Category Archives: John Dortmunder novels

Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

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We must dance because the Fifties zing
The Fifties zing because the Sixties swing
And the Seventies flash and the Eighties bang
And the Nineties whimper and the century hangs

Robots working in the cotton fields
Vacations on Venus just a tourist deal
Fornication on tape, instant happiness
So we keep on dancing, dancing, we can’t rest

From Les Flamandes, by Jacques Brel
(very freely translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau)

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

And here we are.  The final years of a six decade career, though I never really covered the 50’s–that was the journeyman era, the cranking out short stories for the pulps and sleaze paperbacks for Scott Meredith decade.  The 60’s were the time when Westlake stopped imitating others, and found his own voice–many, in fact–the era of staggeringly prolific creation that seemed for a time to be without any limit.

The 70’s were when he began to focus–lose the aliases for a while, take stock, pull in, then stretch out.  The 80’s were when he began to deal with limitations–his, and those of the ever-changing marketplace he had to hawk his wares in. The 90’s were when he buckled down, recommitted to what was best in him as a writer, wrote his masterpiece, reclaimed perhaps his most idiosyncratic and genuine voice, that of Stark.

And the 00’s?  God, I hate typing that double aught.  Decadism, as a system of dividing up time into defined segments, has some serious drawbacks, in English at least.  There’s never a satisfying name for the first two decades of the century–‘aughts’, ‘teens’–doesn’t work.  And what happens when we reach the 20’s?  We still remember the ‘Roaring’ 20’s, because of movies and Prohibition and Jazz and The Lost Generation and Babe Ruth and such.  (Most of the meanings imposed on these arbitrary decimal points in time are imposed well after the fact.)

So from 2030 onwards, when somebody refers to the 20’s, how will we know which one?  How will we refer to the 20’s yet to come?  If we’re lucky they’ll  be the Boring 20’s, but who thinks we’re going to be that lucky?  The Historian’s Curse is a real thing, people.  So’s nostalgia for past eras pretty much nobody was all that thrilled about while they were happening.

Donald Westlake was never about nostalgia.  He almost never wrote stories set more than a year or three before the time he was writing them.  He was all about the now, because now is all there is, all there can be.  Now is when you live, now is when you find out who you are, what you can do, what you can be.  The past is always there, sure.  Change is never all of a piece, there’s always remnants from earlier eras, anachronisms, glorious and otherwise, but that’s not living in the past–that’s the past living on into the present, just like Faulkner said it would. And the future? Who says we get one?  Best not to assume.  Live now.

It’s hard to say for sure exactly when Westlake came to the realization he was typing on borrowed time.  As of July 12, 2003, when he turned 70, he’d outlived his father Albert by well over ten years.  He’d very nearly failed to live more than a few days past the date of his birth–just a quirk of fate that they’d recently developed an infant formula his digestive system could tolerate.  A man who is told that story as a boy grows up with a healthy respect for contingency, not to mention mortality.  Live now.

And there was nothing left for him to prove, as a writer.  He’d made attempts to stretch out, find new frontiers to explore, and the explorations hadn’t always succeeded, but that was less important than the fact that he’d tried, that he’d never let himself go stale, give up, write entirely to the market, do what everyone expected of him.  Most importantly, he’d never stopped publishing–he published his first novel under his own name in 1960.  After that, there are only four years he didn’t have at least one new novel out–’78, ’79, ’82, and ’99.

His last book published in his lifetime was Dirty Money, last of the Parkers, conclusion of a bloody trilogy (that was not originally planned as such), in which Parker comes face to face with Post-9/11 America, the Surveillance State.  The year after that came the final Dortmunder novel, which like the final Parker, has vague premonitions of mortality in it, but is mainly concerned with the way people were voluntarily surrendering their inmost selves to the media–the other Surveillance State.

The year after that came the posthumous publication of Memory, the greatest of his lost books, the road not taken.  So he finished out the first decade of the 21st Century with at least a book a year (frequently more).  In fact, he’s getting published again this year.  There’s no reason to think we won’t see still more of his work resurfacing in various forms for a good while to come yet, though probably no more novels.   So really, his publishing career has stretched across seven decades.  And still counting.

But to get back to my point–he must have guessed he didn’t have much time left. He certainly knew his best work was behind him. I find it hard to believe he needed to publish every single year to remain solvent–he may not have needed the money at all.  But whether he needed the money or not, he needed the books. He needed to keep working. He needed to stay in print. Because for a writer, the difference between being in or out of print is the difference between being alive or dead. That’s what he said once, and that’s what he believed. Don’t ask me what he thought about ebooks.

I’ve arbitrarily decided this final decade begins in 2002, since that’s the first year we can be pretty sure he was publishing stuff he finished after the new century began.  Not counting Memory, in the remaining years of the decade, he published eleven novels (one posthumously), one novella, and a collection of short stories.

For most professional writers, that wouldn’t sound half-bad for an entire lifetime’s work, would it now?  It would be asking a lot for all of them to be classics, and most of them aren’t.  The Dortmunders are mainly workmanlike, fun, inventive as always, full of lively trenchant observations about the passing parade, but the series had peaked well before that time, and he was mainly just hanging out with old friends by this point.

The last Stark novels are harder.  It’s more difficult to take their measure.  I don’t rank them as highly as the best of the First Sixteen, or even the final Grofield. I’m not sure I think they’re as good as three of the four Parkers he’d turned out in the 90’s (they’re all much better than Flashfire).  You can see his powers fading, here and there, details getting a bit fuzzy–and then he snaps back to, regains clarity, grips hold of the wheel, and there are moments of such power as to make you gasp–and shudder, because this is as Stark as Stark ever gets.   This is Stark writing with the full knowledge that he’s going to die soon.  Nothing focuses the mind half so well, as Dr. Johnson once said.

And in a very real and chilling way, this is Westlake finally surrendering himself to Stark, letting his greatest alter-ego take control of the partnership in a way that’s new–and yet familiar.  Because, you begin to see, Stark was the foundation all along.  Stark was what always lay underneath all the jokes, the farce, the whimsy, the satire and social commentary, the cheerfully irreverent asides. Stark was what was real.  Stark was the core program.  And as old age begins to take hold of Westlake in dead earnest, it’s Stark holds them all together, refuses to give in, stares horror right in the face, stares it down.

There will be an ending.  Nobody runs forever.  But there will be no surrender. There will be no talking to The Law.  There will be no despair, no second-guessing.  There will be no retirement.  Retire to what, pray tell?  That’s what Joe Sheer tried.   Remember how that worked out?  Stark did.

From 2002 to 2009, there were just three novels published that were neither about Parker nor Dortmunder, and the oeuvre as a whole wouldn’t be much the poorer without them.  One had actually been written back in the Mid-90’s, and it’s interesting in its own way, Westlake bringing back his fascination with Latin America one last time, but this time it’s the total immersion route.

And there is the 10th and final Nephew Book, or so I think of it, and by far the weakest of the bunch.  That approach to comic crime had burned itself out by the Mid-70’s, where it should have stayed.  Westlake can’t write about the Nephews anymore, because he’s gotten too far away from them, can’t really believe in them now.  Picaresques are for the young.  Stark in particular can’t believe in them. (Stark would just as soon kill them, you get right down to it.)

But he did start off the Home Stretch with a comic crime novel I do quite admire, a different take on the heist story, with a different take on that type of protagonist, midway between Parker and Dortmunder, but less fixed in his career path.  A reflective reformation, you might say.  We’ll talk about that one next.

But even as we talk about it, the sound of thundering pursuit is in our ears, as we rocket down the last furlong, the crowd cheering wildly, the finish line just ahead.  And here comes Seabiscuit!   Born May 23rd, 1933.  Just about a month and a half before Donald E. Westlake got foaled.  I came up with the Home Stretch thing, because I hate typing that double aught.  Then I found the image up top.  Then I looked up the birthdates.  Then I felt a slight chill.

The world is not simple enough to understand.  With books and their authors, we can at least try.  So let’s try.

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

Review: Bad News, Part 2

“Hair,” Dortmunder said.  This was suddenly absolutely clear in his mind.  “We find  a descendant with black hair, we figure out a way to get a little buncha that hair, we give it to Little Feather, and when they come to take hair for the test, she gives them Moody hair.”

Kelp said, “John, I knew you’d do it.  The Moody hair matches the Moody body, and Little Feather’s in.”

“If we can find an heir,” Dortmunder said.

Irwin laughed.  “This is wonderful,” he said.  “The absolute accuracy of DNA testing! First, we put in a wrong body to match our wrong heiress, then we get a wrong wrong body, and now we’re gonna get the wrong wrong hair. One switched sample is gonna get compared with another switched sample.  Absolutely nothing in the test is kosher.”

Kelp said, “Irwin, that’s the kind of test we like.”

Murch said, “Whoops.  You wanna plan it, and organize it, and do it, all this weekend?”

“No, I don’t want to do that,” Dortmunder said, “but that’s what we got.”

“Then,” Murch said, “I don’t know we got much.”

“Well, it could be that luck is with us,” Dortmunder told him.  Then he stopped and looked around at everybody and said, “I can’t believe what I just heard me say.”

Kelp said, “I’m a little taken aback myself, John.”

This novel features both a con and a heist, and the con takes up a lot more time.  The heist is merely there to shore up the con, and from conception to execution occupies eight chapters in a fifty chapter book, which I think is fairly unique for the series as a whole.  I have this little suspicion that Westlake thought of the heist first, decided it wasn’t quite enough of an idea to hang a novel on, but too much for a short story, and the market for novellas was just not there anymore.

So he found a way to plug it in here, thus allowing him to tell a Dortmunder story about a con while still satisfying the need for a heist.  And a damned clever way at that.  I could be wrong,  I often am.

Not that cons, of the short variety, are anything new to Dortmunder.  In the first two novels, we see him going door to door, selling encyclopedias to housewives–he shows them some brochures, they give him a down-payment, and they never see him again, or the encyclopedias ever.  He doesn’t like it, and he’s not good at it, but he feels like he has to make some kind of dishonest living, and it’s relatively low-risk.  After Bank Shot, he abandoned the encyclopedia thing, and if there was no big heist to plan for the moment, stuck to simple burglary, which was never as simple as he hoped.

J.C. Taylor brought a bit of the grift back to the series, via her many mail order scams, and eventually her own fake country–but always in a strictly ancillary fashion.  This would be the only novel in the series to feature a classic long con.  Well, classic in the Dortmunder sense of the word, put it that way.  Nothing succeeds as planned.

I don’t much like any of the covers I found for this novel (except maybe the Japanese edition I put up for Part 1), and for reasons perhaps a mental health specialist will explain to me someday, often feel obliged to find other images to go with the covers.  It makes sense to me, and that’s all that really matters, right?

What you see up top is a photo of the current St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council (my, don’t they look fierce!), and below that is The Kittatinny House, a rambling old pile that once overlooked the Delaware River, on what is now part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  Originally only accommodating 25 guests, it ended up as a super-swanky resort hotel that could sleep 250.  In its final form, it burned to the ground in 1931.

I’d never heard of it before I started doing research for this review.  I’d say it’s a fair bet that Westlake knew about it, and quite a few other bits and pieces of real history (some of it relating to the odd custom of House Museums  and we’ll get back to that), all of which went into this Mulligan stew of alternate history he’s cooking up here.   He usually knows more than his readers, and he always knows more than he’s saying.  It’s annoying.  Like my propensity for prologues.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t really feel like doing an in-depth synopsis of this one.  No percentage in it.  So I’m going to revisit my old custom of titled subheadings, and see where that gets us.  Hopefully somewhere under 7,000 words.  We’ll see.  Let’s start out with–

The Arraignment of Redcorn:

Little Feather uncrossed her arms and said, “You don’t act like you’re my lawyer, you act like you’re the other guy’s lawyer.”  She pointed to the letter she’d sent.  “I am Little Feather Redcorn,” she said.  “My mother was Doeface Redcorn, my grandmother was Harriet Littlefoot Redcorn, my grandfather was Bearpaw Redcorn, who was lost at sea in the United States Navy in World War Two, and they were all Pottaknobbee, and I’m Pottaknobbee.  I’m Pottaknobbee all the way back to my great-grandfather Joseph Redcorn, who fell off the Empire State Building.”

At that, Dawson blinked and said, “Are you trying to make fun–”

“He was working on it, when they were building it, he was up on top with a bunch of Mohawks.  My mama told me the family always believed the Mohawks pushed him, so I believe it, too.”

Where we left things last time was that Little Feather had been hauled off to the local hoosegow, at the behest of Roger Fox and Frank Oglanda, who co-manage the reservation’s casino, are stealing from it on a regular basis, and thus don’t want anybody other than themselves looking at their overcooked books.  They assume Little Feather’s a fake, but they’re not taking any chances.  Scare her off, before this thing mushrooms.  Only thing is, as we’ve already seen, Little Feather don’t scare easy.

She’s worried, sure.  Nothing like this was supposed to happen, at least not this soon.  But see, in her mind, she’s not really a fake.  She’s a real Indian (says her mother was a full-blooded Choctee, and no that’s not a real tribe either, though it sounds like Choctaw), who has lived exactly the life she says she has, and so what if she doesn’t really belong to this specific tribe?  Her ancestors got robbed by the whites just as much as any Pottaknobbees ever did, and she grew up just as poor.  She’s not lying so much as badly stretching an inconvenient truth. Entirely possible she’s got some non-native ancestry as well, but you know what she’d say to that?

(Lucky horse.)

The secret to a good con is confidence, hence the name.  She’s got so much confidence in herself, it doesn’t matter what name she goes by.  She’s still the same person down beneath.  Any name she goes by isn’t her real name, just like her forebears never called themselves Indians or Native Americans.  She’s going to get her split, and she’s going to have the best house on the reservation, and as God is her witness–well, that’s a different book.  Possibly different God as well, opinions differ.

So even though her public defender, Marjorie Dawson,  a rather frumpy woman of around the same age as herself, acts at first as if her only job is to convince Little Feather to sign a statement admitting she lied, Little Feather’s strict adherence to that lie shakes Dawson’s own assurance, and makes her start to ask herself if this woman could be telling the truth. Believe in the lie enough, and others believe it too.

Then she’s brought up before another in a line of bored curmudgeonly judges we meet in the Dortmunder books, sick of the usual run of uninspired criminals they typically encounter in their daily grind.  They need a little break in the routine, which Dortmunder & Co. will provide.

Judge T. Wallace Higbee had come to realize that what it was all about was stupidity.  All through law school and through his years of private practice, he had believed that the subject was the law itself, but in the last twelve years, since, at the age of fifty-seven, he had been elected to the bench, he had come to realize that all the training and all the experience came down to this: It was his task in life to acknowledge and then to punish stupidity.

Joe Doakes steals a car, drives it to his girlfriend’s house, leaves the engine running while he goes inside to have a loud argument with his girlfriend, causing a neighbor to call the police, who arrived to quiet a domestic dispute but then leaves with a car thief, who eventually appears before Judge T. Wallace Higbee, who gives him two to five in Dannemora?  For what?  Car theft?  No; stupidity.

Bobby Doakes, high on various illegal substances, decides he’s thirsty and needs a beer, but it’s four in the morning and the convenience store is closed, so he breaks in the back door, drinks several beers, falls asleep in the storeroom, is found there in the morning, and Judge Higbee gives him four to eight for stupidity.

Jane Doakes steals a neighbor’s checkbook, kites checks at a supermarket and a drugstore, doesn’t think about putting the checkbook back until two days later, by which time the neighbor has discovered the theft and reported it and is on watch, and catches Jane in the act.  Two to five for stupidity.

Maybe, Judge Higbee told himself from time to time, maybe in big cities like New York and London there are criminal masterminds, geniuses of crime, and judges forced to shake their heads in admiration at the subtlety and brilliance of the felonious behaviors described to them while handing down their sentences.  Maybe.  But out here in the world, the only true crime, and it just keeps being committed over and over, is stupidity.

And after giving Little Feather a thorough grilling in his courtroom, Judge Higbee is grudgingly forced to acknowledge that she may be lying, but she’s not stupid (and therefore, in his private worldview, not guilty).  And after a while, he begins to wonder if it’s actually Fox and Oglanda who have been stupid–done something they need to hide, and that’s why they’re so determined to get rid of this woman.

So not only does Fox’s and Oglanda’s preemptive strike fail–it backfires.  Turns out there’s a memorial plaque at the reservation headquarters for Joseph Redcorn, that the Mohawks presented the tribes with (and which the tribes have always interpreted as guilty conscience because they pushed him). Even Guilderpost’s research never turned that up, but it provides some needed verisimilitude to back up the con.

Little Feather gets released on bail (she puts up her mobile home as collateral), and her co-conspirators arrange for her to stay in touch with them discreetly, knowing she’ll be watched.   It’s mostly up to her now, and they just have to wait until somebody thinks to bring up DNA testing.  Then they’re all set.  They think. But this is a Dortmunder novel.  It’s never going to be that simple.  Which brings us to–

The Un-Busy Body:

“If I was them,” Dortmunder said, “and I’m in the spot they’re in, what do I do?  And I’m beginning to think I know what I do.”

Tiny said, “What you did.”

Dortmundre nodded.  “That’s what I’m thinking, Tiny.”

Kelp said, “They would, wouldn’t they?”

Dortmunder and Kelp and Tiny all nodded, not happy.  Guilderpost and Irwin both looked baffled.  Guilderpost said, “What do you mean?”

Dortmunder said, “What did we do, to make sure the DNA was a match?”

“You put grampa in there,” Little Feather said.

“So if I’m on the other side,” Dortmunder said, “what do I do?”

“No!” Guilderpost cried.  “They wouldn’t dare!”

“I bet they would,” Dortmunder said.

Back when I reviewed the second of the Westlake crime comedies, The Busy Body (also the second ‘Nephew’ book, since before Dortmunder turned up, they were one and the same), I made a connection.  I said that 1966 novel’s star-crossed mobbed-up protagonist, Aloysius Engel, was clearly a Dortmunder prototype.  I hold to that claim now, and present this book as evidence.  Westlake is revisiting ideas from The Busy Body here, but is turning them on their heads. He knows what he did.  And what he’s doing now is returning to the scene of the crime.  Namely a graveyard.

The joke this time is that once Little Feather’s grandfather goes into that grave in Queens, he stays there.  It’s a bit unclear what happens to Joseph Redcorn, who was clearly just born unlucky, and stayed that way after the Mohawks pushed him.  Once both sides have fully lawyered up, and the subject of DNA testing is raised by the other side, as Guilderpost anticipated, Dortmunder correctly anticipates what Fox and Oglanda will do–dig up the deceased Pottaknobbee they’re afraid might really be Little Feather’s grampa, and replace him with somebody she’s definitely not related to.  Guilderpost’s aggrieved moral indignation at this  suggestion is rather priceless.

So what can they do about it?  Little Feather isn’t supposed to have anybody backing her up here, so they can’t guard the grave without tipping their hand. They could dig up the body–again–and then put it back in there–again–after the tribes have planted their own ringer, but Dortmunder feels like if you do grave-robbing not once but three times, it’s starting to become your job, and that’s not a career path he’s particularly interested in.

Tiny comes up with the answer–switch the headstones.  So Little Feather’s grampa, who was posing as Joseph Redcorn, is now posing as one Burwick Moody, buried very nearby, under a very similar marker.  He died about three years after Joseph Redcorn, on December 5th 1933.

“That’s the day Prohibition ended,” Dortmunder said.

Tiny looked at him.  “You know stuff like that?”

“I like it when they repeal laws,” Dortmunder explained.

Worth mentioning.  My favorite exchange of the book may actually be one that happens before that, as they make the long drive back down from the Adirondacks to Queens, in a stolen Jeep (with MD plates, naturally, because Kelp).  Seems the jeep has some kind of built-in electronic compass (GPS is not mentioned).  Tiny brings it up.  Tiny notices things.

As Dortmunder looked, the S E changed to S.  He looked out at the road, and it was curving to the right.  “So now it’s south,” he said.

“You got it,” Tiny told him.  “Comin down, that’s what I been doing back here.  Watchin the letters.  A whole lotta S.  A little N back there when Kelp got confused on the Sprain.

“The signage stunk,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder looked at Kelp’s profile, gleaming like a Halloween mask in the dashboard lights.  “Signage,” he said.  “Is that a word?”

“Not for those pitiful markers they had back there,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder decided to go back to conversation number one, and said to Tiny, “And the numbers are the temperature, right?  Outside the car.”

“You got it again,” Tiny told him.

Forgetting about signage, Dortmunder said to Kelp, “Did you know about that?”

“Did I know about what?”

“Southwest,” Tiny said.

“The car here, Dortmunder explained to Kelp,” it tells you which way you’re going, south, east, whatever, and what the temperature is outside.  It’s up there.”

Kelp looked up there.

“Back on the road!” Dortmunder yelled.

Kelp steered around the truck he’d been going to smash into and said, “That’s not bad, is it?”  The temperature outside, and which way you’re going.”

“Very useful,” Dortmunder suggested.

“A car like this,” Kelp said, “you could take this across deserts, jungles, trackless wastes.”

“Uh-huh,” Dortmunder said.  “How many of these things do you suppose have been across deserts and jungles and trackless wastes?”

“Oh, two or three,” Kelp said, and took the exit, and Tiny said “South.”

So they can just switch the stones back again after the wrong body is dug up and replaced with another wrong body.  Here’s the problem.  The reason Aloysius Engel failed to find the body he was supposed to find in that earlier comedy of errors is that he’s a natural-born schlemiel.  It seems schlemiel-dom is not a uniquely causasian thing.  Well, that’s only fair, right?

The Native Nephew:

Benny Whitefish and his cousin Geerome Sycamore, and his other cousin Herbie Antelope loaded the coffin into the rented van and shut the doors.  Then Geerome went behind the tombstone and threw up.

Benny was pleased that Geerome had thrown up, because it meant there was at least one person around here who was a bigger goofus than himself, but of course, since Uncle Roger had put him in charge of this mission, he had to say, in a manly kind of fashion, “That’s okay, Geerome, it could of happened to anybody.  Don’t think a thing about it.”

Benny Whitefish is an actual nephew, of Roger Fox–Westlake’s not being at all subtle about this, and most people still miss the joke, I bet.  We first meet him because he’s assigned to keep an eye on Little Feather, and being a horny young guy, that’s a job he can get into.  He immediately takes a liking to her, and she immediately spots him as her tail, and as somebody she can twist around her clever card-dealing finger without half-trying.

So before you know it, he’s on her side, and is speaking up for her at the Tribal Council, which theoretically is how the tribe is supposed to govern itself, except that since all the money comes from the casino, all the real power is with Fox and Oglanda.

The Tribal Council functioned mostly like a zoning board.  Back in the good old days, the Tribal Council had waged war against tribal enemies, had overseen the distribution of meat after a hunt, maintained religious orthodoxy (a combination of ancestor and tree worship at that time), punished adultery and theft and treason and other high crimes and misdemeanors, arranged executions, oversaw the torturing of captured enemies, conducted the young men of the tribe through the rites of manhood, and arranged marriages (most of which worked out pretty well).  These days, the Tribal Council gave out building permits.

Tommy Dog was chairman of the Tribal Council for this quarter, he being a Kiota and the chairmanship alternating every quarter between the tribes, to be fair to everybody and to distribute the power and the glory equally, and because nobody else wanted the job.

Yeah, I’ve had those kinds of jobs too.  Tommy Dog has no encouragment for poor Benny, since he has no power to question Roger and Frank, who control the purse strings.  Or the wampum pouch strings, I dunno.  As Tommy looks back at Benny, he thinks to himself he resembles those paintings of the Defeated Indian, head hung dejectedly.  This is not a very PC book, it should go without saying, but in a comic universe, you’re at a disadvantage if you’re not funny.  If everybody is absurd, nobody is absurd, right?   Even playing field.  Except it’s not, really.  Not when it comes to Benny.

He and his buddies get caught at the graveyard with what is supposed to be Joseph Redcorn’s coffin, but isn’t. This is a major plot complication, needless to say, so Benny’s pulling his weight, storywise. What happened was, the groundskeeper there figured out there was too much going on at night, people prowling around who aren’t supposed to be there, so he called the cops, and Benny’s the one got fingered. So where that leaves things is that now they’re going to test Burwick Moody’s DNA, not Little Feather’s grampa’s (which in a weird way, means Benny’s mission succeeded, only his uncle doesn’t know it, and neither does Benny).

And since the coffin has now been removed from what Fox and Oglanda were insisting was sacred tribal burial ground, by members of the tribe who (their lawyer argues) were merely trying to return a member of their community to his proper place, they can’t use that as an excuse for not testing the remains.

More on that later–what happens now is that Benny and his cousins spend the night at Riker’s Island, and they’ve have probably found the Plains Indian Sundance ritual more relaxing.   (Okay, I guess you can’t really say he didn’t earn his reward, but it’s more by way of suffering than actually doing stuff.)

Here’s the thing–Benny deserved a few more chapters. He’s not developed that much.  By the end of the book, he’s shacked up with Little Feather, and that’s a grand and generous reward for any sub-protagonist.  But unlike the other Westlake Nephews, Benny never gets to earn The Girl, make a grand heroic gesture.  He never figures out what’s what, or who’s who; never has that insightful moment of self-realization that is the very heart of Nephewdom, and that’s basically because it’s a Dortmunder book.  The Dortmunders ultimately replaced the Nephews in Westlake’s comic stylings; rendered them obsolescent. It’s not about Benny.

But think how much better the Nephew of Drowned Hopes made out, and he’s a total shit.  The Nephew in Dancing Aztecs (where there is no dominating central protagonist) may be a total mama’s boy, but he’s a mama’s boy who wins.  Did Benny have to be such a total nebbish?  Did his subplot have to be so patronizing?  Couldn’t he have counted coup just once?  Points deducted from your score, Mr. Westlake.   You could have given him a few more chapters.

Obviously the Native American hero of this book is a heroine.  And given that Dortmunder himself was born in a town called Dead Indian, and is (I believe) the living embodiment of the Indian trickster figure Coyote, you could argue he himself is partly Indian (Dortmunder is partly everything, that’s part of his appeal).  More than anything else, Benny’s another Westlake commentary on how guys under the age of 30 don’t really know themselves–Westlake remembers that form of naive listless hormone-addled identity confusion all too well.

But he’s a lot less sympathetic here.  Maybe because he’s old and cranky now, has increasingly less patience with the stupidity of the young (there’s a reason Judge Higbee’s voice is so strong in this book, in spite of him being a fairly minor character).  Happens to the best of us.  But lest you lose patience with me, maybe we better move on from Benny Whitefish.

Truth is, Dortmunder has his own problems to worry about, and they are also problems with the book itself, that must be addressed and dealt with.  This book isn’t about a heist.  Aren’t all Dortmunder stories supposed to be about some kind of theft?  Stealing bodies isn’t the same thing.  Neither is conning people.  Which leads us, quite naturally, to a question–

What Color is Dortmunder’s Parachute?:

“I mean,” Dortmunder said, “why am I in this place?  I’m not a con artist.  I’m not a grafter.  I’m a thief.  There’s nothing here to steal.  We’re just riding Little Feather’s coattails–never mind, Tiny, you know what I mean–and we’re horning in on somebody else’s scam, and if they don’t manage to kill us–and you know, Tiny, that’s still Plan A they’ve got over there in their minds, and you can’t walk around with a hand grenade strapped on forever, for instance, you’re not even wearing it now–what do we get out of it?”

What Color Is Your Parachute? is about job-hunting and career-changing, but it’s also about figuring out who you are as a person and what you want out of life.”

I always hated that book.  Mainly because I associated it with having to look for a job.  And that’s what Dortmunder is doing, all through this book.  And he feels just the same way about it.  Job-hunting sucks.  Particularly when you already know what your real job is, but they ask you to do something else instead.

Case in point–Dortmunder critiques Guilderpost’s professional technique, with regards to how they stay in touch with Little Feather.  This leads to a disagremeent within the makeshift gang–Tiny and Kelp say that John’s the planner, the organizer–Guilderpost is most offended, says that’s his job.

Dortmunder said, “That’s not what they mean.  We do different things, Fitzroy, you and me.  You figure out someplace where you can make people believe something’s true that isn’t true. Make them believe you got an old Dutch land grant screws up their title to their property.  Make them believe maybe there is just one more Pottaknobbee alive in the world.  That’s not what I do.”

“No, of course not,” Guilderpost said, and Irwin, sounding slight snotty, said, “I’ve been wondering about that, John.  What is it that you do?”

“I figure out,” Dortmunder told him, “how to go into a place where I’m not supposed to be, and come back out again, without getting caught or having anything stick to me.”

“It’s like D day,” Kelp explained, “only like, you know, smaller.”

“We also go for quieter,” Dortmunder said.

So he can, in fact, make sound practical suggestions about how they can avoid falling under the scrutiny of the law–there’s a police tail on Little Feather as well, and much more professional than Benny’s (though Benny’s the one gets invited in for coffee).  But that’s more like a consultancy gig, which hardly satisfies his need to work, and neither does switching headstones, and he’s still brooding about that later on, to May, before he heads back upstate again.

He starts off on his childhood at the orphanage of the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and how they had these cereal bowls with pictures of Looney Tunes characters on the bottom, and he usually got Elmer Fudd.  May is confused, wonders if he’s saying he’d like her to find some of those bowls for him to eat his cereal out of.

“No,” he said, and slowly shook his head.  Then he let go of the spoon–it didn’t drop; it remained angled into the gunk–and at least he looked up at May across the kitchen table and said, “What I want, I think, is, you know what I mean, some purpose in life.”

“You don’t have a purpose in life?”

“I usually got a purpose,” he said.  “Usually, I kind of know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, but look at me now.”

“I know,” she agreed.  “I’ve been looking at you, John.  It’s this Anastasia thing, isn’t it?”

“I mean, what am I doing here?” he demanded.  Slowly, the spoon eased downward.  Silently, it touched the edge of the bowl.  “There’s nothing for me to do,” he complained, “except sit around and wait for other people to scheme things out, and then all of a sudden Little Feather’s supposed to give me a hundred thousand large, and guess how much I believe that one.”

And then comes the bad news–the wheels have fallen off the con.  Benny Whitefish’s blundered grave robbery has undone their succcessful grave robbery. They can’t pipe up and say “Hey, that’s not Little Feather’s grampa!” without revealing how they know that.  And now Dortmunder’s very specific set of skills comes into play, at last–but how?  What’s the job here?  The grave is being closely guarded now.  They can’t switch bodies again, or headstones–Burwick Moody’s grave is open now, so even if they could sneak in and switch the stones back again, it wouldn’t work.

But as you can see up top, there’s another solution.  Dortmunder’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play–if you can’t change the DNA at one end, change it at the other.  All they need to do is find a descendant of Burwick Moody with the same color hair as Little Feather, get some of that hair, and her own formidable skill set, honed at many a blackjack table, will allow her to present that hair as her own, and she gets her share of the casino.  If the genes match, you must attach.

(Sidebar–I don’t know how advanced genetic testing was when this story takes place–or even when exactly this story takes place.  Sometime in the 90’s, definitely.  At what point in time would DNA testing show not only if such and such person was a close relation of yours, but whether or not the person tested was of Native American ancestry?  I feel like I’ve done enough nit-picking for one review, so let’s just assume that all the court case requires, given that nobody contests the fact that it’s Joseph Redcorn in that grave, even though it isn’t, is to verify Little Feather is related to him.)

So off goes Fitzroy Guilderpost, to comb the internet for news of Burwick Moody’s present-day descendants.  He comes back to the diner they’re meeting at, with good news and bad news–yes, there is a female descendant, named Viveca Quinlan.  She has black hair.  She lives not far away, in Pennsylvania.  But the bad news is a lulu.

See, Burwick Moody’s sister married an artist, Russell Thurbush, of the Delaware River School, and you know better than to try and look that up online, right? There’s a Hudson River School, and there’s something called ‘Pennsylvania Impressionism’ (one somehow imagines Renoir and Monet rolling their eyes), and obviously I did not know better than to try and look it up online.

Russell Thurbush got himself a reputation, sold a lot of paintings to very rich people, invested his money wisely, and built himself a huge mansion by the Delaware Water Gap, which is now a House Museum, and I told you we’d get back to that.  Well see, Viveca Quinlan lives with her two daughters in said Museum, or rather a section of it set aside for her family’s personal use, while tourists get to go through the rest, looking at old things.  It’s a bit like being the First Lady, except you don’t get to be on Oprah.

So that’s it, right?  The house is full of very valuable objets d’art and antiques, and there’s alarm systems, and guards, and all of that.  No possible way to get in there and nab a few follicles from her hairbrush.  Good idea, John, but forget it. Hey, why are you smiling?  “At last,” Dortmunder said, “A job for me.”  Because that’s what color his parachute is.

So that chapter leads to seven additional chapters of heist planning and executing, and it’s a pretty good heist, that goes amazingly smoothly, thanks to a blizzard, which is pretty funny, considering that I’m finishing and posting this review on Tuesday, March 14th (finally, an excuse to focus on the job they don’t pay me for).  I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of it, read the book.  Stan Murch gets dragooned into it, and there’s some great moments with him, and with his mom, and the usual hijinks at the OJ Bar and Grill, and I could do a section on all of that, but I’m almost to 5,000 words now, so maybe not.

What I do want to talk about is what you might call a bonus identity puzzle Mr. Westlake sneaks in here, Lagniappe upon Lagniappe  You remember how Dortmunder rescued that nun quite literally imprisoned in an office tower serving as a metaphorical medieval castle?  Well, there’s yet another imprisoned woman in this book.  Her imprisonment is purely psychological in nature, but the castle itself is quite real, if more along Victorian lines, architecturally speaking.  Dortmunder rescues her without ever knowing it.  But somebody knows, and that leads us to–

The Mendaciously Majestic Munificence of Murch’s Mom ( AKA, Are you there, God?  It’s me, ‘Margaret.’):

“There was a rustling sound downstairs,” Viveca said.

“Didn’t hear it,” Margaret said.

Viveca leaned close and dropped her voice. “It’s mice,” she confided.

Margaret looked interested.  “Oh yeah?”

“In the winter,” Viveca said, “there’s just no way to keep them out, since there’s nobody ever down there.”

“Huh.” Margaret said.  “Tell me about this husband of yours.”

“Frank.”

“Be as frank as you want,” Margaret said, but then she shook her head and patted the air and said, “No, just a joke, I get it, the name is Frank.  And Frank said he was leaving the house, not you.”

“Yes.  And I know it’s true.”

“You want him back, you feel like shit, you–whoops, sorry, you really feel terrible all the time, and you can’t control your daughters because you don’t feel good enough about yourself, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next.  Have I got the story here?”

“Yes,” Viveca said.  She felt humble in the presence of this wise older woman.

“Okay,” the wise older woman said, “I tell you what you do.  Tomorrow, when you get your phone back, you call this Frank.  You tell him, ‘Honey, rent a truck and come get us, all of us, we’re blowin this mausoleum.'”

“Oh dear,” Viveca said.  “I don’t know, Margaret.”

“What you tell him is,” Margaret insisted, “this separation is over.  Come on, Frank, rent a truck or hire a lawyer, because we’re either gettin back together or we’re gettin a divorce.”

You ever think about the people who live in house museums?  Now most of them probably chose to do so–I used to work with a guy who got free rent that way for a while, he just had to be there during museum hours to let people in, and the rest of the time it was just him and Mr. Poe.  Or was that a different house museum, I forget.  The stories get jumbled together over time.

But imagine it’s your family’s house, or used to be–your famous ancestor’s legacy to posterity, and you’re supposed to safeguard it, but mainly that’s down to other people now, and you’re just a ghost yourself now, living in a house that isn’t really a home anymore?

That’s the situation Viveca Quinlan, last surviving adult relation of Burwick Moody and Russell Thurbush is, on the night of the blizzard, when Dortmunder & Co. arrive to do a bit of quiet thievery of the valuables downstairs, while Murch’s Mom (real name Gladys), posing as a traveler stranded in the snow, keeps everyone occupied, and obtains the needed hair sample from the bathroom, easy as pie.

And she needs to give the boys some time to browse through the gift shop, if you know what I mean, so she and Viveca and Viveca’s girls and the security guard all play Uno together, for hours, and there’s plenty of time in-between to talk, and she’s the type you just know you can confide in, and Viveca has been so lonely, as ghosts in decaying isolated Victorian piles tend to be, you’ve read the stories. This story involves a husband who decided he didn’t feel like being a ghost, and went back to New York to practice law, and there’s another woman, to which ‘Margaret’ merely says “Men.”

And obviously Murch’s Mom’s only real mission statement is to make sure nobody finds out there was ever a burglary going on there, but there’s more to her than that–we found that out in Drowned Hopes, same time we found out what her real first name was.   So even while she’s hiding who she really is, she’s still showing her true colors.  Anyway, just like her boy, she’s a born know-it-all, lives to hand out advice.  Stan will start pontificating on the best route to take on the New York City thoroughfares at the drop of a hat.  She’s giving a somewhat different type of navigational assistance here.  Anybody can hit a dead-end.  You just turn around and get back on the main road.

So by the time she’s ready to go, she’s saved a marriage, and possibly as many as four lives, and she never bothers to tell anybody about it, except to say she thinks maybe she did some good in there, when she gets picked up by the stolen snowplow they’re using for the heist.  Stan just takes to mean they all made out like bandits, which is fine with her as well.  Exeunt ‘Margaret.’

The narrator informs us that Viveca and her girls moved into her husband’s apartment two days later.  When the volunteers returned in the spring, when the museum reopened, and noticed a few items missing here and there, they assumed Viveca had just taken them with her as keepsakes, or they’d been sold off by the foundation that runs the mansion, and so they said nothing about it to anybody, because it was none of their business.

(The stolen items end up with Arnie Albright, the fecklessly offensive fence, who gets his own minor subplot here, and who will take some time unloading the loot, but the gang will see a nice bit of cash. Eventually. Someday.)

The omniscient deity of this universe concludes the chapter, with great satisfaction–At last, the perfect crime.   He might as well have added, I’m here, ‘Margaret.’

And that leaves us nothing but–

A not entirely satisfactory conclusion, except for Benny Whitefish (lucky horse):

The DNA test proves beyond any doubt that Viveca Quinlan is related to Burwick Moody, though that’s not what the court decision will say.  Roger and Frank have a little discussion about what will happen to to them once the tribes find out they’ve been cheated of tens of millions of dollars, and the general consensus is they’d be lucky to just get lynched on a street corner–if the mob goes with the traditional punishments, things could get really unpleasant.

Before that happens, however, there’s a cross to deal with.   Dortmunder knew from the start that Fitzroy and Irwin wouldn’t be willing to pony up their hundred large apiece.   There may be honor among thieves, but not among grifters–Jim Thompson could tell you that (Lawrence Block is a bit more on the fence about it).

But see, a grifter has to know his or her limitations–you’re supposed to win with the tools of your trade, namely lies.  Not with guns, which is what Fitzroy and Irwin try–they figure they can follow Stan back to where the gang is dividing up the loot from their heist, surprise them, take them out hard with the Glock machine pistols they’ve acquired (mainly for Tiny’s sake, one assumes), and then they just need to make sure Little Feather doesn’t develop selective amnesia, like the real fake Anastasia.

And when the dust has settled RosenGabel and Guilderpost (I’m starting to lose count of how many ways Westlake found to reference that famed Shakespearean duo who thought they were the leads, and ended up relegated to a mere Stoppard play) are not dead, but they have been disarmed, and exiled, and frightened out of their wits, and left in a very poor position to ever make any claims on Little Feather’s good fortunes.  One can’t really say they learned their lesson, but they still end up in detention.

As to the other nefarious duo in this book, it comes down to one last identity puzzle.  Roger knows he’s a thief, and thieves have exit strategies–his is an offshore account in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  He’s going to take the money and run.  Frank says he can’t do that, his family is here, his home is here.  He never really processed what he’d become, so he stays, and burns the books that prove he’s a thief.

And you remember Mr. Westlake had mentioned, in several previous stories, how casinos like to pump a bit of extra oxygen in there, to keep the suckers, I mean customers, lively and active and ready to lose more money at the tables? Well, turns out Silver Chasm Indian casino does that too. By the time Frank has finished rolling around in the snow outside, to put out his burning clothes, the casino is gone.  With the wind.

So a while later, Little Feather comes downstate in her mobile home, which Kelp thoughtfully helps her hook up to the city power supply, and they all meet there one last time, to hear the bad news.  There’s no casino.  It will take a decade or more to get the money to rebuild it.   She’s accepted as the last Pottaknobbee, the tribes will take care of her, she’s found a home of sorts (and does this mean she now has to spend a third of the year chairing the Tribal Council?  Those meetings are going to get a lot more interesting).

So no hundred g’s apiece for the gang.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that Benny Whitefish is now her official protector, and he’s brought in briefly, still not quite able to process his good fortune.  And since he’s in the next room in a mobile home while she’s telling them the bad news,  I’m going to assume he’s Nephew enough for Little Feather to have told him the whole unfiltered truth about who she is, and Nephew enough not to give a damn, as long as he gets to see her naked.   Attaboy.

So that’s the first of the Final Five.  It may well be, as Greg Tulonen thinks, the best of them as well.  I’ll decide that as I work my way through the next four.  I may have found any number of little flaws in it, but Westlake put so much into even his most ill-conceived efforts (which this is not), that it feels churlish to cavil and complain about that. Lagniappe isn’t about getting the very best. Lagniappe is about getting something extra.

And what we’ll be getting next time will be the last of my “Mr Westlake and (fill in name of decade here)” pieces.  Because as I see it, this here is the last of his 90’s novels, whether it was written in ’99 or ’00.  The next book in our queue was published in 2002, and it’s also a heist story–but not with Dortmunder.  Or Parker.  Or even Grofield.  A new beginning, you might say. Cue Lord Tennyson.  Yeah, I’ll explain that.  Later.  After we’ve dug ourselves out.  Stan, could you loan us that snowplow?  Aw c’mon, just for Lagniappe.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Bad News

We picked up one excellent word–a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word–‘lagniappe.’ They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish–so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a ‘baker’s dozen.’ It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. … If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says ‘For lagniappe, sah,’ and gets you another cup without extra charge.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Irwin said, “There’s so much wickedness in the world, you know what I mean?”

“We know,” Kelp assured him.

Dortmunder said “Little Feather’s an Indian.”

“We’re coming to that, John,” Guilderpost said.  “In the last thirty  years or so, the American courts have been redressing many of those wrongs done so long ago.  Indians are getting their sacred tribal lands back–”

Dortmunder said, “And putting casinos on them.”

Irwin said, “Yeah, sacred tribal lands and casinos just seem to go together naturally, like apple pie and ice cream.”

“The tribes have their own sovereignty,” Guilderpost said, “their own laws, and casinos are extremely lucrative.”

Little Feather laughed, a sound like shaking a bag of walnuts.   “This time,” she said, “the Indians win.”

“The three tribes I’ve been telling you about, “Guilderpost said, “the Pottaknobbees, the Oshkawa and the Kiota, won their cause back in the sixties, and have been operating a thriving casino on their land up by the Canadian border for nearly thirty years now.  The tribes had almost died out, but now they’re coming back, or at least two of them are.  At the time of settlement, there were only three known full-blooded Pottaknobbees left in the world, and at this point, so far as anyone knows, there are none.”

“Wait a minute,” Dortmunder said.  “I’m getting it.”

“Anastasia,” Tiny said.

“Dortmunder said, “That’s it.”

It seems strange to me that this is only the tenth Dortmunder novel–in around three decades.  Averaging a book every three  years or so isn’t so bad, I suppose, but Westlake was capable of far more rapid rates of production.  The first sixteen Parker novels were produced in a mere ten year span, followed in due course by eight novels, likewise produced over about a decade’s time.  Five Mitch Tobin novels in maybe six years (probably written in much less than six, allowing for publisher schedules).  Four Samuel Holt novels in just three years (he wrote the first three back to back without stopping).

Dortmunder seems to have taken more time.  Ideas didn’t come as quickly.  The basic  line-up of characters expanded, but didn’t change that much.  And they were comic novels, which I suppose could be part of it–nothing harder to write than a genuinely good comedy. But that never stopped P.G. Wodehouse, and Westlake produced well over 30 comic novels between 1965 and 2008 (the exact number is a bit fuzzy, since some of his comedies were actually pretty serious, like Up Your Banners and Adios Scheherazade).  Well, come to think of it, comedy wasn’t nearly as big a part of his output as some people think, was it?  Maybe a third of what he wrote.

He’d always enjoyed writing the Dortmunders, found them a welcome break from his grimmer story material, and his variously successful attempts to redefine himself as a writer.  Lord knows there was always a market for them, and many of his publishers would have been quite happy if he’d written nothing else.

But now, as his creative energies started to wane (along with all his other energies, because getting old really sucks), Westlake found that he needed Dortmunder more than ever.  This is the first of five Dortmunder novels published over eight years.  He’d never written so many in so short a time before.  He wasn’t spacing them out nearly so much.

In ranking the Dortmunders up to now, I tend to put them in three separate categories, each with three books apiece.  The first three are, in my estimation, the immortal timeless classics of the series, the funniest, the most original, the most illuminating–and, tellingly, the simplest in their conception, each revolving around a single well-defined idea, each with a very specific point to make. He was genuinely excited about the possibilities of this new character, and still at the peak of his ability when he wrote them. They are, in fact, great novels.

After those first three, he faltered a bit, knowing he wanted to keep writing about Dortmunder, not always sure how to do it, introducing a new character, concept, or conceit here and there, just to change things up a bit, expand the cast, keep his readers interested, keep his publishers happy–and as I said, he just enjoyed spending time with these people.   I think it relaxed him.  Not everything has to be a timeless immortal classic.  But then he’d get ambitious again, try to do more with the set-up, see how far he could push it, and then there’d be an epic.

The great Dortmunderian epics are Good Behavior, Drowned Hopes, and What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  The character in a paradoxically heroic mode, that somehow worked for him, because he never once saw himself as a hero.  Just a working stiff doing his job.  Some higher power is making use of him, and (somewhat inconsistently) rewards him for his services.  Not perfect polished gems like the first three novels, but very pleasurable in their rambling Homeric splendor, and with some solid points of their own to make.

That leaves the three engaging but ultimately failed experiments that are Nobody’s Perfect, Why Me?, and Don’t Ask.  Many interesting pieces, that somehow never quite fit together into a coherent balanced whole.  As Richard Stark wrote, half-good is another way of saying half-assed.  But the half that’s good is more than worth the trouble.

I don’t know quite how to categorize the last five.  They form a sort of grouping of their own.  Some I like better than others, but none really stick out that much for me.  They aren’t classics.  They aren’t epics.  They aren’t experiments, failed or otherwise, because they really don’t add much of anything to the series as a whole.  A new character is brought in; a nephew type who never amounts to anything much.  A few more arrogant rich guys for Dortmunder to confound and irritate, variations on an established theme. The odd bit of telling social commentary, as the world continues to change in ways that Dortmunder finds irritating.

They’re all good books.  And they all have Dortmunder in them, and Kelp, and May, and Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny Bulcher, and Rollo the barkeep, and (far too rarely) Josephine Carol Taylor, and you get to spend time with these people you’ve come to think of as friends.  If you love the Jeeves books, do you only read the best ones?  You read all of them, because that’s what fans do.  Because you could never really get enough of these characters, and that makes each new book, however inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, a gift.

Lagniappe.  It just came to me now.  The final five Dortmunders are for Lagniappe.  That grand old New Orleans custom Mark Twain wrote about in Life on the Mississippi.  Let me just find the quote and post it up top.  Something you don’t really need, that somehow makes life a little richer, a little fuller, because it’s an act of generosity, of kindness, of surplus beneficence.  Westlake wrote these books for Lagniappe–to himself, as well as his readers.  Life gave him a bit more time than he needed to get his work done, and he gave us these books in return.  And this is the first–of the final five.  Let’s get to it.

Bad News opens with very Twain-like apology from Mr. Westlake to his various translators around the world, and the aggravation he’s put them through via his take on the English language.  He mentions by name Laura Grimaldi, Jiro Kimura, and Jean Esch. (The first two wrote original mystery fiction as well as translations).   Esch definitely translated this one; not sure about the other two.  (It can be challenging, hunting for foreign editions of a novel when you don’t know the title, which will frequently not resemble the original title in any way–not that book covers always mention the translator anyway.  I suspect sales-conscious publishers tend to do the translating when it comes to titles.)

This one has what must be considered one of the best opening passages of any novel in this series.

John Dortmunder was a man on whom the sun shone only when he needed darkness.  Now, like an excessively starry sky, a thousand thousand fluorescent lights in great rows in the metal roof of this huge barnlike store building came flickering and buzzing and sqlurping on, throwing a great glare over all the goods below, and over Dortmunder too, and yet he knew this vast Speedshop discount store in this vast blacktop shopping mall in deepest New Jersey, very near Mordor, did not open at ten minutes past two in the morning.  That’s why he was here.

(Yeah, you see why he might harbor guilt feelings regarding his many valiant translators, don’t you?  I mean, just for ‘sqlurping’ alone.  I suppose they all sighed resignedly, and came up with an equivalently onomatopoeic expression, somehow.)

So leaving aside the revelation that Westlake may have read Tolkien (the first of those elaborately overwrought Peter Jackson films came out quite some months after the publication of this novel was old news), the real takeaway is Dortmunder vs. the Big Box Store (hailing back to a similar escapade for the invisible Freddie Noon in Smoke), and we’ll call this one a draw.

He trips an alarm, and the Jersey cops arrive in Keatonesque numbers.  Improvising as always, he breaks into a little optician shop within the imperious emporium, the door locking behind him–he can’t hide there, because the walls are glass, but that’s not what he has in mind.  He pretends to be a customer who fell asleep waiting for his prescription to be ready–he even filled out the credit card slip–gee, thanks for rescuing me officers, the missus will be worried sick.

He’s so pleased that the flatfoot rubes fell for this threadbare ruse, it doesn’t much bother him that he had to go home to the missus without all the digital cameras he’d been in the process of stealing, which would have netted him about a thousand bucks.  He’s so proud of having fooled them, he forgets they still foiled him.  There’s a little grifter in everyone, you see.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

The missus is May, of course, who as he tells her the stirring story of his sly scam, is secretly sighing to herself.

May didn’t like to be critical, but she just had the feeling sometimes that John didn’t really want a nest egg, or a financial cushion, or freedom from money worries, or even next month’s rent.  She felt somehow that John needed that prod of urgency, that sense of desperation, that sick knowledge that he was once again dead flat, stony, beanless broke, to get him out of bed at night, to get him to go out there and bring home the bacon.  And the pork chops, and the ham steak, and maybe the butcher’s van as well.

Oh, he made money sometimes, though not often.  But it never got a chance to burn a hole in his pocket, because it burned through his fingers first.  He’d go with a couple of his cronies out to the track, where obviously the horses were smarter than he was, because they weren’t betting on him, were they?  John could still remember, as he sometimes told her, that one exciting day when he’d almost broken even; just the memory of it, years later, could bring a hint of color to his cheeks.

And then there were the friends he’d loan money to.  If he had it, they could have it, and the kind of people they were, they’d take his two  hundred dollars and go directly to jail.

And this is all the explanation we’re ever going to get about what happened to that great trove of treasure Dortmunder got out of Max Fairbanks last time out, folks.  (Hey, it’s more of an explanation than we ever get from Parker.)  May’s lament about her man’s  generosity brings to mind an ancient Gaelic ode to another famous bandit chief (long predating Robin Hood).  It was said of Fionn mac Cumhaill

If the brown leaves
that the trees shed were gold,
if the bright waves were silver,
Finn would give it all away.

And bet the rest on the ponies.  Oh Dortmunder has Irish in him, you can take that to the bank (then take the bank).

So he’ll never be rich, but marginally solvent he must somehow remain, and to that end, enter that most feckless of his Fianna, Andy Kelp (who never knocks, just picks locks).  Andy’s got a job for them, that just happens to pay a thousand a man–May sees a providential pattern in this.  She would see that.

It’s work for hire, which Dortmunder has been willing to do in the past, but always burglary for hire–this is grave-robbing for hire.  Well, grave-switching.  They dig up one dead guy, and put another dead guy in his place.  Okay, where the hell do you find somebody willing to pay a thousand a man for illicit grave-digging?  “I met him on the Internet,” Andy says.  “Oh boy,” Dortmunder responds.  They are never going to see eye to eye on progress, those two.

We never find out what kind of criminal Craigslist Andy has been consulting here (maybe the actual Craigslist?), but we do learn the name of his correspondent–Fitzroy Guilderpost.  And he lives up to the name.  Or down.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead.  He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest.  He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip.  He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as if the mustache were still there.

(And this is why I have a picture of Philip Bosco up top.  A mere 70 years of age when this was written, perfect for the role, but I don’t expect Westlake had him in mind.  Then again Westlake did love the theater, and those who love the theater in New York speak the name Bosco with as much reverence as one possibly can speak the name of a chocolate syrup brand that is typically spelled in cartoon-like blue and red letters.)

What follows is a chapter in which we learn that Guilderpost is a con-artist par excellence, with two colorful co-conspirators–a defrocked college professor named Irwin Gabel who I have somehow head-cast against type as Sam Waterston, and a delectable if somewhat intimidating former showgirl named Little Feather, who would have been rightfully played by Cher, had this book come out a decade or two sooner, which it didn’t, and had there been a movie, which there wasn’t, and had the producers wanted to pay her asking price, which they probably wouldn’t have.   But Cher is mentioned in the book, and pretty sure she was in Westlake’s mind.  Maybe he caught her act while doing research on casinos.

Little Feather is Native American, or as most Native Americans say in daily parlance, an Indian (for a people who have inspired so much political correctness in recent years, they are not themselves very PC, no matter what Hollywood may think).  It’s possible that like Cher, and an awful lot of other people who call themselves Indians, her ancestry not strictly indigenous, but outside of Africa, whose ever is?

She’s an Indian, she’s not even the teensiest bit PC, and she’s getting too old to dance on a stage wearing nothing but feathers, regardless of size.  Her back-up profession of dealing cards at casinos has likewise begun to pall.  So she has agreed to go along with Guilderpost and Gabel’s scam, which is explained adequately well in that quote up top.  And she’s also willing to go along with them killing the low-rent hoodlums they con into digging up graves for them, which is what they imagine John and Andy to be.  I believe the word Guilderpost uses is “gonifs”, and I don’t think he’s Jewish at all, or else he’d know that word is not the Yiddish equivalent for pigeon.

And neither are Dortmunder and Kelp, both of whom easily spot Irwin’s tail as they ride along with Guilderpost in the van.  The idea is that they dig up the grave, and switch the bodies, and then Irwin comes up from behind with a gun, and then they both get their hands and feet duct-taped together, and are thrown over the side of a handy bridge, nevermore to be seen.  Dead pigeons tell no tales.  But Westlake heisters are made of sterner stuff.

Before you can say turnabout is fair play, Dortmunder has deftly disarmed Guilderpost, and Kelp goes back to get Irwin–who it turns out is wired for sound–Guilderpost is not pleased to learn this.  With Guilderpost, to know him is to mistrust him, so Irwin was taking out an insurance policy.  And now it’s time to talk turkey.

Guilderpost, to no one’s surprise, does not have their two thousand bucks.  So our duo decides to cut themselves in on his action–whatever it may be.  He’s a bit evasive about that, and just to let him know what a bad idea that is–

Fitzroy called “What are you doing?”  But since it was obvious what they were doing, they didn’t bother to answer him.  What they were doing was, they were geting into the van, Dortmunder behind the wheel.  Then they were making a K-turn on the bridge, while Fitzroy and Irwin stood staring at them.  Then Dortmunder was lowering his window, so he could say, “When you want to talk to us, you know how to get in touch with Andy.  On the Internet.”  He closed the window, then drove back toward Long Island, saying, with deep scorn, “On the Internet.”

“There’s bad apples everywhere, John,” Kelp said.

I’m a bad apple,” Dortmunder pointed out, “but you won’t find me on the Internet.”

But you will find grifters aplenty there, some of them Nigerian Princes, no less.  Dortmunder may have enjoyed fooling those cops in New Jersey, but he’s never considered doing it for a living.

Truth to tell, there’s always been a lot more grifters than heisters in the world.  The life expectancy is better, for one thing.  But Westlake never wrote much about that kind of crime–in spite of the fact that he got an Oscar nod for adapting Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for the movies, and he won the Edgar Award for God Save The Mark,  whose protagonist is the ultimate griftee. Many of his protagonists are certainly accomplished tricksters.  It’s worth asking why he mainly left the grifter subgenre to other crime writers, including his buddy Lawrence Block.

Grifting is certainly all about identity.  You pretend to be someone you’re not, take on a false identity, in order to play on weak spots in the sucker’s identity.  When people say “You can’t cheat an honest man”, they’re really saying you can’t con people who know who they are.

That’s why in God Save The Mark, the hero becomes immune to the short cons he used to fall for so easily, then twigs to the long con being played on him, once he’s figured out who he is.  That’s the point of the story being told–we’re only marks because of our identity confusion.  But in this story, self-evidently, our heroes have all known who they are for a long time now.  The confusion is going to stem from them taking on an unfamiliar role, in order to score.

And the other identity puzzle relates to the original inhabitants of North America–people whose identity is so confused, nobody can even agree on what to call them.  They were nomadic hunters, fishermen, and small farmers; they all had established tribal identities, stories that told them where they came from and where they were headed to (that the stories were not entirely true is neither here nor there, since nobody’s stories ever are literally factually true; that not being the mission statement of storytellers).

Then in comes Mr. Wasichu to foul everything up, and after much unpleasantness (some would say genocide, though obviously it was just intermittently attempted genocide, a somewhat lesser offense), now they’re running gaming establishments.  Well, most of them aren’t, but that’s the new meme. The surviving aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas are called two different names in the U.S., deriving from various misunderstandings relating bizarrely to two Italian navigators.  In Canada, they’re called “First Nations,” which is really just as bad, since the English word ‘nation’ doesn’t remotely describe what they were before the Wasichus got here.

Their group identities got lost in translation.  They had to start reinventing themselves–like the rest of us.  Welcome to America, people who were here thousands of years before it existed as such.  And Westlake is fascinated by the way Indian reservations are distinct sovereign nations within his own nation, part of it, theoretically with all the same rights, yet somehow their own thing, avoiding any proper national definition, neither fish nor fowl. It’s Anguilla all over again.  Under A Yankee Heaven.

It’s a lot for one little book about comedic criminals to get across, and Westlake doesn’t manage an authoritative statement on either theme, but it does somehow enrich the narrative.  Which I seem to be straying from, sorry.

So Dortmunder and Kelp have the van, and thus they have the body of whoever was originally in that grave they dug up, and so basically there’s no way the grifting trio can pull their scam without coming to terms with them–or getting rid of them, which they know would be Fitzroy and Irwin’s preferential option (Little Feather is less bloody-minded), so they bring in Tiny Bulcher to make that option less palatable.

What happens is, Anne Marie Carpinaw, now happily cohabitant with Kelp, wants to have Thanksgiving dinner, like they were a regular couple, which they’re not, but whatever.  Kelp will do whatever she wants, because regular sex is a good thing.  So they have John and May and Tiny and J.C. over, and this is the only time we get to see her in this book, so enjoy it.  I did.  She gets to offer a brief professional opinion on the impending scam, and is seen no more.

And right during dinner, Kelp gets a call from Fitzroy Guilderpost–it took about five weeks, but he managed to get Kelp’s phone number, which means he knows where Kelp lives, which means there’s some pressure on both sides to meet now.  Kelp tells a story about a friend of his who agreed to be home at a certain time to take a call from this guy he had a little disagreement with, and then his house blew  up at that exact time.  So they’re just going to meet in at Parking Area Six at Jones Beach.  The next morning.  Not much time to plan a cross.  Also a really terrible place to sneak up on anybody when it’s not beach season.

And also they’ve got Tiny Bulcher.  Who is terrifying enough all by his lonesome.  At the meet, conducted at Little Feather’s mobile home, parked at Jones Beach, he somehow accessorizes to even more blood-chilling effect.   See, he’s duct-taped a hand grenade to one of his massive hands.  And now he’s offering the extracted pin to Guilderpost.

Guilderpost gaped at the hand grenade.  All three of them gaped at the hand grenade.  Not taking the pin, Guilderpost said, “What are you doing?”

“Well, I’m goin inside there,” Tiny said, “look around, see the situation.”

“But why–Why that thing?”

“Well, if I was to faint or anything in there,” Tiny said, “I wouldn’t be holding this safety lever anymore, would I?”

Irwin said, “Is that–Is that an actual–is that live?”

“At the moment,” Tiny said.

Guilderpost, flabbergasted, said, “But why would you do such a thing?”

Dortmunder answered, saying, “Fitzroy, we’ve got like a few reasons not to trust you a hundred percent.  So Tiny sees to it, if something happens to somebody, something happens to everybody.”

Little Feather takes the pin, and makes a joke about never having been pinned on the first date, making it clear who’s wearing the balls in this outfit.  Irwin insists on accompanying Tiny into the motor home, because yeah, they booby-trapped it. Well, there’s no harm in trying, right?

So now that it’s been established that a trio of grifters, even of one of them is clearly a direct descendant of Sacagawea (because she’s one with the sack, get it?), is nowhere near sufficient to finish off the Dortmunder Gang, they get down to brass tacks about what’s happening here.  Little Feather is going to pose as the last surviving member of the Pottaknobbee tribe, and as such, due a third of the take from an Indian casino operating upstate.  Like the woman who once claimed to be the crown princess of all the Russias, she has been carefully coached to know everything she’s supposed to know about the person she’s supposed to be. Unlike the late Anna Anderson, there are now scientific means of proving she’s a liar, as Anderson was posthumously proven to be in the 1990’s, shortly before this book was written.

Guilderpost has allowed for all that.  Little Feather’s real grandfather’s body is the one Dortmunder and Kelp put in the grave of the man whose great-granddaughter she will claim to be, one Joseph Redcorn, and DNA testing will confirm she is related to him.  A former construction worker, who was up there with the famed Mohawk high steel men  one day (already fading into the past as Westlake wrote this), on the skeleton of what would become the Empire State Building, when he lost his balance and fell. (All surviving members of the Three Tribes have always believed the Mohawks pushed him, which if true would be less of an Indian thing than a clubbish construction worker union thing, I’m guessing.)

And here’s a third identity puzzle.  This woman every reader of Bad News will go on thinking of as Little Feather Redcorn, even while  knowing her real name is Shirley Ann Farraff (at least that’s the name she’s gone by in the white world, her stepfather’s name, and Guilderpost has come up with a fix for that as well), has to spend the rest of her life pretending to be someone she’s not, and a member of a tribe she didn’t even know existed until these two hucksters approached her because she looked the part of an Indian princess and dealing cards at a casino generally means you’ve got a good poker face.  And she’s perfectly fine with that, as long as it means she’s set for life.   And the book clearly wants us to root for her, if not necessarily her partners in grift.  We’ll have to talk more about that later.

So the agreement is made–Dortmunder & Co. don’t get a share of the profits the original conspirators hope to get, but once the plan has succeeded, they will get 100k apiece for their services (and their silence afterwards).  And now they’re all heading north.   To the very heart of Westlake Country, but he never claimed it was his country alone.

You hardly even know you’re leaving the United States.  On your way to Dannemora in upstate New York, near the Canadian  border, famous as the home of Clinton State Prison, you turn left at the big billboard covered by a not very good painting of a few Indians in a  canoe on some body of water, either a river or a lake, surrounded by pine tree-covered mountains.  It’s either sunrise or sunset, or possibly the mountains are on fire.  Printed across this picture, in great thick letters speckled white and tan and black, apparently in an effort to make it seem as though the letters are made of hides of some kind, is the announcement:

WORLD-FAMOUS
SILVER CHASM CASINO
Native American Owned & Operated With Pride
5 Mi.

This billboard is brightly illuminated at night, which  makes it seem rather worse than by day.  At its top and bottom, arrows have been added, also lit up at night, which point leftward at a well-maintained two-lane concrete rod that curves away into the primeval forest.

You are deep in the Adirondacks here, in the state-operated Adirondack Forest Preserve, but once you make that left turn, you have departed the United States of America and entered the Silver Chasm Indian Reservation, home of the Oshkawa and the Kiota, and until recently, also home of the Pottaknobbee.  This is a sovereign state, answerable to no one but itself

There are at this time eleven very real Indian Reservations in New York State, including the Shinnecock reservation on Long Island (this one time, bird-watching at Montauk Point at dawn, we came across a man who looked like an Indian at prayer, and it would have been rude to ask if he was a real-live Shinnecock and who he was praying to, so we just quietly left the place to him, since it did belong to him, after all, or he to it.)

The St. Regis Mohawk Reservation in Franklin County, most of which is in the huge Adirondack State Park (three times the size of Yellowstone), is the most likely real-life model for Silver Chasm, but knowing Westlake, I would tend to think he made use of composites here.  That final image you see up top is the Yellow Brick Road Casino, in Chittenango, not far from Syracuse, and right next to Land of Oz and Ends Antiques shop, just in case you have any money left after leaving the casino.

The casino at the Franklin county reservation (which it should be remembered is inside of yet not part of Franklin county) has a more authentic sounding name, and much more luxurious-sounding facilities than what Westlake describes here.  Though since it was founded in 1999, it was probably a lot less grand at the time of writing.  Anyway, he couldn’t very well use the Mohawks here, could he now?   Fictional tribes don’t sue.

Anyway, it’s in this chapter that we meet Roger Fox and Frank Oglanda, managers of the casino, and though they are legitimate members of the two remaining tribes, it’s by DNA only.  They are, we realize quickly, members of a vast and powerful tribe that exists throughout the civilized world; one of whose members is now operating out of the White House, though his reservations are in Manhattan and Mar-a-Lago.  (And our reservations are a bit late to mention, wouldn’t you say?)

They get the letter from Little Feather, carefully composed by Guilderpost, laying claim to her ancestral heritage.  And of course they think she’s a fake, but the real problem is they know their books are fake–they’ve been stealing from their own people, skimming off the top for decades now (this fictional Adirondacks casino has been around for thirty years).   And if this woman’s claim is accepted, she’ll have every right to look at those books.  So they make some calls, and next thing you know, Little Feather’s in jail.  Short novel,  huh?

Well, in point of fact, that only takes us to the end of Chapter 13.  In a 50 chapter book.  As Custer once said at the Little Bighorn, “Oy fucking vey.”  Well, I bet he would have, had he known the phrase.  But now that the foundation is laid, the remaining edifice should rise quickly to its full height in Part 2.  And then I bet the Mohawks push me off.

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

Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

We’ve reached the point in our review program where Parker and Dortmunder are pretty much the whole show.  Between 2001 and 2008 (the year he died), Westlake published thirteen novels (one of which was written in the Mid-90’s).  Five of them deal with Parker; another five feature Dortmunder and his motley crew.  There was also an anthology of Dortmunder short stories and a Dortmunder novella published in anthology form.

None of this sufficed to overcome Parker’s insuperable edge over all his fictional siblings.  He would remain the character Westlake wrote about most, if only because he was so dominant during the period when Westlake was most prolific.  But in these final years, Parker and Dortmunder enjoyed an almost perfect parity of attention from their creator, and it would be fair to say he cared about them equally–but differently.

And I’ll be talking more about that shortly, but the reason I’m bringing it up here is that I’m going to be re-reading a lot of Parker and Dortmunder books in the coming months.  And that means I’m going to be hearing their themes in my head a lot.  The themes I made up for them.  The music in my head.  I can’t possibly be the only one who experiences this phenomenon.  Can I?

This I know–if you read one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, you are going to hear the 007 theme in your head.  If you read one of those Fire & Ice novels, you’re going to hear the Game of Thrones theme that didn’t exist when most of those books were written.  When Carrie Fisher died, everybody was going around with John Williams and the London Symphony orchestra in their skulls.  When you see a picture of Batman, which theme you hear will depend somewhat on the year you were born (I go back and forth between Neal Hefti and Danny Elfman, with a smattering of Shirley Walker).

But there is no identifiable theme for Parker, or Dortmunder.  Yes, they’ve both been featured in multiple film adaptations.  Those movies had musical scores.  But if there was a theme devoted to either character in any of those films, I’m not aware of it.  And being so thematically sensitive, if there had been such a theme, and I never noticed it, it wasn’t much of a theme.  The whole point of a character theme is to create an association between that character and the theme.  I hear a certain theme by the great Japanese composer Akira Ifukube, and I see a gigantic reptilian biped stomping on Tokyo.

So there is no theme for Parker or Dortmunder.  And yet I needed a theme for each of these characters I was obsessively reading about, and later writing about.  So I made them up.

I have no excuse for my utter incomprehension of musical notation.  I had music appreciation classes as a child.  It is, in effect, a language–and all attempts to teach me a language other than English have failed miserably.  I was apparently born to be a monoglot, only able to learn language at a pre-conscious level.  Or else I’m just lazy.  Or too easily distracted.

But I’ve loved music all my life, and have developed tastes that are nothing if not eclectic.  I started off with classical, then moved to ragtime, then jazz, blues, and Irish Trad.  I didn’t learn to appreciate the rock and roll going on around me as a kid until well after that genre had peaked.  I was also a devotee of ‘world music’ which is not so much a genre as a convenient way of saying “Jesus, there’s a ton of great music out there I never heard of before!”  I tried to get into rap as it was starting to take hold, and it was a bridge too far.  In its less commercialized forms I wish it well, and I wish they’d stop blasting it outside my window at 3:00am in the morning, but kids will be kids.

The quote “There’s only two kinds of music–good and bad” has been attributed in various forms to scores of musicians, and I like all of them.  But I myself am not now nor ever shall be a musician.  Let alone a composer.  And yet somehow I have composed two musical themes.  In my head.  Weirdness.

That’s not the right word, really.  To compose something implies you sat down and worked it out, but since I can’t write or play music (I can just barely play the tin whistle, and you seriously do not want to hear me practicing), all the work had to be done in my head, and I can’t even say precisely when or how I started hearing this music, or how long it took for each theme to take on its mature form.  Parker’s theme came first.  Dortmunder’s not long afterwards.  Well, that tracks.

It is possible, indeed likely, that I’ve unconsciously plagiarized elements of both.  I thought I got my Dortmunder theme from the film score for Don Siegel’s Babyface Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney; a grand medley of hard-edged 50’s big band gangster movie jazz (you know the type), but when I watched the film again, there was nothing in the score that remotely resembled my theme, so maybe I got it somewhere else, or maybe it’s actually mine.  Copyright isn’t really an issue when you can’t even write the music down, is it?

I actually do have some small recollection of how the Parker theme started.  A few years ago, summer of 2012, maybe.  I had a medical appointment in Fort Lee (podiatrist).  Afterwards I had lunch nearby (Indian buffet).  I was in no particular hurry to get home.  I decided to walk back over the George Washington Bridge.  (Incidentally, did you know there’s a Parker Street in Fort Lee, just a few steps away from the bridge?   Well, you do now.  I guess every town has a Parker Street.  Put that down as one more unprovable theory as to where Westlake got the name from.)

It’s noisy on the bridge.   The view of the Hudson, the Palisades, and the cityscape is thrilling, and a bit terrifying, depending on the severity of your spatial phobias.  You also have to dodge bicycles on the so-called pedestrian walkway a lot more than would have been the case in 1962. (Sometimes I like to imagine Parker clotheslining some clown in tight shorts, who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong in the final leg of the Tour de France.)

The bridge towers–what’s the word I’m looking for to describe what they do?–oh yeah–TOWER. It’s a lot different than walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, or probably any other bridge.  You feel naked and alone and in the middle of everything and at the edge of nowhere at the same time.  You feel the past, present and future converging and collapsing upon each other.  A good time to have some music playing in your head, though I suppose most people bring something pre-recorded.  I was never really an iPod guy, somehow.

So I must have had some of the elements for the theme assembled prior to this, but this is the first time I remember them all coming together, as I made this roughly twenty minute walk across the busiest bridge on the planet, and felt the summer sun irradiating me, and wondered if I should have applied some 60SPF in advance.

So the inspiration was clearly that 1950’s big band crime movie type of score I was just talking about.  Probably some elements from Van Alexander’s score for Babyface Nelson, but that kind of music was very popular in the 50’s and early 60’s, and you could find it in lots of movies.  Very hard-hitting and merciless, and all about the horn section.

Probably some Count Basie influence as well, of course.  And I was really into Benny Carter at the time.  But that day I was kind of imagining it being played by the David Murray Big Band, sometime in the late 80’s/early 90’s.  That tuneful dissonance they did so well, where they played as a tightly disciplined unit, but also as a motley assortment of incessantly idiosyncratic individualists, with that New Orleans second line quality; never quite marching in step and never once missing a beat.

It starts in low, like an idling car engine, maybe some misguided motorist offering you a lift.  Then the horns come in hard, howling defiance at the world, telling it go to hell….

PAR-kerrrrr!  PAR-kerrrrr!
dada-dadadada-DAHHHH-da-dada
dada-dada-dada-dada-DAHHH-da-dum!
dadadadadadadada-DAHHH-da-dum!

(horns come in lower now)

PARkerrr–(sound like an engine turning over)
PARkerrr (da-DA!)
PARkerrr  (the engine again)
PARkerrr (da-DA!)

(Now the bridge–fittingly enough–starts off like the calm before the storm).

Da-da-dum.  Da-daaa-da-dum.
Dada-dada-da-da-da-de-da-dum!

Da-da-da-DAAAAAAAH-da-dum.  Dada-dada-dum
Dada-dada-da-da-da-de-da-dum!

(repeat several times, stronger, harsher, and a bit more dissonant each time, as the storm builds, and the rhythm section holds it all together somehow, then back to the main theme one last time, as the band crescendos like Gabriel on Judgment Day)

PAR-kerrrrr!  PAR-kerrrrr!   PAR-KERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

And that’s my Parker theme, as of the moment I stepped off the bridge into Washington Heights.   Since it’s jazz, or aspires to be, endless variations are possible.  But that’s the core of it.  It usually comes to me strongest at the end of a novel, and scenes of the aftermath, various things that might have happened sometime after the final chapter, flash before my eyes.  Like at the end of The Seventh, I imagine the fates of the various surviving characters, and then a lonely gravestone marked ‘Ellie Canaday’, with an opened bottle of beer left in front of it, while a big man whose face we can’t see is walking away in the distance, his hands swinging at his sides, because I’m a romantic, sue me.

It’s a big band theme, brassy and uninhibited, but Dortmunder calls for a small intimate ensemble of underappreciated artists, all specialists, all quietly offhandedly brilliant.

Just to be perverse, I’m going to hire the Hampton Hawes quartet for this gig–a Los Angeles based band.  Dortmunder would not approve–until he heard them play.  Anyway, he’s not originally from New York either.  Eldridge Freeman was born in Illinois too–Chicago.  That’s almost a city.  Dortmunder’s no bigot.  A good string is a good string, wherever they hail from.

Piano: Hampton Hawes
Bass: Red Mitchell
Guitar: Jim Hall
Drums: Eldridge ‘Bruz’ Freeman

Special guest performers would be Johnny Griffin on tenor sax, alternating with Milt Jackson on vibes.  Somehow Dortmunder and trumpets don’t go together, but if there was a trumpet present, there’d be a Harmon mute plugged into it.  I mean, if you can’t pull a job with five guys, it probably shouldn’t be pulled at all.  But it would depend on the book.

Where Parker’s theme is overpowering, Dortmunder’s is underwhelming–quiet, covert, sly, downright sneaky, and maybe a bit scared, but never to the point of backing down.  A bit halting and hesitant at points, gaining confidence as it goes along.  You need a good brushman on the trap set for this one, and Bruz was one of the best.

Dada-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadadadada-DA!
Da-dadada-dadada-dadadadada-DUM!

DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
DA!-dada-dah!-dadadadada-dum!
dada-dada-dadada-dadadada-ta-DAH!

Man, you can just hear it, can’t you?  Okay, fine, only I can hear it.  My notational system has certain inherent limitations.  I should have paid more attention in music appreciation class.

I tend to hear this one when Dortmunder is going someplace he’s not supposed to go, with every intention of coming back out again, but no precise idea as to how he’s going to do that.  And sometimes when he goes into that weird fugue state where he’s putting a bunch of ideas together to make a plan. And always at the end, when he’s both won and lost, and somehow the difference between the two seems academic, but May’s got a tuna casserole in the oven, and things could always be worse.

In any given rendition, a different instrument might carry the tune, while the drums keep time.  Lots of changes you could blow to this one, but it’s a much simpler theme than Parker’s.  Dortmunder’s a much simpler guy.  It’s a theme of resigned fatalism combined with dogged determination.  He can never win the game, but he can’t ever quit either.  Not until the very last note has been played. Any jazzman could relate.

And I think that’s all there is to say about the music in my head.  Unless one of you is a practicing psychiatrist.  If so, contact me privately.   Next up is Bad News, and that might require a pow-wow drum.  Anyway, casino gigs pay well.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Uncategorized

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, Part 2

“The thing is,” Andy explained, “when I feel I need a car, good transportation, something very special, I look for a vehicle with MD plates.  This is one place where you can trust doctors.  They understand discomfort, and they understand comfort, and they got the money to back up their opinions.  Trust me, when I bring you a car, it’ll be just what the doctor ordered, and I mean that exactly the way it sounds.

Looking dazed, Anne Marie said, “You people are going to take a little getting used to.”

“What I do,” May told her, sympathetically, “is pretend I’m on a bus going down a hill and the steering broke.  And also the brakes.  So there’s nothing to do but just look at the scenery and enjoy the ride.”

Anne Marie considered this.  She said, “What happens when you get to the bottom of the hill?”

“I don’t know,” May said.  “We didn’t get there yet.”

It wasn’t a car that came for Max forty minutes later, it was a fleet of cars, all of them large, all except his own limo packed with cargos of large men.  He couldn’t have had more of a parade if he were the president of the United States, going out to return a library book.

His own limo, when it stopped at the foot of the steps from the TUI plane, held only Earl Radburn and the driver.  Earl emerged, to wait at the side of the car, while half a dozen bulky men came up to escort Max down those steps, so that he corrected that image: No, not like a president, more like a serial killer on his way to trial.

The president image had been better.

It came up in the comments section last time, and bears mentioning here–this novel marks the total reversal of the original Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.  In the first three novels, Kelp brought Dortmunder a crazy-sounding job, the job would go sour, and Dortmunder would blame Kelp, call him a jinx.  Then work with him again in the next book.

This couldn’t go on indefinitely, so in the next five novels, somebody else brought Dortmunder the job, or, in the case of Why Me?, the job was a simple one-man burglary that suddenly got very complicated.    Kelp might be help or hindrance, usually both.

This book starts with somebody bringing Dortmunder a job; a simple two-man burglary, that suddenly gets really complicated.  The billionaire Dortmunder is ostensibly robbing robs Dortmunder instead.  Takes a supposedly lucky ring May gave him right off his finger.  Humiliates him.  Dortmunder wants his lucky ring back.  He needs help.  He has to track down this billionaire and take that ring off his finger personally, to undo the insult.  It’s about self-respect, not money.

So he calls Kelp in, and Andy is atypically hesitant–this job sounds crazy!   Dortmunder has to sell him, and in the end it’s not loyalty that makes him agree–it’s that Dortmunder, who has been the real jinx all along, is suddenly himself a good luck charm.  Now that he doesn’t have the ring.  Now that he could care less about money, he’s making money hand over fist.  Everybody wants to work with him now.  He’s got the Midas Touch.

First he went back to Max Fairbanks’ house in Carrport LI, and pillaged it, all by himself. Then he got together a four man string to hit an apartment in a theater/hotel complex Fairbanks owns.  Everybody made out great from that score.  But both times he missed Fairbanks, and Fairbanks is wearing the ring, never takes it off, because it bears his corporate symbol, the I-Ching trigam Tui, and he believes it will bring him good luck (which he’s already enjoyed an obscene amount of). Dortmunder has to catch him offguard somewhere. And the guy has to testify before congress, so he’s going to be staying at a little place he’s got in the Watergate.  Because where else, right?

Dortmunder and Kelp should be able to handle that gig by themselves, but they don’t know Washington.  Affordable GPS devices are not a thing yet, even for Kelp.  They need a guide.  Fortunately, Kelp just hooked up with the very recently single Anne Marie Carpinaw, daughter of a 14-term Kansas congressman, abandoned by her husband at the Fairbanks hotel in Times Square.  She knows our nation’s capital like the back of her lovely hand.  And is ambivalent about it, as she seems to be about nearly everything in her life, Kelp included.  Well, when you get right down to it, everybody is ambivalent about that town. Though it can seem awfully stuck on itself.

“The George Washington Memorial Parkway?   They really lean on it around here, don’t they?”

“After a while, you don’t notice it,” Anne Marie assured him.  “But it is a little, I admit, like living on a float in a Fourth of July parade.  Here’s our turn.”

There was a lot of traffic; this being Sunday, it was mostly tourist traffic, license plates from all over the United States, attached to cars that didn’t know where the hell they were going.  Andy swivel-hipped through it all, startling drivers who were trying to read maps without changing lanes, and Anne Marie said, “Now you want the Francis Scott Key Bridge.”

“You’re putting me on.”

“No, I’m not.  There’s the sign, see?”

Andy swung up and over, and there they were crossing the Potomac again, this time northbound, the city of Washington spread out in front of them like an almost life-sized model of itself, as though it were still in the planning stages and they could still decide not to go through with it.

Basically this entire chapter seems to exist for the purposes of telling people who want to visit our nation’s capital that they really do not want to drive there, but Anne Marie gets them through the urban maze unscathed.  The stolen car with MD plates having been abandoned, John and Andy still have to scope out the Watergate complex, while May and Anne Marie (who get along great from the start) go shopping and sight-seeing, but in fact they do a better job casing the joint as well–join a group of prospective renters touring the apartment complex, find out everything the guys needed to know.

And turns out the joint is empty when they break in (this isn’t a residence, just a place to crash when Max is in lobbyist mode, so no valuable art to steal).  They set up camp there and wait.  Dortmunder is disgusted.  Andy is somewhat more enthused, because there’s fifty thousand dollars in bribes, I mean PAC money, waiting there for a Fairbanks aide to take it to various recipients, as they learn from the answering machine message the underling left, referring to the ‘PAC Packs.”  Possibly to be put in a Fed-Ex PAK.  Dortmunder is irritated by all the variant spellings of ‘pack’ (as his creator would have been).  Andy is just delighted to see this unexpected dividend.  And horrified when John doesn’t want to take it.

See, Dortmunder figures Fairbanks has to show up at some point, but this employee is going to show up for the cash, and if he doesn’t find it, he might call the cops, and he’ll certainly call Fairbanks.  John is adamant–if it screws up his getting the ring back, they can forget about the Fifty G’s.

Kelp’s agile mind searches feverishly for a work-around, and he says they’ll leave a note saying Fairbanks’ secretary took it for distribution.  Dortmunder grudgingly agrees, and they leave with the money, figuring they’ll come back later for Fairbanks and the ring.

(Anne Marie is doubled over with laughter when she hears about this–“At last,” she said, when she could say anything again, “the trickle-down theory begins to work.” )

But before they can go back to the apartment to try again for the ring, Wally Knurr calls, saying that Fairbanks won’t be staying at the Watergate apartment after all, and that his location will no longer be made known to his corporate empire at large–so Wally won’t be able to track him via the internet anymore. What gives here?  Well, Mr. Fairbanks, staying at his beachfront condo in Hilton Head, has been consulting The Book, as he calls it.  And the ancient wisdom of the Orient is urging caution.

                                            The Image
Thunder in the middle of the lake:
The image of FOLLOWING.
Thus the superior man at nightfall
Goes indoors for rest and recreation

Hmmm.  The Book often spoke of the superior man, and Max naturally assumed it was always referring to himself.  When it said the superior man takes heed, Max would take heed.   When it said the superior man moves forward boldly, Max would move forward boldly.  But now the superior man goes indoors?  At nightfall?  It was nightfall, and he was indoors.

(At this moment in time, unbeknownst to Max, Dortmunder was breaking into his apartment at the Watergate for rest and remuneration, which for him amounts to the same thing.)

He probes further into the text, which is suggesting that someone is following him.  Could it be the annoying Detective Klematsky, who suspects him of burgling his own residences for the insurance?  He needs more information, so he does another coin toss, this one leading to a hexagram–The Marrying Maiden. Max doesn’t like that one.  He strives for the proper interpretation, and suddenly it comes to him–the ring!   That burglar is coming for his ring!

And Max is as perversely determined to keep the ring as Dortmunder is to regain it.  So this is why he never came to the Watergate apartment as planned, and this is why he’s made his movements a secret, even to most of his employees.  But there’s one trip he can’t conceal–he needs to go to his casino in Las Vegas.  And it occurs to him that this thief will make a try for the ring there–so he can set a trap.  He shall yet prove he, Max Fairbanks, is the superior man, not this bilious brigand!

So Max heads for Vegas, making the needed arrangements with his security staff to nab Dortmunder in the act of lèse-majesté.  While Dortmunder begins to put together a string for what will prove to be his biggest and best heist ever.

In the meantime, Andy Kelp has one of his little tete-a-tetes with his friend Detective Klematsky at a New York restaurant, a New Orleans themed eatery this time.  And weirdly, this time Klematsky is buying.  Because he’s the one that needs information.  He wants to know if his old friend Kelp has heard about any people in his profession doing fake burglaries as part of an insurance fraud scam.

He knows that Andy’s eyes blink rapidly when he tells a lie.  What he doesn’t know is that Andy can do that on purpose too.  So Andy tells him he never heard about anything like that, his eyes blinking furiously all the while.  Telling Klematsky exactly what he wants to hear, while pretending to do nothing of the sort.  Like Alan Grofield (the Stark version of that character), Andy Kelp can even lie with the truth.  And confirmed in his suspicions, Bernard Klematsky, who finds insurance fraud particularly offensive, is now determined to arrest Max Fairbanks for one of the very few white collar crimes Max Fairbanks is not guilty of.

And as Dortmunder enters the O.J. Bar and Grill, we get another scintillating discussion relating to issues of the day, while Rollo the bartender attempts to put up a new neon beer sign.

“It’s a code,” the first regular was saying.  “It’s a code and only the cash registers can read it.”

“Why is it in code?” the second regular asked him.  “The Code War’s over.”

A third regular now hove about and steamed into the conversation, saying “What?  The Code War?  It’s not the Code War, where ya been?  It’s the Cold War.”

The second regular was serene with certainty.  “Code,” he said,  “It was the Code War because they used all those codes to keep the secrets from each other.”  With a little pitying chuckle, he said “Cold War.  Why would anybody call a war cold?”

The third regular, just as certain but less serene, said, “Anybody’s been awake the last hundred years knows, it was the Cold War because it’s always winter in Russia.”

The second regular chuckled again, an irritating sound.  “Then how come,” he said, “they eat salad?”

The third regular, derailed, frowned at the second regular and said, “Salad?”

With Russian dressing.”

After a while, they start arguing about what the code is called–zip?–civic?–Morse? Rollo the bartender tries telling them it’s called a bar code, and is accused of having a one-track mind.  And you have seen far weirder and more uninformed conversations than this happening online, probably participated in a few, and there wasn’t any beer being served during them.  Think you’re so smart. Hmph.

Dortmunder is not kidding around with this job.  He’s calling in the heavy artillery.  If you know of anything heavier, all I can say is, I surrender.   This cannon already settled the argument up front by demonstrating a cold cure that involves squeezing all the bad air out of a person.

Kelp continued to hold the door open, and in came a medium range intercontinental ballistic missile with legs.  Also arms, about the shape of fire hydrants, but longer, and a head, about the shape of a fire hydrant.  This creature, in a voice that sounded as thought it had started from the center of the earth several centuries ago and just now got here, said, “Hello, Dortmunder.”

“Hello, Tiny,” Dortmunder said.  “What did you do to Rollo’s customers?”

“They’ll be all right,” Tiny said, coming around the table to take Kelp’s place.  “Soon as they catch their breath.”

“Where did you toss it?” Dortmunder asked.

Tiny, whose full name was Tiny Bulcher and whose strength was as the strength of ten even though his heart in fact was anything but pure, settled himself in Kelp’s former chair and laughed and whomped Dortmunder on the shoulder.  Having expected it, Dortmunder had already braced himself against the table, so it wasn’t too bad.”  “Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “you make me laugh.”

“I’m glad,” Dortmunder said.

Tiny is even more amused to hear Dortmunder’s plan–to rob an entire casino.   Knowing in advance that Fairbanks will be setting a trap for all of them.  Vegas is a hard target at the best of times. But casinos are one of the few places left in this modern electronic world that have a whole lot of untraceable cash on hand.  And in the midst of yukking it up over Dortmunder’s recent professional embarrassment, he’s been hearing about all these amazing scores that follows it. He’s listening.

So are Stan Murch and Ralph Winslow–the latter a lockman who is known for always having a glass full of liquor and ice cubes in one hand.  A string of five is usually as big as Dortmunder wants to get–he likes to say that if a job can’t be pulled with five guys, it’s not worth pulling.  But this is no ordinary job, and will require no ordinary string.  And it will require a plan.  Which falls on him.

“You must have an idea,” Andy Kelp had said at one point, for instance, but that was the whole problem.  Of course he had an idea.  He had a whole lot of ideas, but a whole lot of ideas isn’t a plan.  A plan is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, so you go from this step to this step like crossing a stream on a lot of little boulders sticking out and never fall in. Ideas without a plan is usually just enough boulders to get you into the deep part of the stream, and no way to get back.

Westlake had Kelp say something like this in Drowned Hopes, and clearly he’s talking about more than heists here.  A novel, you might say, is a bunch of details that mesh with one another, right?  Westlake liked to write from what he called the ‘push’ method of narrative storytelling, where he would start with some basic ideas, and then push forward into the story, working things out as he went, listening to the characters, minding the terrain.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  Fact is, a plan worked out perfectly in advance of a job is one of those things God loves to laugh at (along with Dortmunder).

He can’t work it all out without going there and seeing the lay of the land. Knowing who he’s working with, what tools he has in the kit.  And the string keeps growing by leaps and bounds, as more and more old associates, many of whom have not been seen in some time, volunteer for this Vegas casino heist. You might say they’re an all-star cast.  Or you could come up with some ruder term.  Something rodentine, perhaps?

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Let’s lay it out.  Planner: John Dortmunder.  Drivers: Stan Murch and Fred Lartz (and his wife Thelma, who does all the actual driving in the Lartz family these days).  Lockmen: Ralph Winslow, Wally Whistler, and Herman X (who is now just Herman Jones, after doing a stint as Herman Makanene Stulu’mbnick in Africa, and being a Jones must make life much simpler for a thief, all things considered).  Utility infielders: Andy Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, Gus Brock, Ralph Demrovsky, and the frequently unfortunate Jim O’Hara (but not this time, baby).

That’s either twelve or thirteen (depending on whether you count Anne Marie, along for the ride, much to Andy’s consternation), and we’ve seen Westlake put on this kind of passion play before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–one more indication that a long-buried alter-ego is stirring within him–but there’s also seven unnamed associates in the string, for a grand total of twenty.  Even Parker never had a string that big.  Or a target this well-guarded.

Most of them come down from New York with Andy and Tiny, in a purloined mobile home, an Invidia, and of course Westlake made that name up, along with a bunch of other fictional mobile homes they considered at a dealership in New Jersey, before deciding this was the one they wanted to steal.  There were Dobermans guarding the dealership, but they got some nice raw hamburger with happy pills inside, and went happily to sleep, dreaming of rabbits.  Cute.

But all this time, Dortmunder has been checking out the scene in Vegas (with Kelp, who then heads back to New York to round up some needed items, as mentioned).  And everybody who sees Dortmunder figures he’s up to something, which of course he is, and they’re all telling him forget about it.  Vegas is a burial ground for guys with big plans.  He keeps insisting he’s just a tourist, here to see the sights, try his luck.  “Uh-huh” they keep saying–the waitresses, the motel clerk, everybody.  He just does not look like the sight-seeing type, and the only gambling establishment he’d fit in at would be a racetrack.

The security men spotted him as a ringer almost immediately when he showed up at the casino, but Kelp got him some new clothes.  Which are very definitely going to stay in Vegas when he goes.

The pants, to begin with, weren’t pants, they were shorts.  Shorts.  Who over the age of six wears shorts?  What person, that is, of Dortmunder’s dignity, over the age of six wears shorts?  Big baggy tan shorts with pleats.  Shorts with pleats so that he looked like he was wearing brown paper bags from the supermarket above his knees, with his own sensible black socks below the knees, but the socks and their accompanying feet were then stuck into sandals.  Sandals?  Dark brown sandals?  Big clumpy sandals with his own black socks, plus those knees, plus those shorts?  Is this a way to dress?

And let’s not forget the shirt.  Not that it was likely anybody could ever forget this shirt, which looked as thought it had been manufactured at midnight during a power outage.  No two pieces of the shirt were the same color.  The left short sleeve was plum, the right was lime.  The back was dark blue.  The left front panel was chartreuse, the right was cerise, and the pocket directly over his heart was white.  And the whole shirt was huge, baggy and draping and falling around his body, and worn outside the despicable shorts.

Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into.  He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”

And it works.  The same security guys who started tailing him the moment he showed his face don’t give him a second look in this get-up.  Just another rube contributing to their payroll (as opposed to stealing it).  The motel clerk, who has seen them all come and go, just says “Uh-huh.”  She may be impressed, but she’d never admit it.

Dortmunder’s plan is starting to come together in his head now.  He’s made contact with a   former New Yorker, a former heist-man running a perfectly legitimate shady business operation manufacturing cheap knock-offs of famous brands of this or that, fellow named Lester Vogel.  He’s quite happy to provide needed materials for the job.  Just delighted to hear a New York accent again, accompanied by New York rudeness.  A bit confused as to why Dortmunder is expressing interest in tanks of various gases he has on the premises.

And staying at the hotel that goes with the casino, Anne Marie Carpinaw is wondering what the hell she’s doing here, and so is Andy, and yet they do seem to enjoy each other’s company, and quite a lot of sex seems to be going on, though this being a Dortmunder novel, it is only vaguely alluded to in passing. At one point, in her room, she says she’s not sure they belong together, but then he asks her if this is a good time to bring that up, and she says “Well, maybe not.” Not such an unusual conversation for a new couple to have.

She is, however, going to some pains to make sure she doesn’t get rounded up with the rest of the gang if the heist goes sour.  She watches a lot of Court TV. Actually appearing on it doesn’t appeal to her.

So all the players have been assembled in one place–even Detective Bernard Klematsky is on his way to Vegas.  And little hearkening to any of these impending events, other than his imminent capture and final defeat of that pilfering plebe who should learn to know his place, Max Fairbanks waits at a guest cottage on the casino grounds, his security men instructed to not stay too close to him, so as not to scare Dortmunder away.  They are not happy about this, but he’s the boss.

He’s also got to deal with the manager of the Gaiety Hotel, Battle Lake, and Casino, Brandon Camberbridge, a happily closeted gay man, with a wife who happily cheats on him with various non-gay men, a dowdy older secretary who happily serves as a surrogate mother, and he loves his job as much as anyone has ever loved any job in the history of work.  And in the course of his conversations with Brandon, Max realizes that this guy actually thinks of Max’s casino as being his casino, and makes a mental note to transfer him elsewhere.  Doesn’t pay to let his employees ever forget they are just employees.  Only one person actually matters, and that is Max Fairbanks.

Um, yes–the Battle Lake.  Las Vegas was, by this time, getting to be more and more about putting on a show for the tourists, and less and less about honest gambling.  A theme park with slot machines.  The Battle Lake is an artificially created body of water upon which remote controlled full-sized replicas of various warships do ersatz battle with each other, for the edification of the masses.  It sounds a bit more Disney than Vegas, but I guess that’s the point–that and the fact that the Tui symbol on that ring Max is defending, and Dortmunder is seeking, means Joyous Lake, and Max’s recent I-Ching readings have been referring obliquely to a lake, and intimating that less than joyous developments are in the offing.

He tries once more to divine his future through the coin toss, and the passages they lead him to, and here’s the thing–it’s pretty clear that in this story, the I-Ching really does work.  But convinced as he is that he is a Man of Destiny, Max is doomed to keep projecting what he wants to see onto the auguries of The Book.  “When one has something to say, it is not believed.”  (And would you believe that every single I-Ching quote in this novel is 100% real?)

He comes very quietly, oppressed, in a golden carriage.
Humiliation, but the end is reached.

Well, wait now.  Who comes very quietly in a golden carriage?  The plane that had brought Max here, he supposed that could possibly be thought of as a golden carriage.  But had he been oppressed?

Well, yes, actually he had been, in that he was still oppressed by the thought of the burglar out there, prowling after him.   So that’s what it must mean.

It couldn’t very well be the burglar in a golden carriage, could it? What would a burglar be doing in a golden carriage?

Again, Max went to the further commentaries in the back part of The Book, where he read,

“He comes very quietly,”: his will is directed downward.  Though the place is not appropriate, he nevertheless has companions.

I have companions.  I have Earl Rayburn, and Wylie Branch and all those bulky security men.  I have the hotel staff.  I have thousands and thousands of employees at my beck and call.  The place is not appropriate because a person in my position shouldn’t have to stoop to deal personally with such a gnat as this, that’s all it means.

And that’s why there’s humiliation in it, the humiliation of having to deal with this gnat myself.  But the end is reached.  That’s the point.

Come on, Mr. Burglar.  My companions and I are waiting for you, in our golden carriage.  The end is about to be reached.  And who do you have, to accompany you?

Oh, he really should not have asked that question.   And the Invidia has actually been painted silver, but that’s such a niggling little detail.

Stan Murch, Jim O’Hara, Gus Brock, and the one and only Tiny Bulcher start off the caper.  Stan and Jim pose as deliverymen bringing more oxygen tanks for the casino to ‘enrich’ the air inside the casino, encouraging people to stay up later,and lose more money.  The tanks are green, from Lester Vogel’s establishment, but what’s inside them is nitrous oxide–laughing gas.

And with a bit of not-too-gentle prodding from Stan, Jim, Gus, and most of all Tiny, the guards prove quite willing to show them just where those tanks need to go.  This is an upsetting and painful experience for the guards, as it would be for anyone, but they start to relax shortly afterwards.  These are considerate robbers, who bring their own anesthetic.

There’s some nice scenes with Herman, posing as one of Max’s employees from Housekeeping, marching right into Max’s guest cottage on the pretense of needing to clean up, Uncle-Tomming his way around Max and the guards (unable to process the notion that Dortmunder might have a black associate, or any associate)–laughing at them on the inside.  (And wouldn’t Sammy have been just perfect to play Herman, back in the day?   This is Vegas, I hardly need say which Sammy I mean.)

Herman is done playing around with politics, foreign or domestic.  He’s just a straight heister now (well, presumably still bisexual, you know what I meant). He’s going to let his profession know he’s back, black, and better than ever.  And I still think Westlake should have given him his own novel, but a bit late now.

So they do the heist.  That’s not really important to Dortmunder.   Much as these guys may be his friends, they’re still professionals, independents.  Nobody’s errand boys.  He needed to give them a reason to stick their necks out this far, and money usually works.  He’s not leading them–he gave them a plan, and they ran with it.  And now the rest is up to him.  He wants that ring.

He waits until the string is ready to leave with the loot (two million–more than Parker ever got by a long shot), then he calls the cops, and reports a robbery. And all holy hell breaks loose.

Klematsky picks this moment to try and arrest Fairbanks–he assumes this casino heist is just another insurance scam–Max’s local security man is disgustedly assuming the same thing–explains Max’s odd behavior–he was working with the heisters.

Max, unable to process that he, not Dortmunder, is being arrested, lams it out onto the grounds, as the Battle Lake catches fire, and bits of burning artificial shrubbery are flying everywhere.  All he can think now is that he needs lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  But first he needs someone to get him out of this inferno.  A helpful fireman in a smoke mask offers his services.  Guess who.

“Give me that ring!”

“No!” You’ve ruined everything, you’ve destroyed–”

“Give me the ring!”

“Never!”

Max, inflamed by the injustice of it all, leaped on the false fireman and drove him to the blacktop.  They rolled together there, the false fireman trying to get the ring, Max trying to rip that mask off so he could bite the fellow’s face, and Max wound up on top.

Straddling him.  Winning, on top, as he always was, as he always would be. Because I am Max Fairbanks, and I will not be beaten, not be beaten.

You didn’t expect this, did you, Mr. Burglar?  You didn’t expect me to be on top, did you, holding you down with my knees, ready now to give you what you deserve, kill you with my bare hands, rip this mask–

And at this point, wouldn’t you know, up runs the normally mild-mannered Brandon Camberbridge, in the grip of a berserker rage.  He must have heard about how Fairbanks set up the robbery.  His beautiful hotel.  Ruined.  Pillaged. Ravished.  He beats the bullshit out of Max, as so many other of his employees must have yearned to do across the years.  And as Max lies there, defeated, barely conscious, Dortmunder, back on his feet, calmly reaches down, takes his ring right off Max’s finger.  And that’s game.

As the book concludes, we learn that the insurance fraud charges didn’t stick (because they weren’t true), but in the process of being closely investigated, all this other stuff Max had gotten up to started coming to light.  His business, like his life, not to mention his character, could not hold up to close scrutiny.  Hey, I didn’t say anything, it’s just a fun crime novel.

So what was it all about?  How was this about identity?  Sure, we got Anne Marie Carpinaw’s crisis, going from unhappy wife to oddly entertained heister’s moll, and she and Andy will, against all odds, somehow stay together the rest of the series, and I don’t really care.

And we got Andy Kelp himself finding a new side to his identity; more stable, effective, reliable, amorous–but still crookeder than Lombard Street in San Francisco.   And we got Herman X/Jones, back from Africa, recommitting to life on the bend, having found that thieves are often more trustworthy than politicians in a developing nation (or any nation). And we got the confused identity of Brandon Camberbridge, the lackey who thinks he’s the boss, to amuse us, and serve as a convenient plot device for the climax.

And this is all entertaining enough, adds to the general fabric of the story, but none of it really matters.  This was about John Dortmunder vs. Max Fairbanks.   Who was the ‘Superior Man’ referred to in the I-Ching?   Who is the Superior Being in any clash of personalities?   If you’re Donald Westlake, you’d say it’s the one who knows himself.  (Or herself.)

Dortmunder could never, ever, if he lived to be a hundred, think of himself as superior to anyone.  The word isn’t even in his vocabulary.   He’s been a sad sack and a loser all his life, born under an unlucky star, cursed to be Fortune’s Fool, and he doesn’t kid himself about that.  But he knows who he is, and he knows what he’s capable of.   Never overestimating himself, he can rise to the occasion when destiny calls.  However, he doesn’t waste his time trying to know the future.  Not his department.

He tells May he’s not superstitious (while she rolls her eyes a little and says nothing), but he thinks now that ring isn’t lucky after all–he’s not going to wear it again.  All its luck must have been used up by her uncle, and now it’s a  jinx–losing it meant good luck for him, bad for Max Fairbanks.  That’s his explanation for what happened, for how one of the unluckiest guys alive turned the tables on Scrooge McDuck crossed with Gladstone Gander (the Beagle Boys always go to jail in the comic books).

But really, it was more about Max.   Max may have started out knowing himself, after a fashion–knowing he was a scoundrel and a liar, knowing that nobody mattered to him but him.  And that’s fine, I suppose, in its place–as long as you don’t start taking yourself too seriously.  If there’s anything more deadly to an honest unflinching sense of self than being filthy goddam rich, it’s delusions of grandeur–and the two so often go together, you ever notice that?

The oppressed of the world (some of us vastly more oppressed than others) can’t afford delusions of grandeur.  We’re too busy trying to survive.  And now and again we do come across a Max Fairbanks. And now and again, we do manage, against all odds, to give him  one in the eye.

But most of us don’t know ourselves as well as John Dortmunder, it must be said.  The Max Fairbanks’s of the world and their delusions can be damnably persuasive.  They play on our vanities, as we tickle theirs.  So sure, why not take a preening narcissist, an ego in search of a human being, a megalomaniac who can never have enough power, a seething mass of resentment, misogyny, racism, petty tyranny, and rage, and make him the most powerful man on earth?  With nuclear weapons to boot.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The thing about Dortmunder is, he’s not a killer.  But the ‘hero’ of our next book learns, to his amazement, horror, and disturbed satisfaction, that he’s a damned efficient killer.  And he can’t afford to indulge his newfound gift on personal vendettas.  He’s got to use it for job-hunting.  And I’ll have to write a little intro to this one, before I get to reviewing it. And I’ll do that. After I bury my father. Not a metaphor.

Hey, the Ax falls on all of us, sooner or later.   That is a metaphor.  I hope.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

“Max Fairbanks,” Max Fairbanks said, “you’re a bad boy.” The milky blue eyes that gazed softly back at him in the bathroom mirror were understanding, sympathetic, even humorous; they forgave the bad boy.

“Well, I’m not gonna chase him around London and Africa, that’s for sure,” Dortmunder said.  “I can wait till he comes back this way.  Washington isn’t so far, where’s he stay in Washington?  Got another house there?”

“An apartment,” Wally said.  “In the Watergate.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Dortmunder said.  “It’s some kinda place.”

Wally and Andy looked at one another.  “He’s heard of it,” Andy said.

Wally said to Dortmunder, “It’s a great big building over by the Potomac river.  It’s partly offices and partly hotel and partly apartments.”

“Apartments are harder,” Dortmunder said.  “Doormen, probably.  Neighbors.  Could be live-in help there, a guy like that.”

Grinning, Andy said, “John?  You planning a burglary at the Watergate?”

“I’m planning to get my ring back,” Dortmunder told him, “if that’s what you mean.”

Andy still had that crooked little grin.  “No big deal,” he suggested.  “Just a little third-rate burglary at the Watergate.”

Dortmunder shrugged.  “Yeah?  So?  What’s the worst that could happen?”

“Well,” Andy said, “you could lose the Presidency.”

I’ve read every Dortmunder novel, but none of them more than once before I started this blog.  I liked the first three best, a reaction confirmed by rereading and reviewing.  Since then, it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, up and down and back up again.  I love them all, but love is blind.  A critic shouldn’t be.

The Dortmunder series isn’t really about crafting perfect stories, anyway.  It’s about renewing our acquaintance with these likable rogues, keeping in touch with them across the decades, seeing how they react to social change, how they adapt to it, and how they stay the same, in spite of everything.  If now and again a genuinely terrific book crops up, something that’s brilliant in its own right, not merely as an extension of the overall franchise, that’s just gravy.

This may be the last of those anomalies.  The last genuinely great Dortmunder novel.  I won’t be able to make my final determination on that score for a while yet.  Maybe the very last one also qualifies.  But I’m so glad we’re at this one.  It’s one of my favorites.  And more timely at the moment than even Westlake could have ever imagined.   Though he might not have been that surprised.  When you’ve studied and chronicled human absurdity as long and avidly as he did, nothing really shocks you anymore.

Starting with the fourth book in the series, struggling to find a way to keep this lucrative sideline of his going, Westlake began to experiment with making Dortmunder’s nemesis in the story a wealthy man–in that instance, an art collector/playboy, living off the wealth of industrious forebears, and at the very edge of his means.  Things don’t end well for him, but it’s only indirectly through Dortmunder’s actions that he is laid low.  Dortmunder is just trying to survive, as usual.  It’s one of the weakest Dortmunders.  Back to the old drawing board.

Cutting ahead to the sixth novel, Good Behavior, the villain of the piece is a billionaire tycoon, head of a multi-national corporation, a modern-day robber baron and part-time philosopher, out to dominate South America, and then maybe the northern part as well.  No playboy, he.  Very much along the lines of the Koch Brothers, not that Westlake was thinking about them at the time.  Dortmunder isn’t out to thwart this pontificating potentate in any way, he’s just obligated to rescue the man’s daughter from the penthouse prison he’s confined her in for becoming a nun, so she can resume the cloistered life she’s chosen for herself.

But again, through the strange alchemy of his being, unwitting chaos-bringer that he is, Dortmunder undoes this schemer’s grand plans, leaves him vulnerable to the law he thought he stood safely above, so that by the end of the story he’ll be lucky just to stay out of  jail, let alone indulge his neo-feudalist fantasies. And I love that book even more than this one, but they never really have a satisfactory confrontation (since this guy is so sure of himself he could never see someone like Dortmunder as a threat).  There’s room for improvement to that aspect of the story.

And once more skipping a book in the series (Drowned Hopes is about a lot of things, but rich pricks isn’t one of them), Westlake returned to the theme in Don’t Ask–but less satisfactorily than ever.  Here the rich man is an international hotelier, looking to establish himself in eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He’s happily married, a bit of an art collector himself, and he’s not so much a villain as a tunnel-visioned tool.  He’s not even Dortmunder’s primary target.

But because he enabled Dortmunder’s true nemesis, an unscrupulous diplomat, to make a fool of Dortmunder, he also finds himself on the receiving end of a grand vendetta, and a plan so ridiculously convoluted that it’s hard to buy into.  I went into this in some detail in my review of that novel, which I found much less satisfactory on the second reading.  It’s too many mismatching ideas crammed between two covers.  Westlake doesn’t invest enough time in the billionaire to make him a very believable character.  And his real-life models–Helmsley, Hilton, etc–aren’t suitable for this kind of story.   They aren’t scurrilous enough.  You need someone truly scurrilous, someone who richly deserves to suffer Dortmunder’s wrath.  And what’s more, he needs to enjoy being scurrilous.

And Dortmunder needs to be better motivated.  Motivating the vendetta was so important to Westlake that he dismissed one of the best Parker novels, The Jugger, because he felt he hadn’t gotten that one thing right.  Badly as Dortmunder was treated in Don’t Ask, it seems a bit much for him to want to revenge himself on a man he never met, who he knows was only tangentially involved in his disgrace.

So as I said in that review, Westlake probably came away from that one knowing he’d muffed it, feeling like he still hadn’t given this idea its best possible treatment, and maybe that’s why when it came time to write the ninth Dortmunder, he went right back to that well–but with a different bucket.  Well, maybe a composite of two different buckets–you see that photo up top.  You know who those men are.  You probably couldn’t pick 99.999% of the billionaires on this planet out of a line-up at the police station (though wouldn’t that be a fun day out?), but you know them.

And you also know that one of them (the poorer by far) is notoriously litigious.  The other has rather extensive media contacts, that extend to the publishing industry.  So perhaps it was prudent to give Max Fairbanks, the billionaire in this story, an origin that doesn’t closely resemble that of any famous rich person.  Though if you squint just right, you can still make out the general outlines.

As with so many self-made men, Max had begun by marrying money.  He wasn’t Max Fairbanks yet, not back then, the century in its fifties and he in his twenties, but he’d long since stopped being his original self.  Had there ever been loving parents who had given this child a name, their own plus another, no one by the 1950’s knew anything about them, including Max, who, having found himself in London, called himself Rupert, and soon made himself indispensable to a brewer’s daughter named Elsie Brenstid.  Brenstid père, named Clement for some reason, had found young Basil Rupert far more resistable than his daughter had, until Basil demonstrated just how the Big B Brewery’s company-owned pubs could be made to produce considerably more income with just the right applications of cajolery and terror.

The marriage lasted three years, producing twin girls and an extremely satisfactory divorce settlement for Basil, Elsie being by then ready to pay anything to get away from her husband.  Basil took this grubstake off to Australia, and by the time the ship landed he had somehow become a native Englishman called Edward Wizmick, from Devon.

Elements of Mr. Murdoch’s general bio (and his name) can certainly be discerned here, but with so many variations as to make it impossible to say it’s him, even though Max is described as having a media empire, newspapers, TV stations, etc.  None of which figure much in the story at all.  Nor does Max seem to have any interest in politics, other than bribing politicians to give him what he wants in terms of tax breaks and deregulatory measures.

At the time this story begins, the most salient fact about Max Fairbanks is that he just went through a rather bruising Chapter 11 proceeding, due to having overextended himself financially.  That and the fact that he owns hotels and casinos.  And that he’s a shameless philandering bastard, with utter contempt for women, and really for everyone.  And, it should be said, a genuine knack for self-promotion.  He’s as much a celebrity as anybody who performs at his casinos.  And perhaps this explains why the paperback reprint from Warner Books (A Time Warner Company) had this on the back of it.

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Because, you know, obviously.

And to hammer the point home, while there were several possible models for Max Fairbanks, only one of them was named Donald, which would make him an even more irresistible target for Westlake.   The most famous rich SOB on earth, even if his billionaire status was largely a hollow public charade, a cardboard castle covered in gold paint.  And, leave us not forget, the one most likely to sue if he felt he’d been attacked in some way.

So yes, Max is a composite.  Yes, he’s a fictional character with his own unique quirks.  Yes, he is different from Trump in many key respects (most notably in that he was not born wealthy, and yet is clearly much richer and more powerful than the real Trump ever was).  Everybody knew who Westlake was really writing about here, who he was sending up.  But nobody could ever prove it.

Westlake had learned a lesson or two from his failed attempt to publish a book with a protagonist based so directly on Bob Hope that it couldn’t be anybody else.  Don’t make it too obvious–not while the guy is still alive, anyway.  Look at all the trouble Orson Welles got into, and poor Marion Davies didn’t deserve to be portrayed like that.   Don’t get too literal about it.  Just tell the damn story.  Let reality take care of itself.  And I think I’ll follow that advice myself now.

Dortmunder is doing a job on Long Island, in a rich sleepy little town called Carrport (yet another sly little reference to Comfort Station, a long out of print book published under a pseudonym that most of his readers had never even heard of) .  His partner in crime for this job, the guy who suggested it, is Gus Brock and it involves burgling the house of Max Fairbanks.  Which is supposed to be empty, because a court has ordered this Fairbanks guy not to go there until this Chapter 11 matter has been included.  “Is this a person or a book?” Dortmunder asks.

Gus explains that although Fairbanks is technically bankrupt now, he still has huge amounts of money, all kinds of fancy possessions, but he owes a lot of people more than he wants to pay, and this is his way of stiffing his creditors, all legal-like.  Dortmunder, baffled as ever by the wiles of white collar crime, concludes “Okay, it’s just one of those cute ways rich guys have to steal from everybody without having to pick locks.”  (Is it too late to draft him for President?  Oh well, he’d probably prefer prison.)

So a judge has told Max not to be in this house, the law says he is not supposed to be there, but Max doesn’t think the law applies to him, and there’s this blonde bubblehead Max wants to bed–she’s a centerfold model, but she has dreams of getting into TV news, so she’s receptive to his advances, and there they are in bed, and they hear the burglars downstairs, and Max has a gun.  And he certainly thinks the law applies to people who are robbing him.

He only manages to catch one of them, and we all know which one that is (Gus slips away undetected).  He holds a thoroughly disgusted Dortmunder at gunpoint until the local constabulary arrive.  And then, just before they take him away in cuffs, Max notices something on the fourth proximal digit of Dortmunder’s right hand.

It’s a cheaply made ring with a strange symbol on it, which Max recognizes as the I-Ching trigram Tui–meaning The Joyous Lake.  His own lucky sign, and the name of his company.  Max is a believer.   (And we’re going to get a lot of I-Ching mumbo-jumbo in this book, just like we got our fill of Astrology in A Jade in Aries.  Westlake probably didn’t believe in either sytem, but he believed in luck.  It’s a story. Go with it.)

The ring had been delivered to Dortmunder and May’s apartment days before.  It belonged to a late uncle of hers, a denizen of the race tracks.  It was, the lawyer’s enclosed note explains, his lucky ring.  He left it to May in his will, but it won’t fit her.  May makes a diplomatically worded suggestion to Dortmunder–

“Skill you’ve got,” she hastened to assure him.  “Adaptability you’ve got, professionalism you’ve got, good competent partners you’ve got. Luck you could use a little. Try it on.”

He does.  It fits perfectly.  And this is the kind of luck it gave him.  He’s going to  jail, probably for a long time, possibly for life.  But hey, them’s the breaks when you’re in his line of work. Can’t blame anybody for that.  Not until Max Fairbanks points at the ring and says it belongs to him.  This thief took it.  He must give it back, now.  The Carrport cops, knowing who Fairbanks is, insist Dortmunder take it off and hand it to the smugly smiling billionaire.  Enjoying his little joke so much.   Not knowing or caring who he’s playing it on.  Not comprehending the psychic chain reaction he has triggered.

Dortmunder was very very very angry.

To be arrested was one thing, to be convicted, sent to prison, given a record, made to wear ill-fitting denim, forced to live in close proximity to thoroughly undesirable citizens, listen to lectures, take shop, eat slop, all part of the same thing, all within the known and accepted risks of life.  But to be made fun of?  To be humiliated?  To be robbed…by a householder?

He was ready to go quietly, to accept his fate, but this he can never accept.  This is one practical joke too many.  Max Fairbanks must pay.  Dortmunder wants that ring back.  Inspired by his rage, he becomes the Houdini of Crime, using the zipper tab from his own trousers to unscrew the window of the locked patrol car, jumping through that window, hands still cuffed, making his getaway before the fat suburban fuzz can register what’s going on.

He avoids the ensuing dragnet.  He breaks into a hardware store, gets the cuffs off.  He goes back to the Fairbanks house and strips it of all major valuables (a substantial haul, that Gus Brock will get no split from).  He makes his way home in Max Fairbanks’ own Lexus.  He fences the loot for 28 grand.  When he dumps it on the kitchen table, he tells May he’s got some bad news–all he can see is that ring.   There is nothing else for him now.

And he begins to make his plans.  And doesn’t immediately process the fact that his perennially bad luck has somehow–changed.  For this book, at least, Dortmunder makes even Parker look like a second-rater.  That 28 g’s is nothing compared to what’s coming.

Kelp, like all of Dortmunder’s other frequent string members, finds the story of Dortmunder getting robbed by the guy he was going to rob hilarious.  But he is taken aback by the unusual degree of focused intensity he sees in his friend’s eyes–and he can smell a good thing a mile away.  Dortmunder scored big off this guy, and there’s more where that came from.

He calls up Wally Knurr, their computer nerd pal from Drowned Hopes, who has not changed a bit, except that now he lives in Dudson Corners with Myrtle Street and her mom. (We’re told Myrtle is his ‘lady friend’, and she is a lady, and I’m sure they are good friends, and please don’t try to tell me it goes any further than that.  This isn’t The Big Bang Theory.  Wally is still five feet tall and just as wide.  Jimmy Rushing would stand a better chance with Myrtle, and he died in 1972.)

Wally doesn’t want any part of a violent revenge scheme, but properly reassured that Dortmunder only wants what is rightfully his, he can easily track Fairbanks online by hacking into TUI’s corporate database.  Max moves around a lot, and therefore so does that ring.  So Dortmunder will need to be able to anticipate his movements in order to get him.

He’ll need some help to get at his nemesis–and as word of his big Carrport score gets around, everybody suddenly wants to work with him again.  And when he drops the stolen Lexus off at Maximilian’s Used Cars (where all the best car thieves go), he gets a much better deal from that Max than he ever got before.  Yes, something’s definitely different about Dortmunder.  And it’s not the anger anymore.

The real fury that had driven Dortmunder on the eventful night, that had fueled his brilliance and expertise in escaping from those cops, was gone now; you can’t stay white-hot mad at somebody forever, no matter what they did.  Between the stuff he’d sold to Stoon, and the unexpectedly large return on the car, he’d cleared almost thirty grand from his encounter with Max Fairbanks, which was probably about three thousand times what the ring was worth.  So did he really want to pursue this vendetta, chase down some jet-setting billionaire who,as Andy had pointed out, would usually be surrounded by all kinds of security?  Or was he ahead now, enough ahead to forget it, get on with his life?

He can’t let this go.  It’s not about getting mad, it’s about getting even, and he can’t do that until he’s got the ring back.  Until he’s undone what Fairbanks did to him.  It’s Dortmunder’s equivalent of that button in Parker’s head you never want to push, because he will just keep coming after you until he’s negated the insult, erased it.  Parker does that by killing whoever pushed the button.  Dortmunder, born in Dead Indian Illinois, will settle for counting coup on the offending party.  A symbolic victory. That will come with a lot more cold hard cash into the bargain.  You can’t eat symbols.

And Max Fairbanks can’t catch a break, all of a sudden.  He had convinced the Carrport cops to keep the burglary quiet, but once John escaped them, that was no longer an option.  The judge overseeing his Chapter 11 proceeding is furious he violated that court order to stay away from the Carrport house.  So he just takes the house away–it’s going to be sold off to pay some of Max’s debts.  Max loved that house, and his rage is incalculable.  He’d like to strangle Dortmunder and the judge both (and the judge isn’t even Mexican).

The more we see of Max Fairbanks, the more we perceive that under his bad boy charm, he’s got a vicious uncontrollable temper.  A button in his own head, you  might say–that gets pushed every time anyone fights back, tells him no, forces him to act like he’s subject to any authority other than his own boundless hungers.   And the angrier he gets, the stupider he gets.  I can’t do that “Why does this sound so familiar?” thing I do, since I’ve already explained why it’s so familiar.   Mr. Westlake was doing his homework.  Would we had done ours a lot sooner.

But this is a comedy, and there’s a limit to how far he wants to push the parallels.  There is someone Max Fairbanks fears, and that’s his wife Lutetia.  Described as having an abundance of black hair and an aggressive way of walking that makes her look like she’s about to crush someone, she knows full well that Max is not faithful to her, but she’ll tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get in the papers, and she doesn’t get any STD’s.  She’s got lawyers of her own, and they are prepared to take Max out hard if he gives her just cause.  She’s not entirely unfond of him, which only shows there’s no accounting for taste.

(She’s also very aware of that temper of his–watching her handle him is a bit like watching a lion tamer act.  She’s the boss, she’s got the chair and whip thing down, but he could still turn and maul her at any moment.  Or anyone else in his way.)

So Max has to stay in New York, and of course he’s going to stay at her palatial apartment above the N-Joy Theater/Hotel in Times Square, a jewel in the crown of his media empire, currently hosting a production of Desdemona!, the feminist musical rewrite of Othello, complete with happy ending, culminating in the show-stopping number “Here’s the Handkerchief!”  (Mr. Westlake not entirely thrilled with Broadway in the 90’s, and it hasn’t improved a whit since then, but it keeps some people I know employed, and the tourists seem happy).

Dortmunder has his opportunity, and he and Kelp case the joint, and for reasons unknown, Andy Kelp gets his own romantic subplot.  Honestly, I think you’d have to say this is the only romantic subplot in the entire series.  The books have many seemingly felicitous domestic relationships, but don’t tend to dwell on them much.  Dortmunder met May between the first and second novels.  Tiny Bulcher and J.C. Taylor became an item between chapters in Good Behavior, and we never saw much of them as a couple afterwards.  Whatever’s going on between Wally Knurr and Myrtle Street, I do not want to know about it.

But starting with the job at the N-Joy Theater, we get a very extended subplot dealing with Kelp’s oddball romance with Anne Marie Carpinaw, who became a regular character in the Dortmunder books, and the only one she ever really contributed much to was this one.  Because she’s a midwestern congressman’s daughter (useful for a later subplot), and her marriage just broke up, and she’s pretty, and nice, and not really that interesting, but she’s looking for something different, and you have to give Andy this much–he’s something different.

But do I want to do a whole lot of analysis of that relationship and its significance in the overall scheme of things?  I do not.  They meet at the hotel bar, her husband has left her, Andy likes what he sees, and she figures what the hell.  And I figure about the same.  Let’s move on.

Dortmunder figures out a way into the Fairbanks apartment.  It’s fun for us to read about. It’s also fun for the string of pros who accompany him–Wally Whistler is the lockman (it’s fun to read about what absent-minded antics he’s been up to since last we saw him).  Gus Brock comes along for the ride–he was perturbed Dortmunder didn’t offer him a cut of the Carrport job Gus had masterminded, even though Gus turned out not to have been such a mastermind in this regard.  Dortmunder says he did all the work on that job, so he gets all the swag, but Gus can come along on this new job, just to show there’s no hard feelings.

By the time they leave the apartment, crammed with all kinds of priceless arts & crafts that a good fence will know how to put a price on, Gus says he and Dortmunder are square. They take it all out in the maid’s cart, and stow it in the room Dortmunder reserved for himself and May with a bogus credit card obtained from Arnie Albright (before she prudently left the hotel, prior to the heist taking place, May and Anne Marie began to become friends).

Gus is happy, Wally Whistler is happy, Kelp is ecstatically happy.  Only Dortmunder is not happy, because Max Fairbanks left–with Dortmunder’s ring–just as they were breaking in through the service elevator.  Lutetia insisted on going with Max, who is taking a last nostalgic look at the Carrport house (so Max won’t get to bring any more floozies there). They had a nice time there, almost like a real married couple. So she’s happy–until she gets back to her looted apartment.  Then she’s very decidedly unhappy.  And this means Max Fairbanks is unhappy.  And starting to get a little scared.  How is this happening to him?  And with his lucky ring still firmly ensconced on his finger!

And to make things worse, NYPD Police Detective, Bernard Klematsky (Andy’s old friend at the police department, who we’ve met in two previous books) is interviewing him almost as if he, Max Fairbanks, is a suspect in the burglary of his own home!  The Carrport police never dared suggest any such thing with regards to the burglary of his other home, but the NYPD is not a small town police force, and they don’t impress so easy.

Max doesn’t come out and ask Detective Klematsky “Do you know who I am?”, but he’s very obviously thinking it.  And the fact is, there are some things relating to these incidents that he can’t really explain to the detective, which just makes everything seem so much more suspicious than it really is.  And Klematsky is well aware, like everybody else on the planet, that Max Fairbanks just declared bankruptcy.

The absurdity of Klematsky’s suspicions, now that Max finally understood what they were, was so extreme that no wonder it hadn’t occurred to him what horsefeathers filled the Klematsky brain.  His own wealth and, in this instance, comparative innocence, combined with the distraction of thoughts about the burglar, had kept him from grasping Klematsky’s implications before this.  Now, astounded, horrified, amused, pointing at himself, Max said, “Do you think I committed these burglaries?  Hired them done?  For the insurance?”

“I don’t think anything yet,” Klematsky said.  “I’m just looking at the scenarios.”

“You should be looking at a padded cell,” Max told him.  “You think because I’m in bankruptcy court–?  Do you really believe I’m poor?  You–You–I could buy and sell a thousand of you!”

“Maybe you could buy and sell a thousand,” Klematsky said, unruffled, “but they wouldn’t be me.”

Well said, and Detective Klematsky is certainly a keen judge of character, but he is barking up the wrong tree here.  And normally, Max Fairbanks doesn’t have to worry much about the law, even when he really is breaking it.  Something’s gone wrong with his world, and he can’t understand it.   This kind of thing just doesn’t happen to him.  He’s been bragging to everybody about how he stole this thief’s ring right off his finger, and it is just now beginning to dawn on him that might have been a mistake–but Max Fairbanks doesn’t make mistakes.  He certainly doesn’t admit to them.  He just keeps doubling down, until he wins.  It’s always worked for him before.

And now he’s got to head for Washington, to face a congressional hearing.  Nothing dangerous for him in that, he’s just trying to get them to get rid of this entertainment luxury tax that is hampering him in his endless pursuit of wealth creation (who he is creating said wealth for, and how, is of course not relevant to the matter at hand).  He sarcastically remarks that maybe the congressmen broke into his apartment on his behalf.  “Wouldn’t surprise me,” Klematsky responds.  Well, it would be surprising if they didn’t get caught.

If Max Fairbanks is going to testify before congress, the world knows about it.  If the world knows about it, so does Wally Knurr, and well in advance of most people.  If Wally Knurr knows, certain other people know as well.  And if Frank Capra had made heist films, this would have been one of his best.  Mr. Dortmunder Goes to Washington.  He’s going to show G. Gordon Liddy and those Cubans how you do a little burglary at the Watergate.  We’re just about halfway through the book here.  I’ll try not to filibuster too long over Part 2.  Enjoy the debate.  Sheahright.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Don’t Ask

 “It’s just that I have to keep in mind,” Dortmunder explained, “what it says across the bottom of my family crest.”

Tiny lowered an eyebrow; in fact, half an entire forehead.  “And what’s that, Dortmunder?

‘Quid lucrum istic mihi est?’

“Meaning?”

“What’s in it for me?”

Everybody seemed to like this book when it first came out.  There was, one senses, an almost audible collective sigh of relief upon its release.  At last, back to doing what he’s supposed to do!   Even the previous Dortmunder was a bit too dark (and bizarrely long, much like my review of it).   Lighten up, Westlake!

The New York Times delivered, as always, the official verdict– “In this era of thrillers about serial killers and child molesters, Mr. Westlake’s psychology-free capers are balm for the nerves. “Don’t Ask” is one of his best.”  And let’s just forget all about the last book hardly anyone read about Armageddon and God and Demons and really bad things happening to really good people.

I mean, after you’d spent much of your life writing scores of brilliantly insightful books about the human quest for self-understanding, some comic, some decidedly not, how would you feel about being referred to as ‘psychology-free’?  No doubt there’s a compliment in there somewhere, and Westlake never did cotton much to psychiatrists as such, but motivating his characters, explaining the choices they made, was his primary goal as a storyteller.  Most people never got that.  Even those who were ostensibly paid to get it.

David Bratman, in his great groundbreaking collection of thumbnail Westlake reviews, had this to say about it, years later–

The eighth Dortmunder novel, a successful mixture of light comedy and something entirely new to the Dortmunder series. Once again, there’s a sacred object disputed between two countries, and as in The Hot Rock Dortmunder is hired by one country to steal it from the other. This time the two countries are Slavic, and the object (which again is in New York) is a saint’s relic, a holy bone. Once again, the object must be stolen several times, lost each time for reasons reminiscent of those in The Hot Rock. What saves this book from being a retread is the freshness of the writing, and the new tone of the second half of the book. Having been tricked and bamboozled by his antagonists, Dortmunder decides, in his last attempt on the bone, to wreak a thorough revenge and embarrassment on them — and he succeeds. At last, he is no longer purely a sad sack. It’s richly satisfying.

Except that’s a retread as well–a vengeful Dortmunder was featured in both The Hot Rock  and Why Me?–what’s different here is that he’s planning an elaborate caper with multiple confederates to exact retribution.  Far more ambitious, to be sure, but it’s the same pattern we’ve seen before, adapted from Parker–Dortmunder gets mad, Dortmunder gets even.  He won’t kill you.  He’ll just make you wish he had.

He was never purely a sad sack.  Westlake told a variety of stories in the early years of the series, and sometimes it suited the story to have Dortmunder lose from beginning to end (Jimmy the Kid comes to mind, and that of course was adapted from The Ransom of Red Chief), but more often his good and bad luck, his good and bad ideas, all balanced each other out–he’d win some and he’d lose some, and he’d live to steal another day.  Good Behavior was probably his most triumphant exploit to date, not this book.

In fact, he loses quite a bit here (including the loot).  But what he’s mainly losing, sad to say, is my attention.  I enjoyed this novel the first time I read it (it is, in many ways, the most generically representative of the Dortmunders, containing basically every key element from the series as a whole).  I was looking forward to reviewing it here, but on second reading, I found my opinion of it would shift radically from chapter to chapter–I’d get into it, then find my attention lagging. So many good moments, so many ingenious contrivances, but even admitting that there had always been some necessary and enjoyable repetition in the series, there’s far too much of it here, and what’s more, Westlake knows it.  The conviction isn’t there.

He’s going through the motions.  In a manner more clever and creative than most writers could ever aspire to, but as fertile as his imagination remains, his heart isn’t quite in it this time.  And I still think this one merits an electronic edition–other than the one after it, this seems to be the only Dortmunder not currently available on Kindle–except it is in Germany.  What’s that about?  Don’t ask.

Maybe Westlake wasn’t quite ready to get back to Dortmunder yet (it had been just about exactly three years since the last one), but he probably had no choice–he had to make bank, for himself and his loyal publisher, after several recently failed attempts to expand his options as a writer.  Hence Dortmunder, his only available fallback position with Parker out of the picture (so maybe time to start thinking about getting Parker back?).

Hence the next book in our queue as well, another sequel that fails to live up to what came before it–both books having quite a lot in the way of keen social observation in them, something Westlake was still vitally interested in, and that keeps either book from being a total loss.  But when it comes to the characters, I’m just not feeling it, which I of course interpret as him not feeling it either. Yes, you may roll your eyes now at Fred the Psychic Book Reviewer, Spirit Medium to dead mystery authors.

But ask yourself this, oh skeptics–if he felt he’d done this story full justice, why would he basically rehash the latter half of it in the very next Dortmunder, three years after this one came out?   Like a dog with a bone was Donald Westlake with an imperfectly executed idea.

Much as the 90’s marked a return to greatness for him, the first half of that decade was a discouraging process of trial & error.  And yeah, I think his attitude towards writing this book–and several subsequent Dortmunders (though not the next one)–fell very much along the lines of Quid lucrum istic mihi est?  What was in it for him was money, of course–and breathing space.

It’s a fairly long book, and I could stretch it out, but I’m not making any bank here, and I’m mainly going to focus on the things that do feel inspired, and therefore inspire me.  That’s my quid pro quo.   No synopsis, or a very incomplete one, anyway.  We’ve heard it all before.  What was good enough for Dancing Aztecs (a much better book about New York and its environs) will do fine for this one.   I think I’ll start out with–

A Dubious Dedication:

Westlake dedicates this novel, ‘in awe and admiration,’ to Robert Redford, George C. Scott, Paul LeMat, and Christopher Lambert,  ‘Dortmunders all, and who would have guessed.’   You really wouldn’t think it would be that hard a role to cast appropriately, would you?  Unless you read a lot of Dortmunder novels, in which case you’d realize that it’s entirely appropriate that the movie adaptations never, and I mean ever, work out.   Moving on to–

Kelp the Climatologist:

Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City–“If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews”–and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling on happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles.  Cold drips.  “My ankles are freezing,” he announced.  As if anybody cared

“Nobody’s gonna freeze anymore,” Kelp assured him.  “Not with global warming.”

Dortmunder is all for it, and decides to hasten the process by turning off the air conditioning, only he actually turned off the refrigeration unit, and by the time they get the fish to the Long Island restaurateur illicitly buying them (ever notice how often Dortmunder does theft for hire?), the entire load is spoiled, and Dortmunder has screwed up his own heist.  Can’t even blame Kelp this time.  Though he really wants to.

And if it hadn’t been for the ferocious summer heat, combined with the now-unavoidable traffic jams, probably this wouldn’t have happened.  Dortmunder is once more confirmed in his deep philosophical divide with Kelp.  Change is not good.  But Kelp the climatologist still looks forward hopefully to the death of winter, and somehow never quite grasps what summer would be like by then.  Or else maybe he loves hellishly muggy days, who knows?  He can have all of mine.

So now Dortmunder could really use a good score, to make up for this humiliating failure, and then he and the rest of the gang get a call from Tiny Bulcher, who has a problem for them to solve, namely–

The Osteology of Votskojek (grrrrr–and apologies to E.B. White):

“Tsergovia,” Dortmunder said.  “I never heard of it.”  He glanced at Kelp, who shook his head, and at Stan, who said, “If it isn’t in the five boroughs, I never heard of it.”

Tiny said, “This poor little country, it really got screwed around with over the years.  It was independent for a long time in the Middle Ages, and then it got to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one time it was almost a part of Albania, except over the mountains, and later on the Commies put it together with this other crap country, Votskojek–”

Grijk growled.

“–and called it something else, but now the Commies are out, that whole Eastern European thing is coming apart, and Tsergovia’s becoming its own country again.”

“Free at last,” Grijk said.

“So it’s gonna be a real different country,” Tiny said, “from when my grandparents decided to get the hell out of…”  He frowned and turned to his cousin.  “What was the name of that place again?”

“Styptia,” Grijk said.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Tiny agreed.  “My ancestral village home.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina were (was?) recognized as an independent nation by the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations, about a year before this book made it to stores. The result was not peace and prosperity for that tiny nation, but one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern European history (and that’s saying something).

I don’t know when Westlake began work on Don’t Ask, but almost certainly before the shooting started, and I rather think he would have chosen another region if he’d known that was going to happen so soon (we’re told the two statelets are in the Carpathians, not the Balkans–given that all that separates the two ranges is a river, and both border Serbia, it’s kind of a moot point).  But he definitely saw the problems presented to parts of Central Europe by the break-up of the Soviet Union.   He knew there were a lot of ‘countries’ on the old maps that only existed on paper, and were only being held together by force.

So he imagines this scenario where two tiny nations in what was apparently a hybrid nation very much like Yugoslavia are each vying to be recognized by UN, and what will give one of them the edge is having the thigh bone of a saint revered by both.  Both claim to have it, but Votskojek (grrrrrr) actually does, and is in the process of proving it scientifically, in their embassy, an old freighter moored on the East River, alongside Manhattan.   Dortmunder & Co. are to steal the bone, so Tsergovia can say they had it all along.

This is a funny part of the book, particularly the part where the narrator gives us the unfortunate history of St. Ferghana, the far-from-virtuous daughter of a family of thieves and murderers, who saw the light and tried to reform them, and ended up dead for her pains–she whose preserved femur serves as the bone of contention here.

But it’s maybe a bit too Ruritanian in its approach (maybe?  there were goddam rape camps!).  Real life events overtook the fictional ones in this story (not the first time this had happened in Westlake’s career), and it’s not so funny to hear Tiny’s cousin Grijk (whose name only Dortmunder can pronounce correctly) say that the people in these two little countries would need only the slightest provocation to start slaughtering each other like sheep.

Votskojek (grrrrr…) is pretty clearly a slimmed-down Serbia, and yet what’s Tsergovia?  A cut-back Croatia?  Where do the Bosnian Muslims fit in?  I’m sure the satire was never intended to be that direct–and back when most Americans barely knew these countries existed, that was fine.  If it had been written a decade earlier, we’d call it prescient–now it just seems a bit–irrelevant.  And nobody cared when it came out, because the Dortmunder books were supposed to be irrelevant.  Westlake loved to sneak political messages into nonpolitical books, but his timing was off here.

The great tragedy of the Balkans conflict was that all the major players were guilty of horrendous war crimes (or of only selectively condemning them), and the people got crushed between them all.  And for once, the United States getting involved in a foreign civil war turned out to be a good thing.  So the fight between these two little nonexistent countries over which one gets recognized by the UN seems to me a bit too trite and beside the point.  Again, I think he was too far into the book to fix it by the time the outlines of the war became clear.

And yet so much funny dialogue–

Tiny continued: Also by that time you got two religions involved.  You got the regular Roman Catholic Church out of Rome that said the leg was a saint to begin with.  I mean, the girl was the saint, the whole girl.  And then there was a schism, the Eastern Unorthodox,”

Stan said, “Jewish, you mean.”

“No, no,” Tiny said, waving a big meaty hand.  “There’s no Jews around there.”

“Dere was vun,” Grijk siad, “bud he went to Belgrade.  Or Lvov, maybe.  Somevere.  Anyway, now we godda get our suits from Hong Kong.  It ain’d da same.”

Yeah, something tells me there’s more to that story, Grijk.   But to me, by far the most interesting (and neglected) story in this book by far is–

The Founding of The Great Nation of Maylohda:

Banks don’t give loans to people,” Stan said in the tones of outrage he usually reserved for traffic jams.  “My Mom knows some cabdrivers, can’t get any kind of loan.  Working stiffs, good credit.  Taxi loan, house mortgage, home improvement, refinancing, you name it, you can forget it.”

“Oh no, no, no,” Grijk said, “not if you’re a pipple.  Pipples don’t ged no money from a bank.  Bud if you’re a country, no problem.”

Tiny said, “I looked into this with Grijk, and it’s true.  There’s countries haven’t even paid the vigorish on their loans in nobody remembers how long, never mind the main money, and the banks go ahead and loan them some more, anyway.”

J.C., more interested in this conversation than she’d expected to be, said, “How do I get to be a country?”

Grijk took that as a serious question, having recently gone through the experience himself. “First,” he answered, “You have a var.”

Okay, confession time–one of my personal grudges against this novel is that it’s the first time we’ve seen the magnificent Josephine Carol Taylor since her debut in Good Behavior, and she has her own rather brilliant subplot–and it’s shamefully brief.  Inspired by Grijk using Tsergovia’s credit to pay the gang members something in advance for their services, she tells Tiny she’s got something to do, vacates the apartment they share, and sets off to set herself up as a nation.  The nation of Maylohda (she explains later that her Noo Yawk accent makes her pronounce her usual post office based venue for chicanery that way).

This might have made a good book in its own right, or at least a much more substantial subplot, and do we get to see J.C. strut her stuff with the United Nations and the World Bank, and etc?  Do we even get to see her fabricate a ‘var’? Nope.  She just tells the gang all about it (over the course of three pages) when she gets back.  It makes a good final flourish to the book, but it could have been a lot more.

It does tie up one plot thread–Maylohda will happily buy Tsergovia’s rock, its only export, using borrowed money (with J.C. skimming off the top), and dump it somewhere in the Atlantic, thus providing much-needed hard currency for the struggling statelet, and many a good time for her and Tiny.  She figures maybe someday there’ll actually be some land there if they do that long enough.  It’s not enough of a pay-off for me.  She deserved better, and that mainly continued to be true for the rest of the series.  I read this passage, from inside Ms. Taylor’s febrile female brain, and I mourn what might have been.

A cacophony of countries, a mob, a milling throng, a legion of nations.  Who would have guessed there were so many mother and father lands?  You could hide in a crowd like that.

And do what?

Westlake’s longstanding interest in small nations, all those obscure flags that even your average Jeopardy! champion couldn’t pick out of a lineup, does get a vigorous workout here, and it’s fun to see.  Just not developed enough.  Too many irons in the fire to make it work.  And speaking of torture–

Dortmunder’s Not-So-Extraordinary Rendition:

Oh, is there no story to cover this?  Let’s see:

“I’m an undercover CIA agent, infiltrating the Tsergovian secret police, and…”

“I had amnesia!  Wait a minute, my past life is coming back to me!  The year is 1977, and I live in Roslyn, Long Island, with my dear wife, Andreotta, and our two charming children, uh…”

“FBI!  You’re all under arrest!”

“Thank God you understood those signals I was sending.  Those bloodthirsty fiends kidnapped my mother and forced me to help them in their evil…”

“My left leg is artificial and filled with dynamite.  If you don’t release me at the count…”

“Whu–Where am I?  Who are all you people?”

The first heist fails, as you’d expect, since it involves water, boats, and Dortmunder.  So much intricate use of Manhattan/Brooklyn geography here, and it’s enjoyable, as always. The embassy is in an old freighter, as mentioned, docked by an old abandoned ferry station. Dortmunder has to get off the tugboat they’re using to scope the place, because he’s seasick.

The ambassador, an oily customer named Hradec Kralowc, empathizes with Dortmunder’s mal de rio (he came to America on that very freighter).  He has no reason to suspect this queasy-looking person of any nefarious designs, and is proud of his cushy riverfront ambassadorial digs, so he shows him the whole place, shows him where they’ve got the bone, shows him exactly how to steal it, and man isn’t Dortmunder lucky?   And what always follows Dortmunder having some good luck?

Dortmunder pretends to be interested in visiting Votskojek (grrrrr) as a tourist, which has Hradec all agog–they’ve never had any foreign visitors on purpose before, unless they were invading (for the record, I would love to visit the Balkans, as long as they weren’t killing each other too much while I was there).   Dortmunder works out a scheme to distract the security guards (hired from the Continental Detective Agency, we’ll get to that), while he distracts the embassy staff, and Kelp sneaks in from the river and nabs the relic.

So what happens is, they get the bone, but they lose Dortmunder, and then they lose the bone to the DEA, which impounds the boat they ‘borrowed’ from a guy who used it to smuggle drugs–with the bone still in it.   Meanwhile, Dortmunder is now in the hands of some very unhappy Vostkojekians.  Vostkojites?   Never mind.  And grrrr.

(This whole episode marks the beginning of a running gag in the series that I for one could have lived quite well without–Dortmunder has to come up with a false name for himself when he first meets Hradec, and on the spur of the moment, he calls himself Diddums.  John Diddums.  It’s Welsh. No it bloody well is not. There is an old English name, Diddams, and there is also an expression of sympathy used with small children “Aw, diddums skin your widdle knee?”  That sort of thing.  Point is, Dortmunder went on using this alias throughout this book, and several subsequent books, and he always feels obliged to tell people the name is Welsh.  And I guess somebody must have enjoyed this, but it never got so much as a chuckle out of me.  Aw, diddums not like the widdle Diddums joke?)

And here begins Dortmunder’s less than extraordinary rendition, because Hradec needs that bone, and is prepared to go to any lengths to get it, other than actually killing or torturing anyone, which is one of the reasons I have a hard time believing Westlake wrote this thing after the Bosnian conflict was all over the papers.  Yes, I know, it’s a Dortmunder novel, but c’mon.

Dortmunder is introduced to a mad scientist who goes by the name of Dr. Zorn, who dabbles in trying to make inedible substances into food, but his main specialty seems to be the less polite forms of interrogation.  And there is a brief gem of character writing for Dortmunder here–

Thoughts of truth serum flashed through his mind.  How would his system react to truth serum?  Wouldn’t it be like an antibody inside him?  Would his vital parts survive such an invasion?

He never finds out, because Dr. Zorn doesn’t believe in the stuff, and just slips him the old Mickey Finn.  Dortmunder wakes up in a cell, which he is told is located inside Votskojek (grrrrr?). He is somewhat abused by the guards, but not really.  He is fed some unpalatable-looking green substance, but he is fed.  So that he should understand that his employer, whoever that is, has been filling his head with foul propaganda, he is given a tour of the rustic lovely countryside and charming (Potemkin) village life of Votskojek, but no ‘grrrrr’ this time, because guess what?  The crappy Soviet-era car they’re driving runs out of gas, he escapes his captors, and then he finds out he’s in Vermont.  Those fiends!  The Hague shall hear of this!  And maybe Ben & Jerry!

And here is where the trigger in Dortmunder’s head, no less implacable than Parker’s, is irretrievably set off.  No, they didn’t actually hurt him.  Yes, they had a right to try and get their bone back, that’s all within the rules of the game.  But they made a fool out of him.   Dortmunder already has to live with the fact that he is Fortune’s Favorite Fool. He has to put up with that, God being safely out of range.  He doesn’t have to take it from mere mortals.  He will be revenged on the whole pack of them.

An interesting side-note to this whole episode is that at no time does Dortmunder come close to telling what he knows–partly because he doesn’t think it’ll do him any good, partly because that would mean telling tales on Tiny Bulcher, but mainly because the entire scheme, borrowed variously from 36 Hours, Mission Impossible, and Westlake’s own Ex Officio, has a crucial defect.  They think he did this bonehead burglary out of misplaced belief in the just cause of Tsergovia, when in fact he was only in it for the money.   They’ve been wallowing in nationalist zealotry so long, they can’t understand a man who can scarcely be said to have any national loyalties at all.  Unless you count New York City as a nation.

The problem was, Hradec never did understand Diddums.  He neither knew nor understood that Diddums was a prisoner and knew exactly how to be a prisoner.  Hradec acted throughout as though he were dealing with an amateur, but Diddums was a pro, from his expressionless face to his barely moving feet, and would not be impressed.

All that talk, all those displays of cooling towers and happy peasants.  The man Hradec called Diddums cared nothing about any of that.  A prisoner does one of two things: (1) he goes along or (2) he escapes.  That’s all there is.  His keepers give orders, he obeys them.  He doesn’t think; he doesn’t argue; he doesn’t engage in philosophical discussion.  He does exactly what he’s told, and all of his concentration remains exclusively on watching for a chance to move onto (2).  Then he sees an opening, and he coldcocks the economist from Yale, and he’s gone.

Anyway, while all this is going on, Dortmunder’s comrades have not forgotten him (well, Tiny kind of has, but he does that, and J.C. isn’t around to shame him into a rescue mission).   Kelp has not forgotten, not least because his lousy timing in snatching the bone (it wasn’t his fault!) led to Dortmunder’s capture.  But of course he doesn’t know where Dortmunder is.  He does find out where the bone is, and the chapters dealing with that may be the best part of this book, as I shall now detail in–

Fox and Pig Are Friends:

Andy Kelp’s head appeared over the top edge of the ventilation tower.  Fox eyes in a fox face scanned the darkness.  It was two in the morning, and while the dishonest burglar in the ventilation tower conned the scene, the honest burghers of Governor’s Island lay peacefully asleep in their beds, dreaming of strikes and spares. (Some were having nightmares about splits).

This book sees the reintroduction of Kelp’s cynical cop confidante, Bernard Klematsky of the NYPD, last seen in Why Me?   He knows very well what Andy does for a living, and he’d happily jail him for it given half a chance, but he figures that it’s good to know people in that line of work for both professional and recreational reasons–Andy can provide information, and he can also pay for the sumptious meals the penurious policeman loves to eat but never wants to pay for.   Klematsky never picked up a check in his life, and no point starting now.

It was Italian food last time, long a favorite of Mr. Westlake’s, but there’s a new kid in town, namely Thai food, which Bernard says he loves because they put peanut butter on everything.  Andy is skeptical, but ends up finding it rather good (without the peanut butter), and cheaper than Italian, even with that pricey bottle of wine Bernard ordered thrown in.

No matter how good the chow is, however weighty the check, Bernard won’t knowingly aid and abet Andy in the commission of a felony, but with a great deal of dancing on ethical pinheads, Andy convinces him that all he wants is the location of an item that belongs to him anyway, that he won’t be able to claim through regular channels.  Well, let’s say Bernard, happily sated, agrees to be convinced, and with just one phone call he finds out where the DEA stashes impounded boats–which is Governor’s Island, site of a Coast Guard station, a self-enclosed community that lives its own bucolic surburban existence off the coast of Manhattan, bowling alley, golf course, and all.  A brief history lesson (one of what seems like a dozen or so in this book) follows apace–

Just five hundred yards south of the island of MANHATTAN (qv) and even closer to the onetime proud city of BROOKLYN (qv) across Buttermilk Channel, but nevertheless governmentally considered a part of the borough of MANHATTAN (qv), lies a darling button of an island that the Indians called Pagganck, which seems unkind, but there you are.

In 1637, some enterprising Dutchmen bought the island from the Manhatas Indians (so that’s why!) for two ax heads and a handful of nails and beads, and changed its name to Nutten, which wasn’t much of an improvement.  But they were still a lot sharper than those other Dutchmen who bought Manhattan itself from the Canarsie Indians, who didn’t own it, but were just passing through and knew a live one when they saw a live one.

The Dutch held on to Nutten only twenty-seven years before the British adopted it, not paying nobody for Nutten, and changed its name to Governor’s Island, because the governor of the colony of New York was going to live there.  And so he did.  The first one, Lord Cornbury, was asked to leave when he insisted on wandering around in lady’s clothing and instituted a bachelor’s tax, but some of the others kept a lower profile and would surely be proud to learn they are utterly forgotten.

(The parenthetical qv’s refer the reader to a brief footnote saying these are mere historical asides, and not for credit, so I shall not bother to find out if Westlake is making any of this up, and odds are he’s not, because when it comes to New York City history, the stranger it sounds, the more accurate it is likely to be).

So clearly not a good idea to invade the Coast Guard by sea–happily, the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel goes directly beneath the island, and there is a ventilation tower from the tunnel below that pokes right up through to the surface.   And then Kelp’s foxy face pokes right up through that, while Stan Murch waits down below, and he finagles his foxy way around the totally unguarded island until he finds the sacred relic, sacrilegiously deposited in a garbage can near the impounded boat.  He wipes it off and kisses it hello, the late Saint being no doubt grateful for the smooch.  What’s left of her.  I think that’s worth a Papal dispensation, at least.

And since Dortmunder is now free, this would normally mean the story is over, the gang can claim the rest of their fee, and nobody is going to care that Dortmunder wants his revenge, but there’s something funny about the unenthused way Grijk accepts delivery of the bone, and Murch figures something’s rotten in the sovereign storefront of Tsergovia (their embassy is in a ‘taxpayer’, an unimpressive structure erected to host small stores until the owners of the land can think of something better).

He’s right.  Hradec had their phones bugged, learned of the impending delivery, and the entire embassy staff was being held at gunpoint until perfidious Votskojek (grrrrr!) once more had that blasted bone in their possession.  All that effort achieved precisely nothing–except to make John Dortmunder extremely angry.   And an angry Dortmunder is a curious Dortmunder.  How did they manage to find all those spots in Vermont to double as prisons and castles and villages in Central Europe, complete with guards and colorfully garbed locals?  How could such an elaborate ruse be possible for such a cash-strapped little country?  Answer–

Hilton, Helmsley–meet Hochman:

For a man like Harry Hochman, Eastern Europe in its current post-Soviet disarray was a kind of wonderful Christmas present, a model-train set all for him,; some assembly required.  And Votskojek was the centerpiece.  Once it was securely enconced in its proper traditional United  Nations seat, once its economic treaties with its neighbors were in place, that little landlocked barren boulder in the Carpathians would become Harry Hochman’s stepping stone to Europe.  All of Europe.

Harry Hochman was Hradec’s benefactor–his literally palatial home in Vermont was the castle Dortmunder saw, he owns all the various places Dortmunder had been kept in, and since he maintains a small summer theater there, getting actors to play menacing guards and such was simplicity itself.

I think he’s more Helmsley than Hilton–his wife Adele sounds a whole lot like the fabled Leona, only not so mean (maybe that came later?).   But basically, he’s a composite figure, and the first real tycoon-type Dortmunder has come up against–first of several.  But he’s not really developed well enough to be a suitable nemesis, coming along so late in the book–this is one of the problems Westlake would fix in later stories.

Dortmunder finds out about Hochman from the despondent Tservogians, who have files on him–and when Tiny asks what’s the point of revenge–what about his family motto, as seen up top?–Dortmunder points out that the Hochman estate in Vermont is the site of an art collection worth about six million dollars.   Dortmunder has his army.  Now he just needs a plan.

Fugue in D Major:

For the first but not last time, we see Dortmunder go into a sort of waking trance, a fugue state if you will, where he is piecing together a very elaborate plan–and he doesn’t like this, we’re told–great plans should be simple–but this one needs to be baroque.  Because it’s not just a heist, but a sting he’s working out here, and he’s stretching past his normal thought processes, inspired by his fury.

He says he thinks he’s got a corner of something.  But he spends a lot of time staring off into space.  Because, you see, he needs to solve a whole lot of problems here–how to get the bone, how to make sure Tsergovia can properly claim it, how to make sure both Hochman and Hradek suffer horribly for their insult to him, how to get all that art and then get paid off for it (two entirely different things, since fencing famous objets d’art isn’t something Dortmunder’s regular contacts can do).

Shall I explain how he does all that?  Nah.  Read the book.  If you already have, read it again (even a sub-par Dortmunder is still a Dortmunder).  Point is, he does it.  A brilliant heist, a brilliant scam, and everything works out perfectly.  Except, of course, they lose the art to the law.  Which all ties back to the beginning of the book.

They get some cash up front from a somewhat shady art dealer who was negotiating with the insurance company on their behest, so they did okay, but no big score like last time.  And Dortmunder doesn’t care, because this was about satisfying honor.  He got his own back, with interest.  He does his tormentors the dirty about a thousand times worse than they did him.

Dr. Zorn the torturer suffers the Chinese water torture (which it turns out is a thing) in his secret laboratory in the burned out Bronx, and by the time it’s done, he will never be the same again.  He can dish it out, but he can’t take it, nyah.

Hradec Kralowc, the proud womanizer, is publicly labeled a homosexual deviant (in the 1990’s?   We were a little more advanced by then, weren’t we?) Dortmunder makes everybody other than his long-suffering wife believe he’s having an affair with Dr. Zorn.  This joke fell a little flat with me, it’s not like the guy was any kind of homophobe, and we never see him do anything that dastardly.   But it’s a necessary part of getting the crusty old Archbishop in charge of awarding the UN seat to change sides.  Okay, he would definitely not be advanced on that subject.  Oh, and Hradec also gets framed for the art theft, and the bone-napping, and has to return to Votskojek (grrrrr) in disgrace.

And Harry Hochman will be answering questions for years to come about where he got all that stolen art from, and since many of his answers will never be fully satisfactory, he will have other things to ponder than the conquest of Europe.   Which technically I think Conrad Hilton had already conquered, but never mind that now.

It’s fun.  It’s clever.   It’s a great idea for a Dortmunder story.  And it’s too busy.  There are too many threads.   There are a few too many mean-spirited jokes (and this is not, in the main, a series that specializes in mean-spirited humor).  Like Zara Kotor the hulking homely Tsergovian diplomat–a female Tiny Bulcher, who falls for the male one, and keeps throwing herself at him, while he retreats in terror, until she finds out he’s living with the beautiful J.C. Taylor, and her hopes are dashed.  Was that really quite necessary?  I feel certain H.L. Mencken would not have approved.  And “Eastern Bloc Women Not in Spy Thrillers Are Ugly” was surely a meme well past its sell-by date, and was never remotely true.

An awful lot of this book isn’t really necessary, and the beautiful thing about a great Dortmunder novel is that every last bit of it is necessary.   Why are there so many false notes here?   Why did the piece as a whole not play sonorously for me on the second hearing?  Because, I believe, the frustrated composer was not in the mood to write this composition.  Sure, he enjoyed writing this or that part of it, as I’ve enjoyed writing this or that part of this review, but the process as a whole was more of a chore than anything else.  He wanted to be more than The Dortmunder Guy, and people were talking like that’s all he was.

Even the title–Don’t Ask?  Why not?   Because if you did, you might find there isn’t really much of a meaning behind that title, or much of one behind this book, either.  Where’s the identity puzzles?  Okay, Hradec not comprehending Dortmunder’s true nature, but that’s hardly enough.  J.C. playing with becoming a nation of one, but that’s barely touched upon in the book.

The previous book in the series had several characters created especially for it, each going through major crises/transitions in their lives, creating rich material for the novelist.  But here Westlake is concentrating pretty much entirely on already-established characters–because that’s what people want from him. That’s why he basically trots out nearly every regular character from the series to date here, which I don’t think he ever did again.

And the problem with established characters is that they’re–you know–established.  Identity puzzles are harder to craft from a fixed identity, characters that never change, because we don’t want them to.  So from that perspective, this is the least satisfying Dortmunder novel to date–for me, and perhaps Westlake as well.  I can only speak for me.  It’s not necessarily the worst–that’s probably still Nobody’s Perfect.  But I enjoyed writing that review more.   If only because my expectations were lower.

So apologies to those who like this one–I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying I was, when I earlier referred to this as a great Dortmunder novel.  It’s merely the outer shell of one.  The ineffable essence of the series is not quite here, somehow.  Because Mr. Westlake’s heart was elsewhere when he was writing it.   Where might that be, you ask?  No, that’s okay, you can ask.

Not with our next book either, I think, but I’m rereading it now, and I may well write a slightly more positive appraisal than I thought I would–if only slightly. I’ve figured out which past book he reworked to make this one, and it’s not the one you think.  And I rather hope to finish that review in one go as well.  Because the Mid-to-Late 90’s beckon, with treasures beyond compare.  And we shall be there in only a few weeks time.  Mes enfants, would I dissemble?

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels