascinating, as anyone would, as I do.  As indeed nearly everyone we meet in the story does.  Lawless can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized–he’s not famous, but everybody knows him, from the humble to the great.  (The only one who doesn’t seem to know who he is happens to be the one ‘killkill’ we meet in this story, which I found a bit random, but it’s a cool fight scene.)

And the minute Felix questions anything (like what are the odds an anarchist would be born with the name Lawless?), this peripatetic Nero Wolfe gets up on the invisible soapbox he carries everywhere with him for precisely such occasions.  His one weakness, but it’s a bad one.

“I am Archibald Lawless,” he said.  “I’m sitting here before you.  You are looking into my eyes and questioning what you see and what you hear.  On the streets you meet Asian men named Brian, Africans named Joe Cramm. But you don’t question their obviously being named for foreign devils.  You accept their humiliation.  You accept their loss of history.  You accept them being severed from long lines of heritage by their names.  Why wouldn’t you accept just as simply my liberating appellation?”

Why can’t Felix, who is no dummy, riposte with “Lawless is a foreign devil’s name, and we’re all foreign devils here except the Indians”?  Trouble is, the author identifies more with Felix, but would much rather be Lawless.   Which could lead to interesting tensions in the narrative, ways for Mosley to explore his own inner contradictions (that you kind of figure a man with a black father and a Russian Jewish mother is going to have, and who doesn’t?) but there’s not enough room to work with them.  Though there was plenty of room for Lawless to just smile at Felix’s little jibe, and say “A man from New Orleans whose last name is Orlean thinks my name is contrived?”  And he doesn’t, because that’s not the character.  Lawless talks too much and says too little (and I am, after all, something of an authority on that).

This is the longest of the three novellas on offer here–so long, I’d call it more of a short novel.  The narrative style reminds me more than a little of the Mitch Tobin mysteries, though the themes and character dynamics don’t.  Mosley sticks in a lot of bells and whistles, about stolen jewels, and mysterious murders, and a haven for fugitives in a restaurant on the western banks of the Hudson, and you can tell he’s really jonesing for the halcyon days of pulp fiction, when it was so much easier to get away with crap like this.  When it felt a lot more real than it does now.  A lot of McGuffins here, none of them terribly convincing, but they never are–the trick is to make the story so engaging, we don’t care.  Mosley doesn’t quite pull it off, but he does make me wish he’d tried again, because I do care about these people, I am interested in what they think.

The real story is Felix stepping into a larger world, accepting his alternative father figure (I think we can all see the looming confrontation between Lawless and Orlean Sr., and that would have been something to see.)  So when that’s done, maybe all that’s left is formula, and Mosley didn’t see a way forward.  He’s clearly more than good enough a writer to know when he hasn’t done his best work.  But there’s a lot of good work here, all the same.  And a lot more than your standard identity politics.  Lawless sends Felix to talk to a snooty real estate agent he suspects of being involved in something more than just gentrification.  Felix bluffs his way in by using his father’s name.

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

“This is an exclusive service, Mr. Orlean,” she said with no chink of humanity in her face.  “And we like to know exactly who it is we’re dealing with.”

“Oh,” I said.  “So it wasn’t because of my clothes or my race?”

“The lower orders come in all colors, Mr. Orlean.  And none of them get back here.”

Her certainty sent a shiver down my spine.  I smiled to hide the discomfort.

I suppose Mosley could still bring Felix and Archie back someday.  But I doubt it. And these days, I’m more afraid of the wild-eyed conspiracy mongers than I am of ‘The Deep State.’  Though there’s plenty of fear to go around, isn’t there?  And no clear lines of scrimmage anymore, if there ever were.

So I’m over 4,000 words into a Westlake review, and I’ve yet to talk about what Westlake wrote.  (Be warned, there will be a lot more spoilers for this one). McBain contributed a less than fully satisfactory installment to his most famous series–perhaps the concluding installment.  Mosley turned in a much more interesting but confused introduction to a series that never happened.  Both struggled with the constraints of the novella form, which McBain had abandoned maybe 40 or more years earlier, and Mosley probably had little or no experience with.

Westlake always had problems with the short story, but the novella was a form he felt much more confident in.  He’d published a two-novella collection back in ’77, proof of his wishing there was still a market for them.  Anarchaos (a science fiction novel I’m not sure would have been in Lawless’ collection, though it fits Felix’s description to a T) is little more than a novella, and he probably didn’t even get 500 dollars for it.

In his early days, Richard Stark was writing basically nothing but novels about the same length as Walking the Line, but a whole lot more focused and sure of themselves, with a protagonist who disdains both soapboxes and sidekicks.  And I am much inclined to think Stark’s the one who really wrote–

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

“A quiet heist,” Querk told him.  “No hostages, no explosions, no standoffs.  In, out, nobody ever knows it happened.  Believe me, the only way this scores for us is if nobody ever knows anything went missing.”

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

I gave the game away up top, so might as well just say it.  This is a clear rewrite of The Man With the Getaway Face.  I say clear, even though I didn’t twig to it on my previous reading–Westlake always hid his recycling well.  It doesn’t play out the same way, because Dortmunder is not Parker, he lives in a much less brutal reality than Parker,  and he’s never getting plastic surgery (though he probably could use it more), but the stories share a skeleton, and his name is Querk–though it used to be Skimm.

Querk:  A skinny little guy, maybe fifty, with a long face, heavy black eyebrows over banana nose over thin-lipped mouth over long bony chin, he fidgeted constantly on that wire-mesh chair in Paley Park, a vest pocket park on East 3rd Street in Manhattan, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

Skimm: He was a thin stub end of a man, all bones and skin with no meat.  His head was long and thin, set on a chicken neck with a knotty Adam’s apple, and his face was all nose and cheekbones. The watery eyes were set deep in the skull, the jaw small and hard.

In both cases, there’s a woman at the back of it.  A mean frustrated New Jersey waitress named Alma who is just using Skimm in the Stark novel.  A good-natured hearty trout-fishing upstate New York travel agent named Janet, for Querk, with a pernicious habit of trying to improve the men in her life.   Both a bit on the hefty side, but attractively so.  Big difference is that Janet actually wants to be with Querk–Stark can relax and be a bit more mellow and forgiving here, but it’s still Stark–hell, he was actually wordier in his physical description of Skimm.

Janet likes the man she’s using (Querk will make a good project for her), but they are still both looking for an escape route–her from a really bad marriage with an abusive paranoid who works for the phone company.  Him from having to work at his brother’s printing company, having been trained for the old school non-digital printing industry that no longer exists during his last stint in prison, and only his brother would hire him on.

The plant sometimes prints money–lots and lots of money.  But security is lax there, because it’s not our money.  It’s Guerraran money, siapas–yep, Guerrera is back for one last encore.  (And please recall, Guerrara also exists in the Starkian universe, albeit under the more masculine alias Guerrero.)

The pitch is simple–Querk works at the plant.  He can get them in during a period when it’s shut down a few weeks so that the river that serves as its power source can be opened up for the annual trout run.  They’ll get the power to run the presses from a mobile generator kept at the local firehouse they can borrow with none the wiser.  They print themselves a hundred billion siapas, in twenty million siapa notes.  This will come to about 500g’s in our money.  (No, I don’t know why they don’t just make the siapa worth more, I’m not an economist, ask Paul Krugman or somebody.)

Instead of being the finger on this job, like Alma was in the earlier book, Janet’s involvement is explained by her having a contact in Guerrera who can fence the money for them, demanding a hefty cut of course.  Kelp goes to check out this story, finds it lacking in credibility.  Like Parker and Handy before them, Dortmunder and Kelp smell a cross in the making.  This alone should tell you who’s writing this, since that’s a common twist in the Parker novels that only showed up once in the Dortmunders before now.

Where Stark and Westlake come together is in their endless interest in their surroundings–you gotta know the territory.  But the territory has changed a lot since the early 60’s.  Querk explains the job to them while they are parked along the West Side Highway–remember how much I loved the familiar settings of the second Parker novel, so near where I grew up?  This is equally familiar, but much more contemporary. And a lot less noir-ish, but that goes with the territory as well.

Querk said, “What is this?”

“Fairway,” Kelp told him, as he found a parking space on the left and drove into it, front bumper against fence.  It was hot outside, so he kept the engine on and the windows shut.

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

“What it is,” Kelp told him, putting the Infiniti in park, “Harlem never had a big supermarket, save money on your groceries, they only had these little corner stores, not much selection on the shelves.  So this Fairway comes in, that used to be a warehouse over there, see it?”

Querk nodded at the big warehouse with the supermarket entrance. “I see it.”

Kelp said, “So they put in a huge supermarket, great selections, everything cheap, the locals love it.  But also the commuters, it’s easy on, easy off, see, there’s your north-bound ramp back up to the highway, so they can come here, drop in, buy everything for the weekend, then head off to their country retreat.”

Querk said, “But why us?  What are we doin’ here?”

Dortmunder told him, “You look around, you’ll see one, two people, even three, sitting in the cars around here.  The wife–usually, it’s the wife–goes in and shops, the husband and the houseguests, they stay out here, keep outa the way, sit in the car, tell each other stories.”

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

Dortmunder and Kelp don’t make one wrong move this whole mini-book.  They scout every problem out before it happens.  There are no surprises.  The idea wasn’t that Querk and Janet would kill them, but just scoot off to Guerrera with all the cash, never to be seen again.  They get surprised–by Janet’s crazy husband, and by their criminal co-conspirators being so much smarter than they look. (As Kelp says at the end, “That’s what we specialize in.”)

But other than uncomfortable rental cars (they decide it’s too long-term a job for Kelp to borrow some doctor’s luxuriant Lexus or whatever), bad upstate food, and a brief moment of buying into Querk’s original story, there are no embarrassments for Dortmunder here.  He’s finally what he’s always wanted to be–a Stark heister.  But without one vital little element.

See, the job goes off fine, without a hitch, they have the money, they’ve neutralized the crazy wife-beating husband (Janet’s black eye was a vital clue for Inspector Kelp), they’ve got Querk and Janet at their mercy–and they show mercy.  Kind of.  See, in the words of Lord Vader, they have altered the deal. Maybe Querk and Janet would have been better off with Parker.  It’d be over faster.

The original deal was that Dortmunder and Kelp get a bit over 62 grand to split between them.  In dollars.  New deal is Querk and Janet can run away together to beautiful scenic Guerrera, as planned.  They can take one box of freshly minted walking around money,  a hundred thousand bucks’ worth of siapas to start their new life together, mazel tov.   But here comes the catch.

Querk said, “Where am I gonna get that money?”

“You’re gonna steal it,” Dortmunder told him.  “That’s what you do, remember?  You gave up on reform.”

Querk hung his head.  The thought of a Guerreran jail moved irresistably through his mind.

Meanwhile, Dortmunder said, “If you don’t show up in six months, the four boxes will go to the cops with an anonymous letter with your names and a description of the scheme and where you’re hiding out, and the probable numbers on your siapas.  And then, you’ve got nothing.”

“Jeez,” Querk said.

“Look at it this way,” Dortmunder suggested.  “You lied to us, you abused our trust, but we aren’t getting even, we aren’t hurting you.  Because all we want is what’s ours.  So, one way or another, you keep your side of the bargain, and we keep ours.  Looking past Querk at the window, he said, “Here’s the goddam compact, I hope we can fit these boxes in there.  Come on, Querk, help me carry the loot.”

I can imagine many faithful readers of this series coming to this point in the story and exclaiming out loud, “Why is Dortmunder being so mean?”  He was pretty damn mean in The Hot Rock–many since have learned you don’t want to tick him off–usually some wealthy powerful person who did a lot worse than just stiff him.  Querk and Janet are basically nice people (as opposed to good people) who only wanted to escape their unsatisfactory lives, and needed to stiff somebody in order to start over from scratch.

But they stiffed the wrong guy.  And they didn’t realize who was writing this story.  A much harsher god than Donald Westlake.  Who is enjoying the chance to administer justice without the use of firearms or huge veiny hands.  A change is as good as a rest, as they say.

Far and away the best novella of the three on offer here–I couldn’t say about the remaining seven in the original hardcover.  Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King are no slouches, Lawrence Block recently put out maybe the best novella I’ve ever read via Kindle, which is proving to be the savior of that long-neglected form.  But could anybody beat a tag-team composed of Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark?  Talk about a handicap match.

His entry, in a form none of them employed regularly, is the best because he’s not trying for something bigger, bolder, brassier, he’s not trying to save the world in 40,000 words or less, he’s not jumping on any soapboxes.  He’s just using this opportunity to try a little experiment–what would Dortmunder be like if Stark wrote him?  And he’s not going to tell anybody that’s what he’s doing.  Because that would skew the data.

Which I suppose is what I’ve just done, but it’s been over ten years now, and I think the statute of limitations has expired, along with the author, sadly.  Only Mosley is left now.  They should have set up a tontine or something.  For all I know they did.  That would make for an interesting novella, don’t you think?

I think it’s going to be a while before my next review, since I haven’t had time to reread the next Dortmunder novel, and it’s a long one, with all the extra plot elements Stark summarily dispensed with here.  Maybe I’ll find something to write about in the nonce, maybe not.  Forgive my transgressions, gentle readers, as I would forgive yours, had you any.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Richard Stark

Review: Watch Your Back!, Part 2

richard-estes-amsterdam-avenue-and-96th-street

“I’m a guy goes to the O.J. sometimes,” Dortmunder said, “and I thought you oughta know what’s happening there.”

“I’m here,” Otto Medrick told him, “so I don’t hafta know what’s happening there, I got family looking after it.”

“No, you don’t,” Dortmunder said. “Your nephew Raphael, I have to tell you the truth, I met him, and I don’t think he could look after a pet rock.”

“Yeah, you met him all right,” Medrick agreed. “But there’s the rest of the family, his mother, cousins by the dozens.”

“Nobody,” Dortmunder said. “Whatever they’re supposed to be doing, they’re busy doing something else.”

“By God, that sounds like those useless sonsabitches,” Medrick said, and peered all at once more closely into Dortmunder’s face. “I bet,” he said, “you’re one a them back-room crooks.”

Many years ago, I made a mighty vow that I would never write two novels about John Dortmunder in a row, but would always write at least two books about other people and other things in between. The reason was, I didn’t want to overwork John, me or the reader. So far, I think the system has worked pretty well.

So what happened? After The Road to Ruin, clearly, I was supposed to write two non-John novels, and yet, Watch Your Back! is absolutely about Dortmunder, Kelp and all the rest of them. And what happened was, this was the only story I could think about. I resisted, I tried to come up with something else, but the brain refused to move until I had cleared it of this idea. So I hope it’s gonna be all right. I leave it to the reader to judge.

A word about that exclamation point. Generally speaking, I don’t much hold with exclamation points, and certainly not in titles, but some time after I decided this book was called Watch Your Back!, it occurred to me that there are two meanings for that phrase, the American meaning and the New York meaning (America and New York are always at odds, so why not here?), and it was the New York meaning I meant. In America, “watch your back” means be careful, someone means to do you harm. In New York, it means, “Comin’ through!” Move over, in other words, or get hurt. I added the exclamation point in an attempt to juke the reader toward the New York meaning. But whatever you think the title means, I hope you like the story. ~DEW

(Filched from The Official Westlake Blog.)

What did happen?  Leaving aside that What Happened? wouldn’t be a half bad Dortmunder title, following in the tradition of Why Me?, What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, and the penultimate novel we’ve yet to cover.  Westlake liked taking familiar turns of phrase and standing them on their heads.  But why is it a man who had so many novel ideas for novels couldn’t just knock off another standalone, and give his two larcenous franchise boys a break?

As we’ve discussed, his powers were slowly ebbing, his recent attempts to break new ground hadn’t mainly worked out (often to the point of his not even finding a publisher for them), the 21st century was perhaps not entirely to his taste, and even though he was writing as Richard Stark again, this didn’t satisfy his personal and professional need to publish under his birth name.

His memory is a bit selective here–his final seven novels were all Parkers or Dortmunders after 2003’s Money For Nothing (and that title sounds like a Dortmunder too, doesn’t it?)  Ask The Parrot wasn’t ready for 2005 so this ended up being the only book he published that year.  In fact, 2004 was the last year he published more than one book–in the 60’s, he’d routinely come out with seven per annum.

I suppose I ought to take him at his word when he says the title means “Comin’ Through!”–a phrase I have yet to hear in that context from any New Yorker.  What you hear from all the wannabe Lance Armstrongs coming up fast behind you in the park, on their $5,000 racing machines, is “To your Left!” If you can’t process that direction-based directive quickly enough, too bad for you and your bones.

If somebody’s comin’ through, that means you better watch your back, or harm will befall you.  The exclamation point makes it more assertive (and therefore, more New York).  He knew the title had a double meaning, as so many of his titles did.  Believe what writers of fiction tell you in their fiction.  That’s where they tell the truth about themselves.  But it’s for we the readers to divine that truth, so let’s get back to it.

I think I’ll go back to the titled subheadings approach now, which tends to serve me well in the case of Mr. Westlake’s more rambling endeavors.  Beginning with (this will be a long one)–

Florida in August Sucks For Everyone:

The rich and poor alike, but let’s start with the middle class.  Dortmunder goes to see Otto Medrick, co-founder of the O.J. Bar and Grill, now retired to Coral Acres, a seemingly fictional retirement community, just outside Jacksonville, as far north in Florida as you could go and still be in Florida; but on the other hand, you were still in Florida. 

As you can see up top, Otto has heard of Dortmunder–Rollo told him about these guys who held meetings in the back room, presumably referring to Dortmunder as the taller and gloomier of the two bourbon & ices.  But when Otto retreated from winter, he did not leave a phone number or even a forwarding address with Rollo.  Nobody has told him about the O.J. being turned into a bust-out joint, with his nephew’s mob friends siphoning away at the bar’s line of credit, planning to leave nothing behind them but dry bones, and a mountain of debt that Otto would then be on the hook for.

Otto’s main interest was always his little camera store on Broadway he had for 42 years.  Jerome Hulve (the ‘j’ in O.J.) had the dry cleaners next door.  It was Jerry found out this nearby bar on Amsterdam was up for grabs, needed a partner to buy in, dragooned Otto.  Neither ever took much interest in running the place, that’s what bartenders are for, though they did briefly try to turn it into a dinner spot (the explanation for the waiter’s uniforms Dortmunder saw when he was snooping around the O.J.’s basement).  Restaurants take up a lot more time, you have to deal with chefs and inspectors and stuff.  They ultimately decided to focus more on the bar than the grill.

So after accusing Dortmunder of being like his cat Buttercup, who used to bring him little dead creatures and drop them at his feet, Otto concedes that yes, this is happening, and he should probably do something to stop it, assuming that’s possible.  All he’s doing in Coral Acres, aside from engaging in ‘kanookie’ with a fellow senior he won’t marry because taxes, is taking pictures of flowers and things with a 1904 8×10 Rochester Optical Peerless field camera–the kind that has a bellows and you go under a cloth to take a picture.  This precise camera, in fact.  The frame is mahogany.  Nice.

Rochester-Optical-Peerless

Only–and I don’t know precisely what this is meant to convey, which only makes me more interested–Rochester Optical, which was, as the name would suggest, headquartered in upstate New York (same as Donald E. Westlake was in his formative years, fancy that), was taken over by Kodak (still in Rochester today, kind of) in 1904, and the Peerless line had been discontinued back in the late 19th century.  Now this is where I’d say ‘Obviously Mr. Westlake didn’t have the internet to do research with,’ but he wrote this book in the Mid-00’s, so obviously he did.

Otto, as stated, got interested in photography well after he started selling the equipment, and his embrace of a camera that was obsolete before he was born stemmed from his dislike of digital imaging (which is all the Kodak in Rochester is doing now, not even making film anymore).   He wanted to find the most basic unadorned form of photography available to him that would get the job done efficiently (maybe a bit like a writer working mainly after the IBM Selectric came out in ’61 deciding to work exclusively with manual typewriters).

“Then came digital,” he said, and shook a disgusted head. “What you got with digital, you got no highs and no lows. Everything’s perfect, and everything’s plastic. You see those Matthew Brady pictures from the Civil War? The Civil War! I’m talking a long time ago. You try to take those pictures with digital, you know what they’re gonna look like?”

“No,” Dortmunder admitted.

“Special effects in a Civil War movie,” Medrick told him. “People look at it, they say, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s so lifelike!’ You know what is it, the difference between life and lifelike?”

“I think I do,” Dortmunder said.

The narrator quietly informs us that Dortmunder could not care less about the difference between old and new photographs, but needs Otto to keep the O.J. alive, which he does care about.  You have to let people talk about what they care about, so you can eventually get to what you care about.  Parker would understand.  And not care at all about the O.J.

(Sidebar: This is a very funny chapter in the book that makes me very wistful.  My friend, Leonard Abramson, worked in a film lab until he retired, and he also got seriously into amateur photography, mainly nature, some abstract, had exhibits, won a few minor prizes, even got a snap of a Wild Turkey in Van Cortlandt Park published in USA Today–but he, in contrast to Otto Medrick, became obsessed with digital cameras towards the end, loved their precision, their clarity–always an early adopter, was Lenny.  He died a few years ago–stuck it out in the Bronx to the [very] bitter end.  He was nothing if not argumentative.  Would he have differed with Otto over the difference between life and lifelike?  Never got to have that discussion with him.  Isn’t that just like Life?)

So the photography chapter ends with bad news–Otto talks to Rollo on the phone, and he tells Dortmunder, with dead hopeless eyes, that the mob guys are done with their bust-out scam, and are moving all their ill-gotten swag out of the bar that night.  So it’s over, right? John Dortmunder does not know the meaning of defeat!  Okay fine, he knows it like the backs of his large knobby hands, but that just makes him more determined to avoid any deepening of the acquaintance.

There was other stuff about Florida and the general Caribbean mileau, scattered hither and yon through the narrative–oh right, Preston Fareweather.  My least favorite part of the book, but he sure takes up a lot of it.  He sets his sights on yet another short-term hook-up (he’s given up on the serial monogamy thing, since it leads to serial divorce lawyers coming after his money).

Overly long story short, this very seductress in a flesh-colored bikini, parading herself around at the resort Preston is holed up at (that pun was unintended, but I see it now), is a femme fatale in the employ of an ex-wife’s wealthy brother, who inveigles the lustful Preston into going sailing with her, outside the inviolable sanctuary of Club Med, and next thing you know he’s been bundled aboard a very fast drug smuggling boat piloted by some rather caustic Australians (???) who are not interested in his promises of beating whatever the other side is paying them, since it’s all about the purity of their impure profession to them.

All that’s going to happen to him is that he’ll be served with legal papers when back on U.S. soil, and forced to pay off his former spouses for their years of service in the trenches.  The thing about some rich people is that the question “Your money or your life?” strikes them as a contradiction in terms.  Preston sees a chance to escape to a nearby Florida Key, and so leaps overboard, getting picked up by a scruffy-looking Cuban fisherman named Porfirio, who eventually gets him to a Holiday Inn, where he’s able to contact his secretary Alan, and tell him to come running and bring clothes.

Then he tries to stiff the fisherman, who he’d promised his Rolex back when he was treading water with angry drug smugglers coming after him. He’s going to give poor Porfirio a measly hundred bucks, but the hotel clerk, in a noble act of class solidarity, makes sure his paisano gets five hundred.  Which is still a lot less than a Rolex.

Also. The African Queen is there.  The actual boat.  On display, like a trophy of war.  Since this book came out, they’ve drafted the old girl back into service.  Not against the Kaiser, one assumes.  Alan, once he arrives, can’t get over this disorienting presence, and probably neither could Westlake when he found out about it, perhaps even stumbled across it on vacation–was the boat from Key Largo not available?  Did Westlake toy with having the temporarily penniless Preston reference a different Huston?  He wouldn’t be the first.

The answers to these and other questions must be out there, hopefully not on the Victoria Nile or Lake Albert, which look nearly as uncomfortable for Bogie and Kate as Florida in August is for mere mortals.

Preston, knowing the forces now arrayed against him will not have given up, is focused on getting back to his penthouse in Manhattan, where he figures nobody will expect him to go, and of course nothing bad could ever possibly happen to him there.

Preston, who visually lives up to the term fat cat,  has spent the last forty-eight hours or so in a very skimpy bathing suit (when you’re rich, you don’t have to care how you look, or hadn’t you noticed that lately?), plagued by biblical hosts of mosquitoes, and he even had to eat at Burger King.  He swears his former legal concubines shall pay for these outrages, but for our purposes, this section has achieved its goal of demonstrating how at both ends of the state, all through the economic spectrum, Florida supremely sucks in August.  Unless you’re a truck driver, in which case your ultimate bete noire is going to be New York City, as we shall now examine in–

No, You Take Manhattan:

In Chapter 22, we meet the guy driving the big semi from Pittsburgh, that’s going to take all the O.J. swag to somewhere it can be disposed of profitably, and we meet Mikey Carbine (yes, that’s a real name that Italian American people really have), the no-good fourth son of Howie Carbine, a no-good Jersey mob boss (The Sopranos without the sexy, would be a good summation of this particular crew, and of Westlake’s general attitude towards ‘organized’ crime).

The truck makes its arduous way through Manhattan, to the intersection of 96th St. and Amsterdam Ave., where the O.J. still tenuously clings to life, the driver cussing under his breath at the sheer unbridled cussedness of New Yorkers, and now I feel fully confirmed in my suspicion that Mr. Westlake was an admirer of Jean Merrill.

Also, no matter what the hour of day or night, there was always traffic everywhere in New York City, darting cabs and snarling delivery vans and even aggressive suburbanites in their Suburbanites. Unlike normal parts of the world, where other drivers showed a healthy respect tending toward fear when in the presence of the big trucks, New York City drivers practically dared him to start something. They’d cut him off; they’d crowd him; they’d even go so far as to blat their horns at him. The people operating small vehicles in New York, the driver thought, drove as though they all had a lawyer in the backseat.

This being New York, they very well might, but lawyers aren’t going to stop him from picking up all the stuff bought with the O.J.’s credit line–guess who is?  That’s right.

Dortmunder somehow whipped up a plan right off his sweat-stained cuff, conveyed it to his own crew in absentia, and here they are, not identified by name (since it’s from the other side’s POV), but we may easily discern that it’s Stan Murch, Andy Kelp, and Tiny Bulcher wielding an axe, like this was an entirely different kind of story, set in a much earlier era of pillage.  I’ll just let you imagine it, until you get a chance to read it again or for the first time, but the scene closes with the unnerved mob guys in disarray, the empty truck in flames, its tires in shreds, and its driver saying something about overtime.

And now we’re going to hear Otto say something to Dortmunder, that he considers germane to their present situation, as they experience the unparalleled joys of air travel in the Post-9/11 era.  Otto wants a seat with one of those air phones, which he uses to tell all the wholesalers who provided the bust-out swag that it’s all going back to them, in the original wrappers.

Prior to that, he tells his brother Frank, father to Raphael, that either Frank gets his idiot Moby wannabe son committed, by the same quack headshrinker who certified him fit to run a bar, or big brother’s coming home to live with them on Long Island, forever.  These calls have the desired effect, in both cases.  Ah, isn’t the telecommunications era grand?

Neither of them has any personal digital devices they can while away the flight with, of course, so they have to talk to each other.  Okay, Otto has to talk, and Dortmunder (as already mentioned) figures he needs to listen and nod politely and occasionally make some proforma response.  And this is what Otto has to say to him about–

Smoke Signals:

But Medrick had a point and intended to pursue it. “It’s communications technologies that did us in,” he said. “Now you got your Internet, before that your television, your radio, your newspapers, your telephone, your signal flags, your telegrams, your letters in the mailbox, but it all goes back to smoke signals, the whole problem starts right there.”

“Sure,” Dortmunder said.

Medrick shook his head. “But,” he said, “I just don’t think society’s ready to go back that far.”

“Probably not,” Dortmunder said, and yawned. Maybe he could drink the coffee.

“But that’s what it would take,” Medrick insisted, “to return some shred of honesty to this world.”

Dortmunder put down his coffee mug. “Is that what we’re trying for?” he asked.

“Right just this minute it is,” Medrick told him. “You see, with smoke signals, that was the very first time in the whole history of the human race that you could tell somebody something that he couldn’t see you when you told him. You get what I mean?”

“No,” Dortmunder said.

“Before smoke signals,” Medrick said, “I wanna tell you something, I gotta come over to where you are, and stand in front of you, and tell you. Like I’m doing now. And you get to look at my face, listen to how I talk, read my body language, decide for yourself, is this guy trying to pull a fast one. You get it?”

“Eye contact.”

“Exactly,” Medrick said. “Sure, people still lied to each other back then and got away with it, but it wasn’t so easy. Once smoke signals came in, you can’t see the guy telling you the story, he could be laughing behind his hand, you don’t know it.”

“I guess that’s true,” Dortmunder agreed.

“Every step up along the way,” Medrick said, “every other kind of way to communicate, it’s always behind the other guy’s back. For thousands of years, we’ve been building ourselves a liar’s paradise. That’s why the video phones weren’t the big hit they were supposed to be, nobody wants to go back to the eyeball.”

“I guess not.”

“So that means they’ll never get rid of the rest of it,” Medrick concluded. “All the way back to smoke signals.”

“I don’t think they use those so much any more,” Dortmunder said.

“If they did,” Medrick said darkly, “they’d lie.”

I could quibble here, mention Skype or FaceTime (mainly for conversations with distant loved ones, and only partly to try and determine if they’re loving somebody else).  Or videoconferencing (and why precisely do the suits want to gaze upon each other’s unappetizing countenances when hammering out deals?)

I might even mention the way some people in very high places lie straight to our faces and we believe them anyway, or pretend to (Otto mentioned that), but on the whole, I feel this needs no extraneous textual exegesis.  If there was any, it’d be lies, right? Hey, anybody know when the next White House Press conference is being televised?  They did what?

Intermezzo:

With Dortmunder, Murch, and Brother Frank at his side, and Raphael now practicing basket-weaving in place of downloading, Otto easily retakes his stronghold from the two gobsmacked gunsels guarding it, who go back to Mikey for new orders.

Otto calls Rollo up, tells him to come back to work, and maybe bring some of his old buddies from the Merchant Marine (well, hello sailor!) to hang out for a week, as a sort of honor guard against the dishonorable.  The magic words ‘Open Bar’ are uttered (got to get those regulars back, and that’ll do it).  One begins to suspect Otto is enjoying this urban scrum a lot more than flower photography in fetid Florida, but one could always do both, I suppose. Alternate.

Mikey never tries to win back control of the bar, thus depriving the reader of what could have been a delightful donnybrook–in a series that tends to avoid gunplay and fisticuffs like it was a PBS kiddie show.  If you’re wondering whatever happened to that old Jersey Mob spirit, here’s the thing.  Mikey was doing this way off the books, and also the reservation–by the laws of his own perfidious polis, he’s poaching here.  Gotham ain’t Jersey, similar though the accents may be.

There’s already a Mafia in New York, in case you hadn’t heard.  Once he got the money from the bust-out, his dad could go through the right channels, make it good, but not if they go in with guns blazing, heads knocking, cops arriving, creating all kinds of headaches for the New York chapter of the fraternity.  The bust-out is a bust.  Now he just wants payback.

Spies are dispatched to the bar, to get the straight dope on what brought Otto Medrick back from the grave (okay, maybe I’ve busted Florida’s chops enough for one review).  Of course, they have to get that dope from the regulars.  So it’s what you might call more of a long and winding road.

“Yeah,” said the first regular, and asked himself, “Now, what’s that guy’s name?”

“It’s the same as some beer,” the second regular told him.

“I know that much.”

“Ballantine?” hazarded the third regular.

“No,” said the second regular, as the new arrivals at the other end of the bar started in on some sea chanteys.

The first regular had to raise his voice but managed: “Budweiser?”

“No, it’s something foreign.”

“Molson,” tried the first regular.

“Molson?” The second regular couldn’t believe it. “That’s not foreign!” “It’s Canadian.”

“Canadian isn’t foreign!” The second regular pointed perhaps north. “It’s right there! They’re part of us, they’re with us, except for ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’ they talk the same language as us.”

“They’re their own country,” the first regular insisted. “Like Hawaii.”

“It’s not Molson,” the second regular told him, to put an end to that.

The droopy-nosed guy said, “Heineken?”

“No.” Everybody took shots at it now: “Beck?”

“No.”

“Tsingtau?” “What? He’s not Chinese, he’s like one of us, he’s not even Canadian, it’s just his name is—”

“Amstel?”

“No!”

“Dos Equis.”

Nobody’s named Dos Equis! Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

When the second regular put on his thinking cap, it made his entire forehead form grooves, as though somewhere there might be a socket to screw his head into.

“Dortmund!” he suddenly cried.

They all looked at him.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah! That’s his name! Dortmund.”

“That’s pretty funny,” said the droopy-nosed guy, and took the name with him back to Jersey, where he gave it to Mikey, who didn’t think it was very funny at all.

We’ll call that a minority opinion, and move on to the heist section of the program.   While Dortmunder has been saving the O.J. Bar and Grill for posterity (someday there’ll be a statue of him in Central Park, and the pigeons are just gonna love it), work has been proceeding slowly but surely on setting up the penthouse robbery, which looks really suite (you wish you didn’t see what I did there).  Tiny is of the opinion it’s been more slow than sure, to which Kelp tells him Rome wasn’t built in a day.  To which Tiny remarks “It was robbed in a day.” Probably by one of his ancestors.  Civilization is overrated, anyway.

(Mr. Bulcher is on fire in this one.  Later, Kelp says something about how you have to roll with the punches.  “Not my punches,” Tiny retorts.  I mean, you’d laugh even if you weren’t afraid not to.)

Murch has to get a truck–not stolen this time–then remove Preston’s BMW from the private garage with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Not necessarily in that order.  He has a notion he could do a straight-up trade, the BMW for the truck, and thus he makes his way to Maximilian’s Used Cars in the farflung outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens.  I believe Voyager 2 is getting there any day now.  And will be for sale at Max’s lot shortly afterwards, with a sign reading “!!!Creampuff!!!” affixed to its solar panels.

They work out a deal, but Max needs some time to get the truck.  Giving us time for yet another sidebar–

Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Broadsword?:

Who wouldn’t?  As he did in Drowned Hopes, Mr. Westlake decided to have some fun with car names.  But he’s sneaky about it here, starting off with real cars that sound fake, like the Lincoln Navigator.  Then, please recall, he has the truck driver complaining about suburbanites in their Suburbanites (almost right).  From then on the standard Detroit workhorses still go by their real names, as do the really classy foreign makes (like Preston’s BMW), but you start noticing something screwy about the monikers when it comes to various ill-considered attempts at re-branding.  Here’s the list.  If I missed any, let me know in the comments section.

Lexus Dzilla (the gargantuan SUV Judson Blint rents for his new boss’ gargantuan guy).
Buick Broadsword (the car Stan drives to see Max–not his, naturally).
Olds Finali (Olds folded in 2004, though really it was 1908, just three years after that song about the guy who wanted to fuck Lucille in the backseat of one, go figure).
Lexus Enorma (When the Dzilla just isn’t enough.  Alan and Preston rent two of these, consecutively).
Chrysler Consigliere (guess whose ride this is?).
Jeep Buccaneer (ditto)

Not much of a list compared to the one in Drowned Hopes, and maybe this isn’t much of a Dortmunder epic next to Drowned Hopes, but at this very late date, I’ll take it.  With a Dortmunder, it’s always the fine details that count the most. Also true of some paintings, which brings us to the perhaps over-hasty wrap-up (it’s late, I have a lot of work tomorrow, let’s put this one to bed, so I can do the same).

Only The Young Die Rich:

Oh I will be so impressed with anyone who catches that ref right off the bat.  But let me explain, while you cogitate.

Judson Philips was one of Mr. Westlake’s fellow grandmasters in the Mystery Writers of America.  Very much an elder of the tribe, since he was born a full thirty years earlier, was publishing novels as far back as the 40’s, copped the coveted title in ’73.  I’d say it’s a good bet they knew each other–how well, I wouldn’t venture a guess.  (I did find a reference to Philips and Lawrence Block having corresponded briefly, in relation to a book about mystery writing Block was working on–mystery writers are a pretty tight club, and would be even if they didn’t have an actual club).

Now the name Judson, as has been recently observed in the comments section, shows up here and there in Westlake’s oeuvre (as does the name Philip, now I think on it).  Westlake even made Judson part of his final pseudonym, and the original Judson also published under multiple pseudonyms himself.  I bet I’d have a better idea what all this means (if anything) had I ever read any Judson Philips, but alas.

However, under the name Hugh Pentecost, Mr. Philips published a 1964 novel called Only the Rich Die Young, and that’s a good enough hook for a section centered around Judson Blint.  (Or possibly Billy Joel, but let’s put that to one side for now, or perhaps forever).

All through the book, young Judson has been soldiering away in the trenches of mail fraud for J.C., and he’s a quick study, as we’ve seen.  So much so that he’s branching out into burglary.  Kelp decided to accept his offer of assistance, and after some tutelage from the master, ’twas Master Blint who disabled the alarm in Preston’s garage.

He’s gotten his own walk-up studio apartment through J.C.’s contacts (for $1,742.53 a month, in Manhattan, on West 27th St., Chelsea, in the early 21st century, so J.C.’s got some serious pull, like that was ever in doubt–try getting that rent in East Harlem now).  He’s introduced his parents to Andy Kelp.  They didn’t know what to say to that, so they said as little as possible.  Well, at least he’s getting a career.

He’s a regular go-getter, is young Judson and now he wants to go get him some loot.  But of course he’s still too green, too much of a journeyman, and anyway, they don’t want to split the take five ways–he’ll get a taste, for helping out, no more.  J.C., sensing his hurt, quietly lets Judson know that where Dortmunder is involved, there might not be any take to split.

But he just wants to know what it’s like!  To experience it!  He’s balanced on that fine line between amateur and pro, with the boundless enthusiasm and dangerous curiosity of the former, but increasingly informed by the pragmatic prudence of the latter.  He doesn’t want the gang mad at him.  Most particularly he does not want Tiny mad at him.  But he wants to know.

The heist goes off like a Swiss watch (of which no doubt there are many in Preston’s digs), and then something goes wrong.  J.C. knows Dortmunder, and she knows his luck.  Good and bad, and you never know which until it’s too late.

As the book has been hinting at all along, with the chapters documenting Preston Fareweather’s abduction from Club Med, and his long retreat from the Florida Keys (much like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, only with mosquitos and heat rash),  Preston and Alan are both most unexpectedly at home when Dortmunder & Co. arrive, with Arnie Albright in tow (another subplot I don’t want to dwell on much, but basically Dortmunder appealed equally to Arnie’s greed and his rancor towards Preston, so they could have an expert on hand to tell them which valuables to steal).  But being exhausted from their trek, they are both dead to the world.

Nonetheless, with the householders enhoused, this burglary is now a home invasion, something Dortmunder would always rather avoid.  But the gang is blissfully unaware of their presence, and the somnolent duo are no more aware of the departure of Preston’s worldy goods than Cindy Lou Who was about the Roast Beast.

Everything is being packed into the elevator and taken down to be loaded in the Ford E-450 Stan got from Max, which has the added benefit of having once belonged to the Feds for use in apprehending illegal immigrants coming in from Canada (don’t ask), thus making it a perfect ‘mace’, ie a vehicle with registration papers that make it look legit to law enforcement, man I wish I had time to cover that chapter, but I absolutely can not make this a three-parter.

Arnie goes around slapping red dots on everything he wants to fence, like this was an auction, and they were sold.  Dortmunder really had to talk him into this, and the way he did it was to say that when this theft was reported in the news, they’d be saying how these guys were so brilliant, they even got the things no ordinary thief would know were valuable, only Dortmunder is kind of an ordinary thief when it comes to art and shit, so he keeps using the wrong names, which helps convince Arnie he better come along after all.

Filled with a warm larcenous glow of achievement, finally fully participating in the process he normally only sees the final stage of, Arnie wanders into Preston’s bedroom, stops and stares at the fat snoring lump under the blankets.  And then Preston wakes up–briefly–looks at Arnie Albright, who you will please recall he had many a disrespectful word with at the Club Med, which is why all this is happening now.  Preston recognizes Arnie, but assumes he’s dreaming, and then he really is again.  Arnie Albright’s nightmare has now begun.  Because Preston can give his name to the law once he realizes it wasn’t a dream.  And the law already knows his name.

Okay, it’s clearly time to skedaddle, and they got basically everything of real value anyway–or so they think.  Andy already scoped out a place to stow the truck at a construction site (another chapter I had to skirt over, and where’s your hard hat?)  Maybe Arnie has a problem, but Preston Fareweather doesn’t know any of their names.  The Perfect Crime.  Sheah.  Right.

Because this is where Mikey Carbine makes his move, with the Consigliere and the Buccaneer, and guns, and Kelp and Murch get hijacked, which is just the most horrible indignity Murch can imagine, never happened to him before! Mikey’s not planning any whackings, not on the NY mob’s turf, just get his money back with interest.  Only thing is, what he gets is to hold that proverbial bag.

So many sideplots here.  Earlier, we met some members of the staff at Preston’s condo, among them Big Jose and Little Jose, who were watching his penthouse (ie, having the time of their lives partying there).  Well of course they can’t do that anymore, now that Preston is back home again, but they have a sort of proprietary feeling about the place, and when they see this truck come out of what they know is Preston’s private garage,  they call the cops.  Who quickly determine the plates belong to Preston’s BMW (query–if this truck is the ultimate mace, why would they use stolen plates?  Oh never mind.)

So what happens next?  That’s right.  Mikey’s people have control of the truck. Mikey’s people get busted, Mikey not long after, and Howie’s gonna have some ‘splainin to do to New York, and there might be a little war in the offing, and unlikely some sympathetic FBI Agent is going to offer tactical support, so the Carbine Crew is going to end up jailed and/or dead.  Stan and Andy walk away innocently from the scene, looking like ordinary working Joes in their yellow hardhats, and indeed they are, but the job didn’t work out.  Oh well, beats prison.

So by the time Preston finds out he’s been robbed, and starts ranting about Arnie Albright, the police are there to tell him the robbers have already been arrested, bunch of Jersey mobsters, so he goes back to thinking it was a dream, and says maybe he even owes Arnie an apology (yeah, like he owes Porforio a Rolex, and his ex-wives their alimony).

The place is left vacant, while Preston and Alan go downtown to fill out reports and stuff.  And who should wander in but Judson Blint, who came up via the private elevator, like he already had before, with Kelp.  He didn’t know exactly when the heist was taking place, but he sort of hoped just to witness a bit of it. He’s downcast when he realizes he missed the party, but he still wanders around, fascinated, figuring maybe he could find some little knick-knack for a souvenir, and then something catches his eye in a dimly lit hallway.

One of the pictures attracted his attention, though it was kind of dark and small, less than a foot wide and maybe eight inches high. But for its size, it had a lot of detail. It was kind of medieval, with two guys his own age, in peasant clothes, and they were carrying a pig hung on a long pole, each of the guys having an end of the pole on his shoulder. They were walking on a path on a hillside with woods around them, and down the hill you could see what looked like a lake, with a few very rustic houses and wagons beside it, and a few people chopping wood and stuff like that.

What drew Judson’s eye to this picture was the expressions on the two young guys’ faces. They had, like, goofy grins on, as though they were getting away with something and couldn’t help laughing about it.

Judson looked at the guys and their mischievous eyes and goofy grins, and he felt a kinship. He’d be one of those two, if he had lived then.

And all at once he got it: they’d stolen the pig.

Judson took the picture down off its hook on the wall, and studied it more closely. It was old, all right, done when those clothes were what you wore. It was painted on wood, and it was signed in the lower right with a signature he couldn’t figure out.

The painting was in an elaborate gilded frame that didn’t seem right for those two guys. There was also a sheet of nonreflective glass. Once Judson removed the picture from the frame, it wasn’t heavy. It wasn’t big. He liked it. He slid it under his shirt, tucked into the front of his pants, and headed for the elevator.

It’s a freakin’ Brueghel.  Now I think Westlake made this picture up–I can’t find it anywhere online.  But in fact, the elder Brueghel did like to paint pictures of mischievous persons, even thieves, because capturing humanity in all its flailing flawed fulsome fun-loving folly was his passion (one Westlake shared).  He also painted pigs, because c’mon, they’re cute, funny, and you can eat them.  So maybe Westlake extrapolated, or maybe the online catalogues are incomplete. Academic for our purposes, and Judson’s.

So eventually the whole gang (and Judson too) is listening to WINS in Arnie’s apartment (the narrator makes the quip all of us in that station’s broadcast range have already composed many variations upon.  “You give us twenty-two minutes,” they threaten, “we’ll give you the world,” and then they give you mostly sports. They may not know this, but sports is not the world.

They are slowly coming to terms with the fact that 1)The cops think they already got the perps and 2)One of the most valuable things in the apartment, valued at around a million bucks ten years ago, was stolen, but not by them.  Preston is telling the reporter “They even got the Brueghel.”  Who is this master criminal who spotted a tiny picture in a dark hallway, kept there to protect it from light exposure?

Dortmunder, master detective that he is, figures it out.  Good thing too, because Tiny needs something to distract him from the fact that Dortmunder’s O.J. obsession is the reason Mikey hijacked their heist.  Of course, it’s also the reason Mikey is arrested and not them, but you really don’t want to argue the fine points of causality with an irritated Tiny Bulcher.

“Judson,” Dortmunder said.

Everybody looked at Dortmunder, and then everybody looked at Judson, who was blushing and stammering and fidgeting on that kitchen chair with his arms jerking around—a definite butterfly, pinned in place. Everybody continued to look at him, and finally he produced words, of a sort: “Why would you— What would I— How could— Mr. Dortmunder, why would you—?”

“Judson,” Tiny said. He said it softly, gently, but Judson clammed up like a locked safe, and his face went from beet red to shroud white, just like that.

Dortmunder said, “Had to be. He went there, wanted to hang out with us, we were already gone, he went in and up, looked around, decided to take a little something.”

Kelp said, “Judson, what made you take that?”

Judson looked around at them all, tongue-tied.

Arnie, in an informational way, said, “Kid, you’re one of the most incompetent liars I’ve ever seen.”

Judson sighed. He could be seen to accept the idea at last that denial was going to be of no use. “I identified with it,” he said.

Everybody reacted to that one. Stan said, “You identified with it?”

Dortmunder said, “What’s it a picture of, Judson?”

“Two young guys stealing a pig.”

Tiny said, “That’s what goes for just under a mil? Two guys stealing a pig?”

“It’s nice,” Judson said. “You can see they’re having fun.”

“More than we are,” Tiny said. Dortmunder said, “Judson, where is this picture now?”

“In my desk in J. C.’s office.”

Tiny said, “I tell you what, kid. You were gonna get a piece of what we got, but we no longer got what we got, so now we are gonna get a piece of what you got.”

“That seems fair,” Kelp said.

Again Judson sighed. Then he said, “Maybe I can take a picture of it.”

“Good idea,” Dortmunder agreed.

(Ah, what a world it would be if art only belonged to those who most appreciated it, instead of merely the philistines who can afford it.  Actually, there’s a pretty good heist movie about that, called Artworks, and Virginia Madsen shows a hell of a lot of skin in it, so check her, I mean it, out.)

Like many another supporting character in the Dortmunders who isn’t one of the core crew, Judson is seen again in future books (of which there are only two remaining), but never has another moment quite so fine as this.  But we’re given to understand he’s won the respect of the gang, and a place at the table, even if it’s only the kiddie table for now.

Unlike Raphael, who chose to retreat into what I suppose one might call his mind, Judson chose to go out and engage the world on his own terms, and to Donald E. Westlake, that’s all there is to life, and most of all to youth.  Only the young die rich.  Because youth is the only real wealth there is.  Well, that and bitcoin, of course.   (Oh what a shame Mr. Westlake missed out on that–the word first cropped up about a month before his demise, and I doubt he even noticed).

Preston’s own wealth has been recovered, but not by him–he forgot that ex-wives and their lawyers watch the news as well.  As one of the tech guys for his interview files out (after Preston strikes out with the hot newscaster), he tosses Preston a summons.  He got served.  In both senses.  And all that recovered swag of his, no longer in his direct possession (since it is now evidence), is going to get divvied up by the exes.  And to top off his day, Alan, the closest thing to a friend he had, walks out on him.  And so will I, because it’s time to finish up.

Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, in Mid-September, for a meet with the now free and clear Ralph Winslow, so he can finally find out what kind of job that ice-tinkling fellow felon has in mind.  There’s a bad moment when Rollo says the back room is in use but it’s just a support group (support for what we never learn), and they’re leaving.  And Dortmunder is staying.  His place.  His little corner of the planet, his anchor, his respite, his home and hearth, his meat and drink, well mainly just drink.  He saved it, and it’s his, as it never was before.

So what if the heist failed.  He still won where it counted.  And there’s always another day (for something else to go wrong).  Also, he pocketed a few small trinkets on his way out, and what the rest of the gang doesn’t know won’t hurt him, particularly Tiny.

The regulars, of course, know not the name of the peerless champion responsible for their triumphant return to their beloved barstools, where they can once more jabber away endlessly about things they don’t understand, which is surely the right of all Americans, it’s in the Constitution, look it up, and we hold it even more sacred than the right to shoot people with guns (relatively few of us actually exercise that right, but everybody’s a know-it-all).

They know not that the champion is in their very midst as they speak (and if they did, they’re probably associate the wrong beer with him).  But the one thing all barflies know for sure is that the greatest man in the world is your bartender. And you know, a case could be made.  So they sing him a song.  And get it wrong.

“The back room is open, gents,” Rollo said.

They all thanked him, not whispering, picked up their drinks, and headed for the back room, Ralph gently tinkling along the way. As they rounded the end of the bar toward the hall, the regulars decided spontaneously to laud Rollo in song.

“For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-OH!
For he’s a golly good fell.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” the second regular said. “I think the last line goes, ‘For he’s a jolly good elf.’” So they tried it that way.

So I said last week that all the covers I’ve found for this book are lousy, and I stick to that.  Maybe the one on the left up-top isn’t too awful in its conception, but impaling Dortmunder on the Empire State Building (which isn’t even in the book) doesn’t quite work for me.  What would have?  Well, check out the image down below the two covers.

That’s a painting, by Richard Estes, master of photo-realism.  From 1995, it’s entitled Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street.  Yeah.  Where we’re told in this very book the O.J. Bar and Grill is located–not sure it was ever made that specific before.

Westlake went to a fair few art shows, one gathers.  I could see him looking a long time at that one.  I could imagine him saying quietly to himself, That bar could be the O.J.  It really could, you know.  Can you prove it’s not?  In the real world, no, it isn’t there–or it’s some sad yuppie singles joint–but in a painting–as in a novel–many things are possible. Including immortality. The difference between life and lifelike.

But see that open cellar door on the sidewalk?  Just waiting for somebody to fall in.  Pitfalls are everywhere.  So are bilious billionaires, and gangrenous gangsters.  Better watch your back.  Or hey, we could watch each others.’  How’s about that?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels