Category Archives: John Dortmunder novels

Review: What’s So Funny?, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Criminal lawyers, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolated Porn:

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

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

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

Brady reared back. “Already? No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.

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

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

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

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

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

“Crap,” Johnny announced.

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

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

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

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

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

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

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

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

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

But would you believe in–

The Wicked Witch of the East Side:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”

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

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I remember that.”

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

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

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

“Gold Castle, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching The Detectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parkeur Brothers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

“Who’s out there?”

Nobody nobody nobody.

“Is somebody out there?”

Absolutely not.

“I’m calling the cops!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What basement door?”

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

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

“What else could I do?”

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

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

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

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

“It was easier for me.”

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

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

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

“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”

“Come on, Andy.”

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

“Their extra garage door opener.”

Kelp reared back. “Their what?”

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

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

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

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

En Poe-sant:

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

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

Kelp said, “I like checkers.”

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: What’s So Funny?

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

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

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

(Donald Westlake did not write this.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crusher Conundrum:

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

“The vault,” Dortmunder said.

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

“Those are castles,” Stan said.

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

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

Stan said, “They look alike.”

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

Stan nodded. “Maybe it’s a typo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ode to a Mouse:

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murch’s Muddled Mecca:

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

“The dome,” Stan said.

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

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

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

“Fifteen feet across, twelve feet high.”

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

“With the crane, like you said.”

“And where you gonna stash this thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

Judson said, “It is?”

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

Fearing the worst, May said, “John?”

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Transgressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking The Line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

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

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Querk said, “What is this?”

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

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeez,” Querk said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Watch Your Back!, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Filched from The Official Westlake Blog.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida in August Sucks For Everyone:

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

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

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

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

Rochester-Optical-Peerless

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

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

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

“No,” Dortmunder admitted.

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

“I think I do,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, You Take Manhattan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals:

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

“Sure,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Dortmunder said.

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

“Eye contact.”

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

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

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

“I guess not.”

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

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

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

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

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

Intermezzo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know that much.”

“Ballantine?” hazarded the third regular.

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

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

“No, it’s something foreign.”

“Molson,” tried the first regular.

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

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

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

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

The droopy-nosed guy said, “Heineken?”

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

“No.”

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

“Amstel?”

“No!”

“Dos Equis.”

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

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

“Dortmund!” he suddenly cried.

They all looked at him.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah! That’s his name! Dortmund.”

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Broadsword?:

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

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

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

Only The Young Die Rich:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Judson,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

Judson looked around at them all, tongue-tied.

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

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

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

Dortmunder said, “What’s it a picture of, Judson?”

“Two young guys stealing a pig.”

Tiny said, “That’s what goes for just under a mil? Two guys stealing a pig?”

“It’s nice,” Judson said. “You can see they’re having fun.”

“More than we are,” Tiny said. Dortmunder said, “Judson, where is this picture now?”

“In my desk in J. C.’s office.”

Tiny said, “I tell you what, kid. You were gonna get a piece of what we got, but we no longer got what we got, so now we are gonna get a piece of what you got.”

“That seems fair,” Kelp said.

Again Judson sighed. Then he said, “Maybe I can take a picture of it.”

“Good idea,” Dortmunder agreed.

(Ah, what a world it would be if art only belonged to those who most appreciated it, instead of merely the philistines who can afford it.  Actually, there’s a pretty good heist movie about that, called Artworks, and Virginia Madsen shows a hell of a lot of skin in it, so check her, I mean it, out.)

Like many another supporting character in the Dortmunders who isn’t one of the core crew, Judson is seen again in future books (of which there are only two remaining), but never has another moment quite so fine as this.  But we’re given to understand he’s won the respect of the gang, and a place at the table, even if it’s only the kiddie table for now.

Unlike Raphael, who chose to retreat into what I suppose one might call his mind, Judson chose to go out and engage the world on his own terms, and to Donald E. Westlake, that’s all there is to life, and most of all to youth.  Only the young die rich.  Because youth is the only real wealth there is.  Well, that and bitcoin, of course.   (Oh what a shame Mr. Westlake missed out on that–the word first cropped up about a month before his demise, and I doubt he even noticed).

Preston’s own wealth has been recovered, but not by him–he forgot that ex-wives and their lawyers watch the news as well.  As one of the tech guys for his interview files out (after Preston strikes out with the hot newscaster), he tosses Preston a summons.  He got served.  In both senses.  And all that recovered swag of his, no longer in his direct possession (since it is now evidence), is going to get divvied up by the exes.  And to top off his day, Alan, the closest thing to a friend he had, walks out on him.  And so will I, because it’s time to finish up.

Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, in Mid-September, for a meet with the now free and clear Ralph Winslow, so he can finally find out what kind of job that ice-tinkling fellow felon has in mind.  There’s a bad moment when Rollo says the back room is in use but it’s just a support group (support for what we never learn), and they’re leaving.  And Dortmunder is staying.  His place.  His little corner of the planet, his anchor, his respite, his home and hearth, his meat and drink, well mainly just drink.  He saved it, and it’s his, as it never was before.

So what if the heist failed.  He still won where it counted.  And there’s always another day (for something else to go wrong).  Also, he pocketed a few small trinkets on his way out, and what the rest of the gang doesn’t know won’t hurt him, particularly Tiny.

The regulars, of course, know not the name of the peerless champion responsible for their triumphant return to their beloved barstools, where they can once more jabber away endlessly about things they don’t understand, which is surely the right of all Americans, it’s in the Constitution, look it up, and we hold it even more sacred than the right to shoot people with guns (relatively few of us actually exercise that right, but everybody’s a know-it-all).

They know not that the champion is in their very midst as they speak (and if they did, they’re probably associate the wrong beer with him).  But the one thing all barflies know for sure is that the greatest man in the world is your bartender. And you know, a case could be made.  So they sing him a song.  And get it wrong.

“The back room is open, gents,” Rollo said.

They all thanked him, not whispering, picked up their drinks, and headed for the back room, Ralph gently tinkling along the way. As they rounded the end of the bar toward the hall, the regulars decided spontaneously to laud Rollo in song.

“For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-OH!
For he’s a golly good fell.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” the second regular said. “I think the last line goes, ‘For he’s a jolly good elf.’” So they tried it that way.

So I said last week that all the covers I’ve found for this book are lousy, and I stick to that.  Maybe the one on the left up-top isn’t too awful in its conception, but impaling Dortmunder on the Empire State Building (which isn’t even in the book) doesn’t quite work for me.  What would have?  Well, check out the image down below the two covers.

That’s a painting, by Richard Estes, master of photo-realism.  From 1995, it’s entitled Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street.  Yeah.  Where we’re told in this very book the O.J. Bar and Grill is located–not sure it was ever made that specific before.  Westlake went to a fair few art shows, one gathers.  I could see him looking a long time at that one.  I could imagine him saying quietly to himself, That bar could be the O.J.  It really could, you know.  Can you prove it’s not?  In the real world, no, it isn’t there–or it’s some sad yuppie singles joint–but in a painting–as in a novel–many things are possible. Including immortality. The difference between life and lifelike.

But see that open cellar door on the sidewalk?  Just waiting for somebody to fall in.  Pitfalls are everywhere.  So are bilious billionaires, and gangrenous gangsters.  Better watch your back.  Or hey, we could watch each others.’  How’s about that?

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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

Review: Watch Your Back!

What was going on?  Was it a wake around here?  Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough.  They, all of them, men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option.  In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats.  Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.

“But first I wanna know,” Tiny said, “about the O.J.”

“Well,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a bust-out joint.”

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

“Not one of the better ones,” Dortmunder suggested.

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

He would not fail her.  She has faith in me as a con artist and a crook, he told himself, and I will not let her down.

Dortmunder said, “You think everything’s okay in life, and then something different happens.”

Kelp gave him a look.  “John?  On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”

“It’s the environment,” Dortmunder told him.

Okay, it’s like this.

I really wanted to do this review as a one-parter.  I remembered the book–nearly every book I’ve reviewed on this blog, I read in its entirety before I created said blog–so there’s a pretty significant gap between readings by now.  I remembered enjoying it, like I enjoy all these books, or what am I doing here.  I also remembered being a mite underwhelmed.  But I forgot most of it, because c’mon, that’s a lot of books. How do you retain all that?  You’d need some kind of idiotic memory.  That’s what a regular at the O.J. Bar and Grill told me it was called, right before another regular hit him with a beer bottle.  Misunderstanding.

Even if I’d remembered it all, line for line, I had a lot less context back then–you learn as you go–so I picked up on things I missed last time, that I will be compelled to share now. Who knows what else I’d find if I reread and reviewed these books all over again from scratch?  Maybe somebody better hit me with a beer bottle before that happens. Hey–that was a joke.

So the story is, there’s a lot more story than I remembered, a lot more I want to talk about, and I’ve managed to scrounge up four cover images–all of them lousy– look at the first edition; red/orange letters on a field of taxi-cab yellow, and it’s the pick of the litter.  Rivages/Noir somehow got confused (no, you’re supposed to be watching your back, not some android strip-club waitress’s derriere, geez, how French can you get?) The two I’m using next time are even worse.

I did find some images I like, though.  Well, I don’t relish those two photos up top, of the shuttered and derelict St. Nick’s Pub, and the now-demolished Lenox Lounge, historic Harlem jazz bars that fell prey to ‘progress.’  But they illustrate the point of this book much better than its own cover art.  And what point is that?

On its face, this is yet another story about Dortmunder pulling yet another heist on yet another mendacious moneybags who has it coming, with interest.  How many times has that happened now?  I make this the sixth notch on Dortmunder’s lock pick (including one short story), and edifying as that may be, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to watching rich bastards squirm like fat gasping orange carps on a hook.  Like you needed me to tell you that.  (Reel it in careful-like, Bob.  Don’t want to lose this one.  Or capsize the boat.)

But that is not what this book is about.  The moneybags here isn’t the enemy.  Mildly diverting at best, pointless padding at worst.  A subplot that got out of control.

There’s also an organized crime angle (a first for Dortmunder; one was starting to wonder if maybe his universe was Cosa Nostra free). The Mob is not the real threat, either, and their subplot is something of a backhanded homage to David Chase.  I think we can take it as a given that Mr. Westlake watched The Sopranos (being a great admirer of Chase’s work on The Rockford Files), and the storyline involving Tony’s old school chum Davey Scatino clearly caught his attention.  As did the colorful but limited vocabulary of the Jersey mobsters on that show.

There’s two final ‘Nephews’ (and a strong textual hint that this is exactly how Westlake thought of them).  One is only his own worst enemy. The other is the final addition to the gang and will be seen again in future.  I’m on the fence about whether that’s a good thing, and so’s the gang.  But he’s definitely not somebody you have to watch your back over.

No, the antagonist in this book is change. Unneeded, unwanted, and let’s face it, unstoppable.  A river bursting its banks, oddly selective in what it sweeps away–mainly what you value most.  Good change happens because we make it happen, because we’re paying close attention to our surroundings, performing needed adjustments.  Bad change happens, too often, because we get careless; don’t see it coming until it’s upon us. By which time it’s usually too late to do anything but bitch and moan and move on.  Assuming that’s an option, and we probably shouldn’t assume that.

Is there no champion we may call upon to save us from this entropic dreadnought, this devourer of dreams?  Maybe one–if he can be sufficiently motivated to watch our backs for us, since we hoi polloi seem disinclined to do much of anything besides jaw to each other on our virtual barstools.

Change is going to try and take the O.J. Bar and Grill away from John Dortmunder. Change does not know who it’s fucking with.

Westlake begins by reminding us of what could be lost to world culture forever.

When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife.  “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”

A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds?  Which clouds are these?”

“That’s what they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage.  “you look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud–”

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”

Dortmunder takes a break from this divine cabinetry conclave to note that Rollo the bartender is absorbed in making fancy drinks with fruit, arcane liqeurs, and tiny paper parasols–some ladies of a certain age have decamped for refreshment, and are looking around at their surroundings with an anthropologist’s guarded delight.  The colloquy at the bar continues apace.

Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture?  Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know..”

A fifth regular weighed in, saying, “Yeah?  What about all those fields of plenty?”

“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.

The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say, “Do they give out overshoes?”

The learned debate then verges over into what had just recently become, under unfortunate circumstances, a much-discussed take on the afterlife,   The one with the 72 virgins.  To which one obvious cavil would be–

“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.

“Well no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this?  It would be like being assigned to an all-girls high-school.”

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”

The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”

Okay, fine, the Algonquin Round Table it’s not, but that lasted a bit over ten years, starting in 1919 then informally concluding in 1932, when Edna Ferber showed up and found a family from Kansas had foreclosed (the Gulch family, one supposes).  The O.J. Regulars held court from 1970 to 2009, and that’s just what we know about.  We’re going to know a lot more by the time this book is done.

Dortmunder is there for a meet in the back room, and as always, Rollo provides him with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (“Our Own Brand”) and two glasses.  Some question is raised in this narrative as to whether there is any such establishment, or if the bottling is done in the very bowels of the O.J.–but just FYI, at Amsterdam Ave. and 127th, at this precise moment in history–

2016-06-17

(Ya gotta believe.)

Dortmunder is going to meet up with Ralph Winslow, or as Rollo knows him, ‘the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.’  He claims not to know any of their names, only their beverage preferences.  Well, that would make things challenging for the D.A’s office, should Rollo ever be called upon to testify.

In the back room, Dortmunder finds the surprisingly (and delightedly) early Stan Murch (aka the beer and salt), expounding on how the Williamsburg Bridge is okay to drive on now that construction is finished, and Robert Moses didn’t need to build that mammoth expressway after all, the one he wanted to cut Manhattan in half with ‘like the Great Wall of China.’  He also mentions he’s on his second salt shaker, that’s how early he was this time, because traffic was so good on Canal and the West Side Highway.  And yet he’s still on his first beer.

(Sidebar: How many of you reading this have actually tried sprinkling salt in your beer to bring back the head?  Reading this at my local last Saturday, I was moved again to reach for the salt shaker behind the bar, and again found the results equivocal.  Yes, you get a bit of a head back, with a few sprinkles and a bit of discreet agitation, but not a full head, and it doesn’t last long–well, neither does the beer.  Unlike Stan, I’m not driving.

Stan needing more than one shaker’s worth to nurse along a single beer would suggest this method is more conducive to hypertension than anything else.  Is kosher salt more efficacious?  Sea salt?  Do those folk of metaphoric legend, who are ever crying in their beers, know something we don’t? Please report your own findings in the comments section.  Where I regret to say there is no beer or salt on offer, but I’m working on it.)

So the meet doesn’t pan out.  Ralph maybe had something, but the cops pulled him in for something else, and until that gets resolved, he is incommunicado.  He called Stan–has him on speed-dial on his cell.  Stan asks if Dortmunder has a cell, so he can add him to his speed-dial.  Dortmunder’s response is terse and in the negative. He’s not going to be on anyone’s speed dial.  Something tells me he’s yet to fully recover from the untimely demise of the rotary dial.

So that’s Chapter One.  The review is just over 2,000 words now.  What was I worried about, this’ll be over in no time.  Call it setting the scene, and let’s try being a bit more expeditious.

Dortmunder gets a call from Arnie Albright, the world’s least-loved fence of stolen goods.  Not unpopular from any moral failing on his part (Dortmunder is not one to cast stones, his own house being glass), but rather from his general manner and physical appearance.

We are perpetually reminded of his non-pulchritudinous aspect (“He told me once, he finds himself so disgusting, he shaves with his back to the mirror.”), while he is being inflicted upon us in book after book, not to  mention several short stories.  One sometimes notes a barely-suppressed strain of sado-masochism in Mr. Westlake.  And just for the record, compared to Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence featured in Westlake’s Smoke, who shares many of the same quirks (probably because they were created around the same time), Arnie is Will Freakin’ Rogers.

Arnie’s family members recently did an intervention (referenced in the previous book), sending him to a Club Med, where he was supposed to learn to be a bit more of a person.  It kind of worked.  Well, he got a tan.  He still insists on referring to Dortmunder by his full name all the time.  And he still deals in stolen goods.  The family didn’t object to that, man’s gotta make a living and all.

So he’s got a proposition he wants Dortmunder to hear, and Dortmunder would rather not, but then again, maybe he could get Kelp to come along, share the burden.  Kelp is just then robbing a furrier, bringing the fruits of his labor back to Anne Marie, who proceeds to prance around in a sable jacket and nothing else, so distracting Andy that he agrees over the phone to meet Dortmunder at Arnie’s.

The proposition mingles those two great motivations in human affairs–profit and revenge.  Whilst at Club Med, Arnie made the acquaintance of a certain involuntarily expatriate venture capitalist, one Preston Fareweather.  Preston is not in exile due to any troubles with the law–well, not criminal law.  Civil.  If you want to call it that.

He has a lot of very attractive ex-wives, who he married for the sole purpose of bedding then discarding them.  They all hate him.  More even than they hate each other, and thus they have joined forces, they and their lawyers, in an attempt to attach his worldly goods.  Process servers can go many places, but not, it would seem, a Club Med.  (Pretty sure they can get into Mar-a-Lago just fine.)

Preston has personality issues that even Arnie finds hard to tolerate, and he’s been tolerating himself since birth.  Not so much from his personal appearance as from his believing he and he alone is worthy of any consideration, and other people exist only to be insulted and abused and talked down to.  (Is there any Trump in the mix here?  No, probably too smart to be Trump-influenced.)

Point is, his contempt for Arnie, the smalltime crook, was not even thinly veiled, even while he entertained himself by hob-nobbing with his social (and no doubt criminal) inferior.  Arnie, long inured to people not liking him, was unfamiliar with this specific form of pariah-dom the rich routinely heap upon everybody who isn’t, and thus developed a keen dislike for Preston.

And yet, he kept returning for more daily doses of derision–during which he learned everything he could about Preston’s luxurious duplex penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue and 68th.  Full of so many valuable accoutrements.  And this is where Dortmunder and Kelp come in.  Literally.

Perhaps this schadenfreude shows a lack of gratitude on Arnie’s part, since as he explains, it was meeting Preston Fareweather that finally brought about the most sovereign remedy his own exile was meant to enact. (Translation: He’s a bit less obnoxious now.)

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

“I watched him,” Arnie said.  “I watched the people around him, how they acted, and I suddenly go tit, those are the expressions I used to see on the faces of people looking at me.  I was never obnoxious in the same way as Preston, on purpose to hurt and embarrass other people, but it all comes down to the same place.  ‘I don’t wanna be Preston Fareweather,’ I told myself, ‘not even by accident,’ so that was it.  I called you, John Dortmunder, because here’s my proposition.

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

“I’m sure you are.  I despise that Preston so much, I put up with so much crap from that guy while I’m casing his apartment long-distance, that my reward is the thought of the expression on his face the next time he walks into his house.”

He’s offering seventy per cent of whatever he gets for whatever Dortmunder gets.   Even allowing for some creative accounting on Arnie’s part, it’s a solid proposition.  And Arnie, no heistman himself, still has a useful suggestion as to how they might proceed–Mr. Fareweather has his own private parking garage, to billet his own private BMW, and this comes with its own private elevator up to the penthouse.  Take the Beemer out, put a truck in, Bob’s your uncle.

So what’s to lose?  They walk across Central Park, and there it is, big as life, and surprisingly unglamorous.  Well, you’re paying for the view out, I guess.  Who cares what the wretches down in the park have to look at?

The building, up ahead, taller than its neighbors, built in the real-estate flush of the 1950s, when details and ornamentation and style and grace were considered old-fashioned and unprofitable, hulked like a stalker over the park, a pale gray stone structure pocked with balconies.

A pretty fair description of the general run of uber-pricey housing there (location, location, location).  I’m guessing Preston’s building would be a composite (since non-fictional tycoons do get robbed sometimes, and their lawyers aren’t fictional either), but here’s a pretty fair example of the style.  If you want to call it that.  (Mr. Westlake’s architectural conservatism can be contagious at times.)

923-fifth-avenue-00

They agree to do another meet at the O.J., this time with Tiny, since there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting if they pull this one.  There follows a brief interlude with Stan Murch, just then in the process of stealing a Lincoln Navigator (one of the few legit car names in this book, but we’ll get to that next time), which he suddenly realizes comes equipped with the current bane of Stan’s existence, namely GPS.  Not a bane so much because he wants to handle navigation himself, but because of what the letters GPS stand for.  And they won’t stand for much.

That was the snag lately.  If you grabbed some old clunker, it didn’t have enough resale value to be worth the risk involved in taking it away from its former owner, but a sh iny new, valuable piece of tin was more than likely to be leashed to a satellite. And there was no known way to jam a satellite.

That’s the problem, Stan thought.  The law’s got all the labs.

He barely ditches the goods before the cops show up, drawn by the GPS signal like bees to nectar.  They see him walking towards the subway, but he talks himself out of their tentative clutches, and boards the A train.  Which we’re told has its northernmost terminus in the Bronx.  Which has never been true, unless you consider North Manhattan part of the Bronx.

I can’t explain Westlake making such an egregious Gothamite gaffe.  Unless he’s trying once again to avoid incurring the jealousy of the Navajo gods.  This is a pretty good rug he’s weaving here, but a long way from perfect, so I don’t know why he’d bother. Explanation, Mr. Westlake?  Oh right. Mystify us, why don’t you?  Maybe he just forgot.

Next chapter takes us into the inquiring mind of Judson Blint, 19 years of age, just out of high school in Long Island, looking to make his mark (God save him).  He has come to scale the Avalon State Bank Tower in search of J.C. Taylor.  He’s hoping Mr. Taylor will give him a job with Allied Commissioner’s Courses, Inc.–the location of which is supposed to be a secret, but young Blint has tracked it to this location, using some of the very methods learned from their mail-order detective course.

Scanning the directory at the ground floor, he’s surprised to see just how many different businesses are headquartered in room 712–Intertherapeutic Research Service–Super Star Music Co.–and once he’s up on the seventh floor, he sees it’s also the home of the Maylohda Commercial Attaché.  Maylohda.  What was that, a country?  Who was J.C. Taylor, anyway?  He sees the answer before he recognizes it, when he goes in to speak to the receptionist.

Oh.  My.  God.  She was something out of Judson’s dreams, but not the more soothing ones.  No, more like the ones inspired by video games.  In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no.  Only louder than that.

She yanks him around a bit.  You know our Josie (sadly rare as the occasions have been for us to gaze upon her in the last few books).   She’s impressed with him, in spite of herself.  He’s not a complete rube.  He figured some stuff out (if not her correct gender) and he put together a résumé for himself that is pure uncut malarkey–and yet impossible to directly disprove.  Kid’s got potential–and turns out she’s ready to ditch her old cons, since the being her own country thing is working out so well for her.  Only so many hours in the day to fleece suckers.

Tiny comes in to see his beloved, gives Judson a narrow look.  Judson blanches, and you’d be very lucky if that’s all you did.  A conversation ensues, and the upshot is that she’ll give Judson a try–he can run the other mail order scams for her–she hates to let them go.  It’s the sentimentalist in her.  More on Master Blint later.

It’s at this point that Dortmunder returns to the O.J. Bar and Grill, only to discover (see up top) that something terrible has happened since his last visit.  Rollo tells him the back room isn’t available.  Dortmunder is given to  understand it will never be available again.  There are two questionably attired gentlemen there, tough-looking, both clearly heeled, in the meaning of that word that has nothing to do with footwear.  Kelp saunters in, looks the first goombah over.  “What flying saucer did this come out of?”

Rollo, knowing Tiny (or as he knows him, the red wine and vodka) will arrive at any moment, and how he tends to react to anyone with the temerity to try and intimidate him, begs Dortmunder and Kelp to leave, and gives them a complimentary bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (they later comment that it does not travel well).

Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny, all arrive to find John and Andy on the sidewalk,  bereft.  They decide to meet at Dortmunder’s place, something nobody is happy about, least of all Dortmunder.  The situation is explained.  Tiny is mildly disappointed to have missed out on the chance to take the two wise guys at the O.J. apart at the garish seams, but it’s not like he owns the joint.  They decide Arnie’s proposition has merit, and that John and Andy will look into the matter of the O.J.

When they get there, the situation has only gotten worse.  The place is basically a walking corpse.  Two different yet identical mob guys are keeping watch.  Rollo is still at the bar, and Andy offers to buy Dortmunder a beer.  Dortmunder may be more easy-going than Parker, but he has that same innate suspicion of even the most innocuous forms of altruism.  Unlike Parker, his Handy McKay didn’t retire to Maine.

Dortmunder looked at him.  “What are you up to?”

“What up to?  I feel like I wanna buy you a beer.  It happens, we have another one, then you buy for me.  That’s how it works, John.”

Dortmunder said, “What if we only have the one?”

“My feeling is,” Kelp said, whipping out his wallet and putting cash money on the bar next to the glasses Rollo was putting down in front of them, “some day we’ll be in a bar again.”

Dortmunder could only agree with that.  “You’ll keep track, I guess,” he said, as Rollo took Kelp’s money away to his open cash register and rummaged around in there a while.

“No problem,” Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass.  “To crime.”

“Without punishment,” Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.

Rollo quietly tells them to watch out–these guys in the bar now are criminals.  Dortmunder gently breaks it to him that he and Kelp are criminals.  Rollo says yeah, but these other guys are organized.  In a Westlake novel, this does not necessarily constitute an advantage, but Rollo’s main concern at this point is that nobody gets hurt.

They don’t like what they find, but they recognize it.  More and more of the O.J., including their beloved back room,  is taken up with merchandise from various businesses that supply bars.  Ordered on the O.J.’s line of credit, invoices signed by a resigned and dismal Rollo.  It’s a bust-out.  The mob guys are going to keep ordering until the bar’s credit runs dry, then cart the goods away to sell at a (100%) profit.  It’s a bit like that thing where the wasp lays its egg in the paralyzed cicada.  I believe analogies have also been drawn regarding the financial sector.  One might consider expanding that to encompass certain aspects of politics.  It’s a rich tapestry.

They meet up with Tiny in a suitably capacious vehicle rented and driven by Judson, and he’s not happy about the O.J., but he figures none of his business, too late to do anything, focus on the heist.  Not that they get very specific, with Judson there, but he reads between the lines, wants to help out, necessitating a somewhat nerve-wracking (for Judson) conversation about whether maybe this kid knows too much.  The general consensus is he knows nothing (like all kids), but maybe he could learn (like some kids).   As for the O.J., Dortmunder finds that he simply can’t let it go.

Chapter 15 somehow fails to open with “When Dortmunder broke into the O.J. Bar and Grill”, sticking with the more traditional opening, but that’s exactly what he’s done, for the purposes of gathering intelligence.  He gets down into the basement, via a trap-door behind the bar.  He finds records, dating back to founding of the O.J., forty-seven years before, by Otto Medrick and Jerome Hulve, and now we know why it’s called that.  It seems to have had multiple prior incarnations.  And who could possibly say how many prior Dortmunders?

Now he sees the problem–Otto Medrick bought his partner out thirty-one years ago.  He retired to Florida a while back.  And he transferred ownership to one Raphael Medrick, Otto’s nephew (always with the nephews).  Who seems to have had, as they say, a troubled past, often involving ‘bad companions.’  Bingo.  There were mob guys up there talking while he was down there reading, taking expensive liquor for their capo’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey.  Dortmunder helps himself to a stray bottle of Stoli on his way out.  But he’s going to give something back for it.

Next thing, Dortmunder is meeting the gang at the appropriately named Twilight Lounge, on Forty-third Street.  J.C. suggested it as an alternative to the O.J.  It’s pretty clearly not going to work out.  I mean, when Stan asks for salt, they give him a bowl of it.  But Tiny insists there’s nothing to be done, they should focus on getting theirs.  Nobody brings up that this is what Tiny said when those mercs had taken Dortmunder prisoner during the Avalon State Bank Tower heist, before J.C. shamed Tiny and the others into going up to rescue him, and you wouldn’t have brought that up to Tiny’s face either, so shaddap.

However, Tiny still wants to go see this nephew who has forced him to do meets at the Twilight Lounge, and so they head off to a not very nice section of Queens, where it turns out Raphael is completely unaware of anything that’s happening with his uncle’s bar, nor could he care less.  He’s making music.  Well, he’s taking other people’s music and making it into his own thing, with a lot of electronic equipment.  That’s basically how he got in trouble last time, but he figures now everybody’s stealing music and selling it online (right at that moment, he’s creating an unholy amalgram of The Star Spangled Banner and Hey Jude), and at least he’s customizing it first.  Westlake’s contempt for ‘sampling’ is palpable  here.

So he looks up and there’s all these tough-looking guys standing there, like he’s done something to them.  Tiny pings him with his thumb, just to get his attention.  His attention gained, Raphael explains that Uncle Otto will get all the money, and it’s fine.  He didn’t want to run the bar himself (and clearly he couldn’t run a popsicle stand in a heat wave).

Some lawyer told him nobody would buy the bar because the nabe had changed and it was too ‘down-market’.  Which is bullshit, of course–a new owner could easily up-market it, all you need is a place with a liquor license, and frankly, it’s amazing nobody made the offer before then–The O.J. is at 96th and Amsterdam.  By the early 21st, that’s the bleating heart of Yuppieville.  The O.J. must be the last old school bluecollar joint left in that part of town.

Now we know why it’s still there–the real owner is in Florida, leaving Rollo in charge.  The owner on paper is interested in nothing that doesn’t come out of his headphones, and this guy Mikey, that Raphael knows, fed Raphael a line of b.s. to make a nice score.  As the now thoroughly depressed Dortmunder gang leaves this archangel of emptiness to his solipsistic universe, he thinks to himself, The O.J. Bar and Grill.  Who cared?  That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses.   Brave New World.

And Dortmunder still can’t give up on the O.J.  How come?  Yes, it was a nice place to hold meets, and Rollo is a lovely man (not physically, you know what I mean), the regulars are a kick, it’s a shame and all, but why?  Why put himself out over a cheesy over-the-hill dive bar, that isn’t even walking distance from his apartment?  When he’s got a penthouse full of goodies to steal, and there are Jersey boys with guns who would take offense at any eleventh hour intervention?

Should I do what I do when I review the Parkers, talk about some button in Dortmunder’s head, and once it’s pushed, he has to keep going until he’s achieved his end?  No, because Parker wouldn’t care about some bar closing.  Parker is big into non-attachment.  The mere notion of there being a place you could hang out in and have a good chance of seeing him walk through the door would make him uneasy.  Only reason he’s got that house in New Jersey is because of Claire.  She’s more like Dortmunder, in this specific instance, than Parker ever could be.

Dortmunder lives in a world of change that he can’t control, and he hates it.  So does Parker, but ever the instinctive existentialist, he shrugs and deals. Dortmunder can’t let it go.  There’s so few constants in this whirling maelstrom we call a planet, so few things you can rely upon.

For him, there’s May, May’s tuna casserole, Kelp’s weird ideas (whether Dortmunder likes it or not), and New York itself, the only place he ever wants to live, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near it.  Within New York (which as the saying goes, will be a nice town when it’s finished), there’s the O.J. Bar and Grill.  His proprietary domain. He can’t afford to lose his point of orientation, his haven of respite.  Who can?  And who doesn’t?

The day my father died, last October, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend for lunch in midtown.  I got the word while waiting for the train, and spent the ride soaking it in.  I was not going to call off the lunch.  I needed it more than ever.  All the more because it was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire universe.  Repeat.  Was.

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Nothing like it north of Chinatown, and I’d rate it over any Chinatown place I’ve ever tried.  A vast baroque menu Westlake could have written odes to.  Cash only, no plastic.  No reservations, but you could always get a table after the peak lunch rush.  Unpretentious decor, relaxed atmosphere.  Always good jazz–real jazz–playing in the background–the owner must have been a fan.  No liquor license–meaning you could bring your own beer, wine, whatever the hell else you wanted to drink.  They’d put it on ice for you.

I could never describe the nuances of their hot and sour soup, their pork dumplings, their Phoenix Shredded Beef Min-Young–anyone who tells you Cantonese is bland has never really had it.  I had it just a few years, after discovering it.  If I was in that part of town, I’d find an excuse to eat there.  Got so the staff knew me and my peculiarities (who else has German double bock with Chinese food?)  That was nice.

But when I got there that day, I found a locked door with a notice on it.  The landlord.  The rent.  Do I have to draw a picture?  A thriving business with a devoted clientele has no guarantee of survival in any part of Manhattan.  Not anymore.  They’d have been better off dealing with the mafia.  At least those people appreciate good food.

My friend showed up, and we wound up commiserating about current events over mediocre diner grub.  She was sorry to hear about my dad.  I was just grateful to have somebody to talk to.  You think everything’s okay in life.  And then something different happens.  Change happens.  The wrong kind of change. The change that comes when you don’t watch your back.

Change isn’t evil.  That’s not the point here.  Change is the source of everything anyone ever loved.  Change created the O.J., as Dortmunder learned in that basement.  Change created Chinese American cuisine (and Chinese Americans, even better).  Change created these books we’re talking about.  Change is the reason you look around and see something, instead of nothing.  Change is why you’re here to look around.  God is change. Octavia Butler wrote two whole novels about that.

And everything has a mortal span, all things must pass, certainly all earthly establishments.  You can know all this and still know when something’s being taken away from you before its time.  Before something equivalently good is ready to replace it.  And if we lose too many things we value, too quickly, lose all our fixed points of reference, our sense of self can start to unravel pretty darn quick.

Okay, call it conservatism.  I don’t care.  I believe in conserving things that need conserving, and so did Donald E. Westlake, and so did John Dortmunder. Admittedly, I’m not much good at conserving words, when I write these reviews.

So to wrap things up until next week, Dortmunder knows what he’s got to do. And where he’s got to go.  And who he’s got to see when he gets there.  He’s not happy about it, but being who he is, knowing who he is, he’s got no choice.  He asks the gang if any of them want to come with.  He gets the answer he expected. If he were Parker, he’d probably make some sort of terse bloody-minded inspirational speech, but even that might not work in this case.  You might follow someone to the very gates of hell, but Florida in the summertime?  Pass.

Well, if it would have kept Phoenix Garden open, maybe.  As for my dad, just as well he didn’t live to see some of the change happening now.  Okay, fine, comedy, I know.  We’ll get to the lighter side next week, okay?  That’s when the all the people who have conspired to upset Dortmunder’s orientation suddenly find occasion to wax philosophic themselves.  Well, they should have watched their backs.

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

Review: The Road To Ruin, Part 2

“The question is,” Lieutenant Orville said, “is the butler in on it?”

Lieutenant Wooster cocked his head, like a very bright spaniel.  “You think the butler did it?”

“It’s been known to happen.”  Liking the phrase, Lieutenant Orville said it again: “Known to happen.”

“When are people going to get over it?”

“People don’t get over it when you’re a pariah, Monroe.”

“Why do people keep using that word?”

“Well, Monroe, think about it.”

“I don’t want to.”

“–Another three conspirators are thought to have been  involved, but little is known of them except that they are alleged to have belonged to the same labor union.”

“There you go,” Dortmunder said.  “Now the kidnappers got a union.”

Because I keep doing these multi-part reviews, and would like my readers to have something other than great tedious blocks of text to scan, I have found it necessary to scour the web for exotic cover art, traveling far afield of our author’s native land, and too often finding to my chagrin that the golderned foreigners did a better job illustrating him than us Yanks did.  Westlake had avid readers across the globe, and I could spend the rest of my life tracking down foreign editions (so rarely utilizing the original title, because why would they?), and never scratch the surface.

By far the two best covers I found for this book are the two you see up top.  The domestic ebook beneath looks like a manual on road safety the Murches would be forced to study for some court-ordered traffic school course. This is, wouldn’t you know it, the only edition of this book I possess.

French publisher Rivages (which must have the widest selection of Westlake, Coe, and Stark of any extant publishing firm, if extant publishers there be) simply looked for a pre-existing bit of art they could get for cheap, and this time they happened to hit on something that works beautifully (it would work just as well for a Jeeves novel, which is kind of the point here).

But feast your dumbfounded eyes, won’t you, on the nifty purpose-built artwork for the Finnish edition. Yes, Finnish.  According to Google, the title (so much smaller than the author’s name, indicating said author’s name alone sells books there) more precisely translates as The Road to Corruption, and I’m not sure that isn’t an improvement on the original.  Nothing could ever improve on that cover, though. Enough prologue; back to the synopsis or we’ll never be Finnish.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and it’s a challenge to explain what some of them are doing here. My inclination is to skip over these as quickly as possible, and concentrate on the storylines that matter.

For example, there’s an entire subplot involving Chester Fallon, the former stunt/getaway driver (whose incipient professional rivalry with Stan Murch doesn’t get nearly enough play here).  His wife is bugging him to get out of the house and do something useful, so even though he’s in the middle of planning a heist, he takes a job driving an office supply salesman whose license was taken away because he’s always drunk.  He’s always drunk because there’s no other way he can stand all the schmoozing and gladhanding that goes with his job.  Trouble is, he can’t turn the snappy patter and bad jokes off when he’s in the car with Chester.

This subplot does lead to Chester finding an abandoned store at a failing strip mall, that can be used to store the vintage cars they mean to steal.  Plus it gives him a fallback position if the heist doesn’t work out.  It’s not a bad story in itself.  It could have been a good short story–or a subplot in another novel, which it very well might have been originally intended as–a novel in which Chester would have played the Dortmunder role in a topical satire; another take on Put A Lid On It.  But since Dortmunder is here, Chester is little more than the finger on a job that doesn’t pan out, and the bit with the salesman seems pointless, if amusing.  So let’s skip it.

There’s a subplot involving a short heavily muscled fitness instructor named Flip Morriscone, who is acting as Monroe Hall’s personal trainer, even though he can’t stand the guy.  This gives him and his Subaru access to the estate.  Hall has a creepy mancrush on him, but still takes perverse pleasure in ratting him out to the IRS for not reporting the cash Hall hands him for their sessions together.

This gives Flip a motive for revenge, which is instrumental to the B plot, involving the alliance of three disgruntled union guys and two equally disgruntled small time venture capitalists, who are also toting large grudges against Mr. Hall.  But again, it kind of clogs the story up a bit–Westlake needed to be at absolutely top form to write a novel with this many moving parts and have it come out as a well-balanced unitary offering–this one is more of a jumble sale.  Well, those have their own pleasures to offer, right?  I’ve never gotten anywhere near Mr. Westlake’s top form, so I think that’s all we need to hear about Flip Morriscone, even though the chapters dealing with him and his passionate love affair with his buff image in the mirror are pretty funny.

There’s also a subplot about Arnie Albright, the world’s most unlovable fence of stolen goods (there’s actually a fence in Smoke who makes Arnie look like Albert Schweitzer, but never mind that now), involving his family doing an intervention and sending him to a Club Med so that he can learn to be less obnoxious, and you know what?  That’s a much more important plot point in the next Dortmunder, so I don’t need to talk about that here.

And there are many other subplots, for characters we normally don’t hear much about, so surely there must be a subplot for the delectably devious Josephine Carol Taylor?  In fact, she isn’t even mentioned in the book, though her behemoth boyfriend sure is.  Not enough eyerolls in the world, Mr. Westlake……

So with all that out of the way, what’s left?  Dortmunder & Co. hiring on as domestics at the understaffed Hall Estate–understaffed because he is now so universally despised, nobody will work for him (they have an excellent personal chef, but she came with Alicia, Monroe’s wife, and never liked Monroe to begin with).

That’s the main gag of the book, and it’s a good one.  Is it a plausible one?  I have my quibbles.  Good help is always hard to find, but so is a good-paying job, and it’s a bit hard to swallow that Hall can’t find any takers (to be sure, he’s under too much scrutiny by the law to hire illegal immigrants like a normal rich conservative).

The Enron guys were widely hated and reviled after their downfall, without question.  Money is still money.  Kenneth Lay (‘Kenny Boy’ to the more recent President Bush) presumably had all the servants he needed, right up to when he cheated the system one last time by dropping dead at a luxury ski chalet before his sentencing (and so hated was he that people were demanding to know why the chalet’s management allowed him to die there, instead of some convenient ditch).  Some of those servants probably lied to their neighbors about where they worked, but they took the money.  Contrivance is an integral part of comedy, so this is not such a huge problem.

Hall’s self-image relies upon having underlings around, so he can be condescending, irritatingly over-familiar, do the odd bit of bullying, all in order to make himself feel like the big wheel he wants everyone to see him as.  He’s basically an overgrown child with a superiority/inferiority complex that requires the constant presence of social inferiors, even while he’s painfully aware that most people on his economic level regard him as an inferior.  (Yes, I’m seeing the parallels, you can hardly miss them, but this book was inspired by different models, and let’s not kid ourselves that there’s ever just one rich prick with these types of issues at any given time.   Their name is Legion.  Or should I say, Lesion?)

After alternately pleading with, hectoring, berating, and outright threatening the increasingly disgusted head of the employment agency that’s been trying in vain to fill all his vacancies, Monroe Hall is overjoyed to learn that all of a sudden there are four new applicants!  One an intimidating mass of muscle to man his gates, frighten away any potential ill-wishers.  Another a carrot-haired chauffeur who seems to know everything there is to know about cars and potential routes for them to take.  And best of all, a personal secretary (the male kind) with a narrow nose and a congenial bustling air about him, a real take-charge kind of guy who attacks his newfound duties with unparalleled enthusiasm.

And there’s the new butler.  Well, he’s going to be a work in progress.

And how did this come to pass?  As we covered in Part 1, Dortmunder figured the only way for them to get onto the Hall property in order to steal Hall’s property was to pose as the hired help.  But all new servants will be subject to intimidatingly strict security checks.  Your average jury rigged fake ID’s are not going to cut it here.  In this new digital era Dortmunder & Co. have been forced to live in, how can the motley likes of them ever hope to fool the system?  And here’s where I switch over to those titled subheadings I so often resort to in my reviews of these books.  Not always when the book as a whole underwhelms me, while certain components within it enchant me, but……

In Memory Yet Green:

It is none other than Kelp’s charming lady friend, Anne Marie Karpinow, who, noticing her beau’s atypically downcast air, and learning the reasons for it, tells him he should have confided in her from the start.  She’s got a guy.  Well, she knows a guy.  Her father, you will recall, was a U.S. Senator.  It was through daddy that she became friendly with Jim Green, who is a ‘substitute identity specialist.’  In other words, somebody who creates the kind of fake ID that holds up to anything.  Even his own name is fake–he picked it because it’s forgettable.

He’s not with the government anymore–freelancing now, selling his services to various people who have to become somebody new or else go shopping for cemetery plots.  He’s prohibitively expensive, but she’s got an in.  The friendship came with certain benefits.  He always liked her.  Used to dandle her on his knee.  “When you were a little girl” Andy suggests.  “Oh, seventeen, eighteen” she responds offhandedly.

So there’s a chapter showing us the Verdi of Verisimilitude (damn, that would have been a good subheading), at work with some eastern bloc outcast, and we learn something about how you create new identities in the digital world, and we also learn that Mr. Westlake was actively updating his own tradecraft in this area–because he needs to believe there will always be a way for someone to disappear, if he or she really wants to.  And in fact, there is an escape hatch concealed in the prison cell of meta data.

Every day, the web of information grows thicker, more convoluted.  When so much is known, what can still be secret?  But the very complexity of the knowledge stream at times betrays it.  Here and there, in the interstices of the vast web of details covering the globe, there are glitches, hiccups, anomalies, crossed wires.  Jim Green could find those like a hunting dog after a downed quail.  He could find them and store the knowledge of them for later use.

Then the phone rings, and of course he remembers Anne Marie and he’d be delighted to come see her (no mention is made of knee-dandling, though it is surely in his mind).  He meets Kelp, Dortmunder, and the rest, and finds the experience most revelatory.  On the whole, he’s favorably impressed with Kelp.  He’s pleased to learn that the former Mrs. Karpinow, who he once knew (biblically, perhaps?) as Anne Marie Hurst, isn’t dating and/or marrying jerks like her father anymore, it being a nigh-universal guy-thing that if we can’t have some girl we fancy, we at least don’t want to see her with someone makes us sick to our stomachs, and it’s uncanny how they unerringly home in on some emetic in pants, ain’t it?    As Andy puts it, she’s changed her M.O.  (Or has she?)

Cherished memories of perfectly innocent knee-dandling aside, Jim doesn’t work for free, and they can’t afford the elite services he provides, even if he was willing to delay payment until after the job was done. Seeing the crestfallen look in Anne Marie’s lovely eyes, Jim amends his statement this much–there are certain of his former clients who have either died or gone back to their original identities.  Their manufactured identities are still out there in cyberspace.

With a bit of jiggering, he can re-engineer them for John, Andy, Stan, and Tiny.  And that somewhat attenuated level of professional service he won’t charge for.  (Or you could say Anne Marie made payment in advance.  Perhaps that knee-dandling sometimes verged on lap-dancing.  Still perfectly innocent, as long as nobody got pregnant.)

One negligible caveat–Jim cautions them it is barely possible that either the original owner of one of these identities or whatever unpleasant persons he was trying to evade, will come knocking should any of them learn that name is back in circulation.  But since the gang is only going to be using their borrowed bonafides for maybe two or three weeks, tops, it’s not very likely this will transpire.  (And of course it does transpire, but that’s yet another subplot I feel this review can do without).

Having gathered the necessary data from the four felons to meld into the new identities, Jim is pleased as punch with the way his clients react to their new aliases (complete with passports that would calm the most querulous of TSA screeners).  Like kids unwrapping their Christmas presents by the tree.

Anne Marie tries to turn the unwrapping into the kind of midwestern society shindig she’s used to from her days as a politician’s daughter, and is a bit deflated to learn her hostess skills are not needed (Jim tells her if she ever needs to disappear, he’ll give her the deluxe package, no charge, but she’s not that deflated).

Dortmunder is now John Howard Rumsey (the last name borrowed from Dortmunder’s alternate universe double, we’ll get to him shortly).  Murch is Warren Peter Gillette.  Tiny is Judson Otto Swope (he likes that name, for which Jim should be grateful).

Kelp is Fredric Eustace Blanchard, and being a Westlake character, he will shorten that to Fred.  Which brings us to–(with profuse apologies to Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow)–

Thief vs. Secretary:

All four of the guys interview first at the employment agency (which gets its own subplot, there’s a positive superabundance of them), and the way they’ve worked out their cover stories is they’ve all been distracted by other matters, and simply don’t know how universally loathed Monroe Hall is now. Or in Tiny’s case, simply don’t care, because all his character wants to do is bust heads for a living, which isn’t really all that different from what he actually does for a living.  Typecasting can work.  The minute Monroe sees him, all he can think is “I want him on my side!” (And the moral is, even very rich people don’t always get what they want.)

Kelp and Dortmunder are supposed to have worked at the same foreign embassy in DC–the embassy for none other than Votskojek (grrrrr!), a fictional Westlake nation in Central Europe, last seen in Don’t Ask.  What makes this cover story useful is that the guy they supposedly worked for there, Ambassador Chk, was assassinated, and therefore is not currently available to provide references.  Oh those Votskojekians and their periodic purges.  So quaint and Ruritanian.

When Monroe gets to interview the four of them, he’s mainly quite pleased, except he’s not so sure Dortmunder looks like a proper butler, which he doesn’t (he watched a lot of old movies with butlers in them, but simply is not to the manor born).  But then again, who’s coming to the house to see how he looks?  Nobody.

Anyway, Hall is fine with all of them, disgraced billionaire beggars can’t be disgraced billionaire choosers.  Except, as he tells this eager and attentive young fellow Blanchard, he doesn’t really need a personal secretary anymore.  He used to have two of them, and play them off against each other for laughs (I know, I know, maybe Westlake was falling back on some of the research he did on Trump, it’s possible), but now that he’s persona non grata to the world at large, what’s the point in employing even one?

This is an unexpected wrinkle in the plan, which calls for improvisation on Kelp’s part, and as ever, he rises to the task.  Well, he’s up to the task, put it that way.  He tells an astounded Monroe that he must not give in to those nattering nabobs of negativity.   Words to that effect.

“Rehabilitation!” Blanchard cried, and pointed a stern finger at the ceiling.  “It’s time,” he declared in ringing tones, “to get your story out there!”

“My story is out there,” Hall said, “that’s the problem.”

“Your old story is out there,” Blanchard insisted.  “It’s time for a new story, and that’s why you need me.  A personal.  Private.  Secretary.”

After a brief homage to Prof. Harold Hill, Kelp cuts to the heart of the matter.  Okay, so Monroe bankrupted millions, destroyed lives, simply in order to enrich himself when he was already rich.  Who hasn’t done that?  It’s time everybody just got over it!   He’s only human!  Aren’t we all sinners?  Hall has one timid little query–

“Would I have to give back the money?”

“Never!” Blanchard’s eyes flashed.  “You’re explaining your common humanity, you’re not feeding the multitudes!”

“No, no, I see.”

“We’ll start small,” Blanchard said.  Somehow, he was halfway across Hall’s desk, staring into his eyes.  “Church social egg rolls on the lawn.  Boy Scout groups meeting here.  Have your photo taken at the wheel of one of your famous cars.”

“Not driving it!”

Sitting in it.”  Blanchard beamed, his arms spread wide.  “The squire of Pennsylvania,” he announced.  “How bad a fella could he be?”

“You’re hired!” Hall cried.

Now of course this is Andy adroitly feeding into the mark’s narcissism and utter lack of conscience, but how much of a conscience does Andy himself have?  How much of a core?  The reason, I think, he’s clung to Dortmunder like a barnacle to a hull for so long is that his own identity is far more pliable and adaptive than Dortmunder’s, and he needs some kind of fixed navigational point to keep from going adrift.  But now he’s hitched his wagon to a very different star.

He’s got to believe in the role to perform it properly, like any good flim-flammer, something he’s always been better at than Dortmunder (who has a hard time being anybody but himself).  And there’s nothing else for him to do, really, until it’s time to jack the cars.  So he commits totally to the role of loyal lackey to a maligned mogul, and for a while he really is Fred Blanchard–and this means being a shameless toady.  Something he’s never been before.  (He was shameless, but on his own time.)

To be sure, he’s spent years steadfastly plugging Dortmunder as a criminal genius, but Dortmunder really is a criminal genius, hard as that may be to fathom when looking at him.  Plugging Monroe Freaking Hall as a misunderstood victim of circumstance is rather more of a challenge, even for Mr. Kelp’s considerable talents at dissimulation.

And he reaches the point where he’s so engrossed in this project that he starts wishing they could put off the heist for a little while, just so he can make some progress–he sincerely wants to get Hall accepted by society once more.  At no point does Andy ever stop in the midst of his nigh-Kushnerian  labors (I’m going to catch hell for that in the comments section, but he’s too slick and self-effacing for Spicer, nor is he blonde enough for Conway, or deranged enough for Bannon) and think “What the fuck is wrong with me?”

And of course his new employer is grateful to him for his devotion.  To the extent that he is capable of such an emotion, which isn’t much.  After a very short while, Monroe just accepts it as his due, as he accepts all things to be his due. At one point, Andy, with his usual curiosity about how gadgets work, pops a quarter into one of Monroe’s collectible antique toy banks.  Once his coin predictably disappears into the gizmo’s inner recesses, he asks how he can get it back.  He can’t ever get it back.  It’s Monroe’s quarter now.  He is smirking at his underling’s credulity.

Andy blinks, and the most delicious identity crisis of the entire book presents itself.  The unctuous Heep he’s pretending to be and has to some extent become should just write the quarter off as a loss.  The thief in him needs desperately to steal that errant two bits back.  In the end, the thief wins, of course (though the quarter is still history).

But you’re made painfully aware of the fact that to a very great extent we are our jobs, and that Andy is the free-wheeling independent we love precisely because he never previously had the motive, means, or opportunity to be anything else.  In a different life, he very well could have become some smug sycophant like Anne Marie’s former hubby.  There but for the grace of God (whose name is Westlake) goes he.  There’s an ass kisser lurking inside the best of us, waiting to get out.  And much as I admire Mr. Kelp, he ain’t the best of us.

But he’s still one of the best liars around (he can even lie with the truth, as we saw in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?), and here’s the kicker–by the end of his tenure there, he’s actually starting to make progress.  He figures out he just has to spread some of Monroe’s ample excess funds around in the right places–cash strapped charities, say–and he starts seeing results.  His crowning ambition is to create a golf tourney going by the majestic moniker of the Monroe Hall Cup.  You have to admit, there’s kind of a ring to it.

Given a bit more time, Mr. Blanchard might well have succeeded in at least partly rehabilitating the most loathed robber baron  in America, re-imagining him as a penitent philanthropist who has suffered, without expending more than a small fraction of the boss’ ill-gotten gains.  The secretary might have eaten the thief.  The phrase “Money talks and bullshit walks” takes on a whole new meaning here.  There’s no end of suckers out there who want to believe in Daddy Warbucks.  That’s not Little Orphan Andy’s fault, folks.  That’s on us.

But dinner’s on Tiny, as we learn in–

The Iron Chef:

The guys end up bunking together in a little green house on the estate, where Chester and his missus once dwelt in happier times, and there’s quite a nice kitchen there.  Much to everyone’s confusion, mingled with apprehension, Tiny insists on cooking.  You want to tell him he can’t?  Maybe read this first.

They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

Not literally soup, he explains, just an expression.  Dortmunder takes some Pepto-Bismol to prepare, but in fact the food is delicious, and wholesome, and quite different from anything any of them have had before, except Tiny.  Like mother used to make, if your mother came from a fictitious country somewhere in the Carpathians.

And then it was good.  It wasn’t your ordinary stuff, but it was good.  Real tastes, but not too sweet, not too sour.  There was lamb, in chunks; there was bacon, not too crisp; there were home-fried potatoes, with some kind of tasty oil on them; there was swiss chard, boiled up and spread with some kind of sauce that tasted sort of like chutney; there were biscuits, so light and fluffy you had to put butter on them to keep them from floating away.  And there was not just beer, but stout, to tie it all together.

There was no talk at the table for quite some time.  It was Kelp who first came up for air, saying “Tiny this is great.  What is this?  This is great.”

“It’s Tsergovian,” Tiny told him.  “It’s from the old country.  It’s how my people used to eat in the old days, when they had food.”

John said, through a full mouth, “Then I’m surprised they ever left.”

“Well, there were a lotta days,” Tiny said, “when they didn’t have food.  So that’s why they come here, before my time.  The food wasn’t as good over here, but it was around every day.”

And there’s pumpkin pecan pie for dessert, which I don’t associate with the Carpathians, but I could be wrong.  They end up eating it for breakfast, because nobody has room for another mouthful.   And this review has no more room to explain something the pleasures of which are self-explanatory.  As I said in my review of Bad News, the late Dortmunders are about lagniappe.  This is a fine example of that.  Tiny, we hardly knew ye.

Something else you’d hardly know about, going by this review, is what’s going on elsewhere, as the gang gears up for the heist.  Namely–

The B Plot:

Plot as in scheme, naturally.  The very inorganic teaming of Mark and Os, the venture capitalists without capital (thanks to Monroe Hall), and Buddy, Mac, & Ace, the union guys without jobs or pension plans (ditto).   Having agreed that they must find a way into the estate, grab Hall, and force him to cough up large quantities of offshore cash by way of electronic transfers, they are, all through the book, figuring out how to go about doing this.  Then figuring out they shouldn’t have done it at all.

The scheme they eventually hit upon involves Flip Morriscone (I knew I’d have to type that name again), just as enraged by Monroe’s perfidy as they, because Monroe (who actually likes Flip) went and reported his off-the-books cash payments to Flip to the IRS, leading to substantial tax penalties for the latter (Monroe finds this very funny, tells a mildly reproving Alicia that it’s good for the lower orders to make up the revenue shortfall stemming from people like him, who know how to avoid taxation).  So Flip is amenable to participating indirectly in their venture.

Monroe has mentioned to Flip that he wants to learn how to ride a horse, since he owns a bunch of them. It seems like a thing to do.  Flip tells Monroe he knows an instructor, but the guy has to bring his own horse, specially trained as a practice mount.  Mark and Os don’t have any money (Mark is actually sleeping in his mother and stepfather’s basement, all too aware of what a cliché that is), but they have credit, so they can rent all kinds of things, including a horse trailer.  A Trojan horse trailer, if you will. (Mr. Westlake did so enjoy his implicit puns.)

The plan goes swimmingly, until they actually get through the gates, and Hall comes prancing out to greet them–with his butler in tow.  Uh-oh.  Dortmunder tries to explain he’s on their side–well, he’s not on Hall’s side, at least–but they can’t stop to listen, or leave any witnesses, so he gets scooped up and carted away in the Trojan horse trailer, fuming impotently at the ruination of his perfect plan by some unforeseen event, like that’s never happened before

So this is all perfectly sound comic capering, with a class-based satiric bite to it,  and what’s the problem?  The problem is that everybody likes Dortmunder & Co. better, including Westlake, who is giving them all the best material, see above.

There’s lots of good story material in the B Plot too; it’s just not quite as good.  The voices of these one-shot characters are less well-defined, and with Westlake’s attentions divided about equally between the A and B Plots, not to mention the endless subplots, there isn’t enough space to refine them.  Devout Dortmunderians understandably feel they are being deprived of more quality time with their beloved rogues, and their resentment predictably if unfairly falls upon the B Plotters.

But I think some of the more interesting moments in the book do, in fact, involve these auxiliary protagonists.  Which I’ll get to in due course, but before I do–why on earth would Monroe drag poor old Rumsey out with him to greet some silly-ass riding instructor?  What’s been going on between the Squire of Pennsylvania and his gentleman’s gentleman?  A tale I shall plagiarously entitle–

‘Jeeves’ and the Lie That Binds:

Kelp loves being the personal secretary.  Dortmunder hates being the butler.  Hates.  There could not, in all the world, be a job he is less well-suited for, all the more since it requires him to wear a suit.  He goes through the motions as best he can, trying not to stick out too much, which only makes him stick out more.  He opens endless doors for the master and mistress of the house, as he saw the movie butlers do; he says “Sur!” at every opportunity, and honestly, shouldn’t this Hall fella just be grateful anyone even wants to be his butler?  I think we’ve already discussed Mr. Hall’s limited grasp of gratitude.  All he’s mastered thus far is the ‘tude part.

In P.G. Wodehouse stories, ineffectual rich men are slaves to their unflappable butlers and their anal dress codes (Yes, Jeeves is a valet, I know, and so did Westlake, but to the world at large he’s a butler).  Even if that was universally true for silly-ass English gentlemen with inherited incomes in the 1920’s (and I greatly misdoubt it), it’s not at all true of someone like Monroe Hall.  To him, the whole point of having a gentleman’s gentleman is that he doesn’t have to behave like a gentleman himself, the moment even the least little thing is out of place.  There’s a reason the wealthy here so often have to outsource this type of job to people they can have deported if need be.   (Though be warned–that’s changing.)

(I should perhaps mention, my maternal grandfather, formerly of the county Limerick, was ‘in service’ for a time–chauffeur, mechanic, and general handyman to Ethel Barrymore.  Yes, that one.  Actors, even famous ones, are perhaps a tad less class conscious than your average rich person, less inclined to stand on ceremony, and I never heard any horror stories about his tenure there–I never heard any stories at all from him about that time in his life, since all we ever did together was dig potatoes in his garden–he was the first of my grandparents to pass, and I wasn’t yet old enough to be curious about who he’d been before he was grandpa. All I knew was my mom couldn’t stop crying for a while after he died.

He didn’t stay with the Barrymores all that long–married my grandma and got his own gas station in New York, during the Depression.  The additives in the gas ultimately caused him to die a painful death by cancer, though at a fairly advanced age.  And if he’d known that would happen, you think he’d have opted to remain in service?  I’m sure he touched his cap with the best of them.  A step up from tugging your forelock to a landlord back in Ireland.  It’s a long hard climb.  Don’t look down.)

For some reason, none of the films he’d studied explained to Dortmunder that one of a butler’s jobs is to polish the master’s shoes down in the pantry.  Which is probably more of a valet’s job, or maybe a footman’s?  (What is a footman, anyway?  I know they started out as dogs, or lizards, or something, but that’s all I can remember from the Disney films.  I’ll look it up later, maybe add a footnote.)

Monroe, formerly surrounded by underlings, has nobody to boss around now but the butler.  So when he sees his unshined shoes gathering dust in the hallway, where he left them, he gets to enjoy the most important perk of being a rich bastard.  Not having to pretend not to be a rich bastard.

Hall won’t even tell Dortmunder what he did wrong.  He’s told to go and ask Alicia.  Who is normally a pleasant enough person, but this Lord and Lady of the Manor thing can be contagious, and she’s almost as snippy.  She explains to him that Monroe wants his shoes polished, how could a professional butler not know this to be one of his duties?  Dortmunder makes up a story about how at the embassy there was a military orderly in charge of that kind of thing.  (No one even suggests that Monroe might want to shine his own fucking shoes, or that it doesn’t matter if they’re shined or not, since he never leaves the grounds, or has any guests.)

In the event, he only had to go back twice to buff the shoes some more, even though he could see his reflection in them the first time he’d whacked them around.  But three trips was all it took.  While Kelp sat smug and amused in his office, Hall gave each shoe a long and critical once-over, and at last grudgingly said, “I suppose they’ll do.  And do you know what to do with them next, Rumsey?

“Put em outside your door, sur.  Where I got um.”

“Very good,” Hall told him.  “We may make a third-rate butler of you yet.”

“Thank you, sur.”

It’s right after this that he tells Dortmunder to be so good as to come get him when the riding instructor arrives, and Dortmunder fondly imagines him riding head-first into a very thick heavy tree branch.

And you know, that wish does come true, after a fashion.  Dortmunder is bad luck for rich bastards.  God bless him.  If the gap between the very wealthy and everybody else continues to grow (as it is doing in China, of all places, where butlering to newly minted millionaires is a vocation on the rise now), God bless us everyone.  The Jeeves stories make for delightful fiction, precisely because they are a comic reversal of the normal order of things in a class-based society.  The Lie that Binds is much closer to the mark, I think.

And speaking of getting closer to the Mark (God save him)–

If Only There Were Territories:

I have this sneaking feeling that, in the book this might have been if it hadn’t turned out to be a Dortmunder, Mark would have been co-protagonist with Mac–each serves as the POV character for his respective side.  Each makes a claim on our sympathies, which is not to say those claims are equally valid.

Mark isn’t a real tycoon yet, just an aspiring one, though he already thinks of himself as a Master of the Universe, albeit one who moved back in with his mom and step-dad for lack of funds.  He and Os (the more severe and formidable of the two, whose inner depths, if any, are never plumbed) basically looked around for investment opportunities, and sometimes they scored, and sometimes they didn’t.  It wasn’t until they invested all they had in Somnitech that they found out what it means to lose everything.  But they still had themselves.  And their vendetta against the much richer man who conned them.

He’s not a bad guy, and he’s not a good guy.  He’s just a guy on the make–a sort of Nephew figure, as is Mac.  Each man is much more frightened by what he’s doing than he’s willing to admit .  Mark’s goals are totally self-interested, Mac’s entirely altruistic.  But in both cases, they can only get what they want via Monroe Hall.  So they keep shoving that very justified fear back down into their guts, where it proceeds to ruin their digestion.

So now they have him.  The wellspring of all their ills.  Locked up in a remote hunting lodge, where they believe they can frighten him into coughing up the necessary funds.  But you know that line from Prizzi’s Honor?  About how Sicilian mobsters would rather eat their children than part with money, fond as they are of their children?  All very rich people are Sicilian mobsters at heart.  And Monroe recognized Mark’s voice, in spite of the silly Halloween mask Mark was wearing.  He figures he just has to wait them out.  Or escape.

Both Mark and Monroe, I’d say, are grown-up and corrupted versions of the title character from Jimmy the Kid.  Resourceful, determined, deplorably admirable in their single-minded absorption in getting what they want.  Mark was the main planner of the abduction,  and Monroe uses a metal rod borrowed from the toilet in his room to break through the boarded up window of his makeshift cell, and scarper.  But now that he has escaped, Mark and Mac both have to face up to the fact that they committed felony kidnapping.

Mark is particularly frightened, since it was his voice Monroe half-remembered, and will attach a name to eventually.  Even before they find Monroe’s room empty, he’s remembering that line from Huckleberry Finn, Huck thinking about how he’s going to light out for the territories.

Isn’t that, after all, what it really means to be an American?  All of the current resistance to a national identification card (and many years ago, for the same reason, to the Social Security number), all of the alarm about the threats to “privacy,” are based on the simple American conviction, from the very beginning of the immigrant experience, that it was the ultimate right of every American, if circumstances happened to call for such drastic measures, to turn himself into somebody new.  The classless society was the ideal partly because, in a classless society, all identity is flexible.  Mark, in  his sleepless hours of not so much battling funk as welcoming funk aboard, had used every shred of schooling he could dredge out of memory to convince himself that at this point of crisis in his life, it would be not only acceptable, it would not be only guilt-free, but it would be damn near his patriotic duty, to run away and become somebody else.

But he tells himself it’s impossible–in this new modern age, there are no Territories to light out for anymore.  Then Monroe disappears, the game is up, and he desperately thinks to himself, If only there were Territories! 

Mac and his friends just want to get out of there.  Os, the level-headed pragmatist, heartily agrees with this sentiment.  None of them are really bad people, so they go to let Dortmunder (who they still think is the butler) out.  Only not knowing he’s going to be let out, he hides behind the door and clubs Mark hard in the face.  Later, he comes back to the abandoned lodge to get some food, and figures out how Monroe escaped.  Hmm.  Pretty good.  He should have thought of that.

So in the hospital, his jaw swollen up, speaking with a ridiculous lisp, refusing to listen to his lawyer, and mentally speaking not at his very best, Mark plays what he thinks is the proper card in this game of Prisoner’s Dilemma he’s found himself in–be the first to confess.  Only the detective, named Cohan, who showed up to question him had nothing on him.  Until now.

Yes, they found Monroe Hall, but he seems to have developed permanent amnesia, due to severe head trauma (the price he paid for going out that window).  Without Mark’s helpful confession, they would never have cracked the case.  They’re grateful to him for ratting out Os, but seems like Mr. Faulk cagily planned in advance for such a dread contingency, and is now hiding on some tropic isle, under a new identity he’d worked out in advance.  There really are Territories!

Mac and his buddies?  They just went home.  They thought about Territories and stuff, but here’s the thing–they are who they are.  Just working stiffs, with families and friends, who hang out in each other’s basements, drink beer, sing union songs, and try to think up noble ways to help their fellow man.  They never did it for themselves.  They wouldn’t even ask for help from their union brothers and sisters, for fear of implicating them in the crime.

And thankfully, there’s nothing Mark can tell the law that will link them to the crime.  Os could, but Os is gone, baby, gone.  They failed to win their symbolic victory of a few thousand bucks for each member of the Amalgamated Conglomerated Workers Factory Floor Alliance (at least we finally find out what ACWFFA stands for).  They don’t feel like they won.  But they kinda did, anyway.

It was never their intent to harm Monroe Hall, much as they hated him (nor did they).  It was never their intent to personally profit from his abduction (nor have they).  And he’s still alive, reasonably healthy, back in the care of his loving if increasingly weary wife, who one suspects won’t ever be getting high-handed with the hired help again–and he’s wiped clean as a newborn babe.  Tabula Rasa.  Has no idea who he is, what he’s done, why anybody would dislike him, who the pretty blonde lady fussing over him might be.

Most of his money is gone, because only he knew the codes for the numbered overseas bank accounts–he didn’t even trust Alicia with them.  There is no Monroe Hall anymore.  The estate and all its furnishings is going to be sold off.  And the valuable antique cars Dortmunder & Co. hoped to steal?  Shipped to that museum in Florida Monroe donated them to earlier as a tax dodge.  Gone, baby, gone.

(One is reminded of that scene in Memory, where the amnesiac protagonist goes to a priest for guidance, and instead of getting him to a doctor, the old man starts musing to himself about whether if you can’t remember any sins you committed, are you still guilty of them?  Have you inadvertently entered a state of grace?

This could become a highly relevant theological/philosophical debate in the near future, if a certain President whose name I’m weary to my death of typing inherited the Alzheimer’s gene from his equally scurvy dad, and it’s looking quite likely this is the case.  One way or another, he’s getting locked up.  Whether we’ll still have a comfy basement den to go drink beer and sing union songs in after that happens remains an open question.)

I’m over 7000 words.  I could go on like this for another 7000.  There’s a lot in this book to talk about.  So many good gags to mull over, and realize as we do, that there was much more to them than mere drollery.  A fellow of infinite jest, was Mr. Westlake.  But the jokes were never at our expense.  They were for our edification.  They were to try and wake us up.  Not his fault we mainly prefer to go on sawing wood.

So yeah, it’s not a great Dortmunder novel, as such.  Maybe it wasn’t originally going to be a Dortmunder at all.  You can say that it’s too many mismatching (if delightful) bits and pieces, a patchwork quilt of criminal farce and social satire.  I think Westlake himself had the last rueful word on its mixed merits, when he typed the final paragraph.

Yet one more running subplot–when Monroe is abducted, two detectives are assigned to the case.  Lieutenant Orville, and his sidekick, who is named Wooster (but of course he is).  They are not, shall we say, the brightest badges on the force, or at least one hopes not.  Orville, in particular, comes in for more than his share of ribbing from the detective-mocking Westlake–seems he learned most of what he knows about police work from crime fiction–like those 87th Precinct novels (damn, those boys were good, he thinks to himself).   Orville thinks in clichés, because he is one.

But he is not without certain constabulary instincts.  He can sense that this Fred Blanchard fellow, the personal secretary with the guileless air about him, isn’t who he’s pretending to be.  He thinks the kidnapping is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler was taken precisely because he’s in on it.  Of course, there is an inside job, and Rumsey the butler is in on it, but they haven’t done it yet, and it’s not a kidnapping.  Dortmunder had enough of that kind of gig to last him a lifetime, eight books ago.

And then, when somebody shows up trying to kill Fred Blanchard (thankfully for Kelp, his borrowed identity didn’t set off any alarm bells with the previous Blanchard’s enemies until they’d all gone back to their true selves)–Orville is even more convinced he’s on the right track.  They arrest the baffled hitman from Votskojek (grrrrr?) who showed up a mite too late to do his job.  Surely he shall provide them with clues as to the whereabouts of this so-called secretary!  Fred Blanchard has disappeared without a trace, but he shall not forever escape the long arm of the law!

“I knew I was gonna get you, Fred Blanchard!  You won’t hide from me!  Nowhere on Earth, Fred Blanchard, will you be safe from Lieutenant Wilbur Orville!  Let’s go, Bob.  This is a wrap.”

This is almost a direct lift from the final lines of Bank Shot, the most dismally awful film ever made from a Dortmunder novel (if there’s something worse, please don’t tell me).  A good satirist doesn’t exempt himself from the slings and arrows of his art.  And in my estimation, Donald E. Westlake was one of the finest satirists his nation ever produced.  If the nation but knew it. Well, the nation has other concerns at present time.

And just FYI, nation, the Road to Ruin is a cul-de-sac.  Further down it you go, the longer the return trip will be.  If you won’t believe Donald Westlake, will you believe a nice girl in a feather boa doing a wicked Mae West impression for Jesus?

The nation can attend to its own affairs (maybe).  In the meantime, I have eleven very short reviews to write for next week. See you then.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: The Road to Ruin

At loose ends–well, he was always at loose ends these days–Hall went over to the treadmill, set it at a very leisurely pace indeed, far more languid than Flip would ever allow, and went for a little walk.

A little walk to nowhere, that’s what his life had come down to.  He could walk, he could walk all he wanted, but he couldn’t actually go anywhere.

Treadmill to Oblivion, 1954, Fred Allen’s grim-titled memoir of his life writing and starring in a weekly radio show.  Hall had a copy of it, of course, signed first edition with a dustjacket in almost perfect condition.  He’d been told it was a very good book.

He didn’t need to read those books.  He didn’t need to exercise on all these intimidating machines.  He didn’t need to drive all these cars.  He needed to have them, that’s all, have everything, have the complete set of everything ever made.  Then he’d be happy.

Dortmunder was never happy outside the five boroughs.  There was always something wrong with the rest of the world, some way it had figured out to make him more uncomfortable.  For instance, in the uncharted middle of Pennsylvania, he had to sleep on the kitchen floor.

Anne Marie said, “I remember that!  Wasn’t he the white-haired man that testified in front of congress?”

“Anne Marie,” Andy said, “every white-haired man in America that owns a suit has testified in front of congress.”

Before we start on this one, let me lay out the rest of the program for this revue of reviews that is now approaching its end.  There is nothing left to cover now but three Parker novels, four Dortmunder novels, ten Dortmunder stories (plus one alternate universe Dortmunder story), one Dortmunder novella, and Forever And A Death, which I’m not reviewing until it’s been available to the general public for a month or two.

When all of that is done, I may well find other things to talk about, but the primary mission statement of this blog will have been completed, much to my own amazement, since I never finish anything I start, unless it’s a glass of beer, or a crossword puzzle (I cheat).  First time for everything, I suppose, but we’re not there yet.

The three linked novels that inconclusively conclude the Parker saga stand out starkly from the rest of the work he did over the last five years of his life.  I want to review them as a set, so even though Nobody Runs Forever came out the same year as this book, I’m going to put it off until I’ve reviewed all the Dortmunders other than the last one, which I believe was written with the idea it would be the last.

By the time I’m through all that, it’ll be time to give Forever And A Death  the detailed scrutiny I have no reason to think any professional critic will have given it.  Then the final three Parker novels, one after the other.  My one-part reviews of Dirty Money and Get Real will be published within less than a minute of each other, because I don’t want to show favoritism.  We clear?  Let’s get this show on the road.  To ruin, naturally.

This is yet another book in which Dortmunder comes into conflict with a very rich and narcissistic man, though one who has already suffered his comeuppance.  One might start to come to the conclusion that Westlake didn’t care for the very wealthy. Though he spent so much time writing about them, one cannot deny there was a certain fascination there–what’s it like to have so much more in the way of material resources than anyone could possibly need?  What does that do to your sense of self?

Westlake seems to believe that too often it distorts, disengages, and ultimately destroys your sense of self.  But first it magnifies your sense of self-importance to absurd, almost Swiftian extremes.  Which can lead in its turn to rather edifying downfalls.  And the rest of us, torn between admiring, envying and disparaging the very wealthy, while being all too aware of the low regard they hold us in, can perhaps be forgiven for rejoicing in the fall of titans, who turned out to be not so big after all.

What’s The Worst That Could Happen? was the first of the Dortmunder novels where the tantrum-prone tycoon had some identifiable models in real life.  Most notably the one who somehow got into the White House, and refuses to leave now (best check his pockets for silverware when he does, and maybe the launch codes).  But that character was a composite, and Westlake pretty carefully avoided getting too obvious about it, because his primary model was well known for his thin skin, and love of litigation.

As matters worked out, however, no lawsuits were filed (to notice you’ve been lampooned in a book requires that you occasionally read books), and Westlake may have felt emboldened when it came to choosing  his next victim.  Or rather, victims–another composite composed of figures ripped from the headlines, but all from the same company this time.  Most notably, people like Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the lesser known Andrew Fastow, and his wife, Lea.  You know.  Enron.  We still remember Enron, right?  A decade feels like an eon, nowadays.  You can bet there are still millions of people struggling through unexpectedly sparse retirements who remember them vividly.  And all the horrible yet richly deserved puns on the first guy’s name.

(With all due respect to Murdoch’s rag, this looks like a job for the Weekly Galaxy.)

Again, it’s not meant to be a direct portrait, but rather an extrapolation based on reading the news stories, the interviews, and imagining what such a creature might be like, what his life would be after his public disgrace, what stories might potentially be told about him; positing that he avoids prison while staying alive, something none of the Enron guys ultimately managed to do.  Which kind of undermines the premise, but what the hell.  A writer of satiric fiction, moved by current events, must nonetheless create his own characters, with their own unique fates.  And Westlake, writing this not long after the scandal broke, couldn’t wait for the courts to get around to sentencing these guys.  He couldn’t be sure he’d live that long.  Satirists are not required to be fair and balanced (neither are cable news channels).

And fairness is wasted on some people, if we’re going to be balanced about it.  It’s wasted because they have rejected the very concept of fairness, or compassion, except for themselves.  By degree they become isolated, not merely from the lower orders of society, but from society itself.  Narcissism devolves into solipsism, the black hole of identity.  That’s going to be one of the points of this book.  That a pitiable character is not the same thing as a sympathetic one.  But as always with a Dortmunder, the main point is to make us laugh–the better to keep us from crying over our lost pensions and portfolios, and the general unfairness of Life.

And who knows more about Life’s injustice than Our Hero, who we rejoin now, as he ponders the mysteries of local media.

Dortmunder sat in his living room to watch the local evening news, and had just about come to the conclusion that every multiple-dwelling residence in the state of New Jersey would eventually burn to the ground, three per news cycle, when the doorbell rang.  He looked up, surprised, not expecting anybody, and then became doubly surprised when he realized it had not been the familiar blatt of the hall doorbell right upstairs here, but the never-heard ing of the street-level bell, sounding in the kitchen.

Rising, he left the living room and stepped out to the hall, to see May looking down at him from the kitchen, her hands full of today’s gleanings from her job at Safeway as she said, “Who is it?”

“Not this bell,” he told her, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at the hall door. “The street bell.”

“The street bell?”

Dortmunder clomped back to the kitchen, to the intercom on the wall there that had never worked, that the landlord had just repaired in a blatant ploy to raise the rent.  Not sure of the etiquette or operation of this piece of machinery, for so long on the inactive list, he leaned his lips closer to the mouthpiece and said, “Yar?”

“It’s Andy,” said a voice that sounded like Andy being imitated by a talking car.

“Andy?”

May said “Let him in, John.”

“Oh, yeah.” Dortmunder pressed the white bone button, and yet another unpleasant sound bounced around the kitchen.

(You will never know the restraint I had to employ to stop myself from typing out the entire first chapter of this book, which is probably illegal, but then so is most of what happens in the book, so there.  Our landlord, parenthetically, years ago replaced our old apartment number based intercom with one that requires visitors to punch in a secret code that rings the bell, and then you have only about twenty seconds to get to the button and buzz them in, before everybody has to start all over again.  Richer buildings in my nabe, by contrast, have security cameras at street level, little TV monitors up above, and you can look your would-be visitors in the face and tell them you don’t want to see them, even though you are, in fact, seeing them.  Think of all the fun Westlake could have had with that.)

There’s no pleasing that old grouch Dortmunder.  Normally Kelp never announces his impending presence, merely picks the locks and lets himself in, but this time he thought he’d respect their privacy by making them listen to New Music.  Anyway, Andy just wants to know if Dortmunder has a pending job he can horn in on, and if not, he’s got an idea about robbing the Speedshop big box store in New Jersey, where Dortmunder nearly got nabbed by the cops in the last book.  Dortmunder takes a pass on that.

Then the phone rings, Kelp starts in on his usual spiel about how he could put in all kinds of extensions, Dortmunder just has to say the word, and Dortmunder responds with his favorite word, which is no.  Then May comes back from the phone, and says it’s Anne Marie for Andy.  She wants him to know there’s this man sitting in their living room who says he’s an old friend, and he won’t leave, and he won’t give his name, and would Andy please come home now?  And then Dortmunder realizes he’s expected to go too.  And this is what comes of modern communications technology; intercoms, landlines, etc.  Well, that’s what Dortmunder thinks of as modern communications technology.  Please, nobody tell him about Twitter.  Though probably Kelp already has.

I can be grouchy too, and I have many problems with the final run of Dortmunders, but Westlake’s talent for observational humor never once flagged, to the very end.  He drags you in with the first paragraph, and you’re hooked.  But hooked to what, pray tell?  The ideas being used here would work fine for a short story, or even a short novel.  Thing is, most of the final Dortmunders run long.  The market wanted them long, to justify that  intimidating price on the inner dust jacket.

If there’s anything harder than writing comedies, it’s writing long comedies, with elaborate premises. This premise is decidedly elaborate.  The book is a lot better than I remembered–still a rambling, somewhat disjointed, and not entirely satisfying escapade, due partly to its excessive length and complexity.  And the same could be said of many a Dickens novel, to be sure.  But Dickens has tenure.  Westlake’s is still hung up in committee.  Anyway, what’s the premise here?

The guy waiting in Andy and Anne Marie’s apartment out to be an old friend of Andy’s, named Chester Fallon  He wouldn’t ID himself to Anne Marie, because for all he knows she’s the law, he’s seen cops as pretty as her, to which Dortmunder replies “Not enough of them,” so he does notice things like that.  Anne Marie is mainly irritated that he wouldn’t even give his first name–would have saved her a lot of worry, since nobody was ever scared of a guy named Chester.

Chester was a stunt driver in Hollywood, back before Hollywood replaced most stunt drivers and their deathproof cars with computer generated imagery.  Having become redundant in one career, he made use of his skills to drive getaway cars for heisters, which landed him in stir for a while.  Getting out early on good behavior, he landed a dream job as chauffeur for Monroe Hall, a mega-rich corporate executive, who owned a large assortment of rare and nifty old autos, worth about two million dollars on the collector’s market.  Aside from driving Hall and his wife, Chester was expected to tool around in all these cars regularly, to keep them in good working condition.  Great salary, great benefits, great rides–what’s not to like?

This.  Hall’s company was called Somnitech.  Note the past tense.  Somnitech dealt in energy, communications, manufacturing, etc–“It’s what they call horizontal diversification, which to me sounds like a whorehouse that caters to all tastes, but if that’s what they want to call it, fine.”  Somnitech paid Chester’s salary, benefits, retirement plan–it paid for basically everything and everybody Hall needed or wanted in his personal life, which was not 100% kosher, but he and others at the top of the Somnitech food chain did it anyway.  

And they got caught.  The company’s stock collapsed, and due to its very large size, this had a very bad effect on the personal fortunes of people from all different walks of life.  Calls of “Lock the rascals up!” were heard throughout the land, but they were not locked up.  Their lawyers saw to that.

They did have to make restitution, however, and although Monroe Hall remains fabulously wealthy, most of his funds are tucked away safely in offshore accounts where no greedy government or choleric creditor can lay covetous hands upon them.  How he spends his stateside cash is tightly controlled. His cars are now the property of a museum in Florida, but the terms of the  donation say he can have the use of them while he’s still alive, so they’re still on his estate in Pennsylvania.

And he can’t consort with known criminals, being one himself now (which seems a bit perverse), so guess who’s fired?  Chester hadn’t gotten so much as a parking ticket since his release, but he still lost his salary, benefits, retirement plan, and the little house on Hall’s estate he and his wife Grace were living in.  Hall did something literally millions of times worse than Chester ever did, and his punishment is to live like a rich man with his beautiful blonde wife in a well-appointed mansion on a lovely little piece of land that takes up most of the county it’s in.  I feel like Anatole France should have lived to comment on this, but I suppose he did in his way.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”

So everybody present is saddened to hear about Chester’s misfortune, but what does he want them to do about it?  Clearly something unlawful, because that’s the only thing people ever ask them to do.  John cuts to the heart of it–“What is it you want to steal?”  “His fucking cars,” Chester said, and nodded at Anne Marie.  “Excuse the French.”

(Sidebar: Not for the first or last time, Westlake’s often uncanny penchant for prognostication plays him false here.  Let it not be said life never improves on fiction.  Within a short time of this book being published, the central figures in the Enron debacle had been imprisoned, with the exception of Lay, who died shortly before that could happen.

Not even moats filled with man-eating lawyers, as Chester puts it, were able to protect them from the raucous public outcry for their incarceration that came–and this is key–from all segments of society.  If they’d only screwed over the hoi polloi, they’d have probably gotten a deal somewhat like Hall’s.  But a large segment of the gentry lost their shirts on Enron too.  And that’s the moral of the story, kids.  As Bernie Madoff could tell you.

Westlake does make it clear, later in the book, that it wasn’t only working stiffs who nursed a grudge, but he underestimated how the rules can change when you screw over the patricians along with the plebes.  Or, having seen boobs like Trump avoid justice so long, he figured any rich prick could do it.  Or maybe he just needed to keep Monroe Hall out of prison for the purposes of the story–and had his own unique form of punishment in mind.  There was much of W.S. Gilbert’s Mikado in Mr. Westlake, I often think.

Anyway, we can nitpick all we want, but Fastow only did a year.  Skilling gets out in 2018 (they lopped ten years off his sentence), and can look forward to a very comfortable retirement.  Want to see the dank stygian hellhole they stuck him in?

MON_lrg

Montgomery Federal Prison Camp.  Considered by many to be one of the four best lock-ups in the country to stay at, if you’re shopping around.  “La majestueuse égalité des lois…”  Excuse the French.)

Chapter 3 takes us over to Pennsylvania, to Monroe Hall, and his lovely wife Alicia, who we’re told loves the bum, but not without certain reservations.  She also worked at Somnitech, had a fair bit of culpability in its misdeeds, and being maybe the only person Hall gives half a shit about, he’d protected her.  So now she feels she has to share in what amounts to his house arrest, since he doesn’t dare go outside the grounds, for fear of encountering some among the very large number of people who want to do him bodily harm (there is reputedly one fellow toting a horsewhip in happy anticipation of the day he lays eyes on Mr. Hall).

He wants to throw a big party for all their friends.  She informs him sadly he doesn’t have any friends now.  Most of their former social circle will never forgive him for fleecing them.  He and his fellow conspirators at Somnitech are expressly forbidden to see each other.  She says they should all feel very lucky they’re not in prison.  He sulks that he might as well be.  She suggests he is perhaps feeling a little sorry for himself, and says they can go for a drive.  He doesn’t want to.  She says she’s going for a drive anyway.  In the Healey-Silverstone.  One of her favorites in Monroe’s collection.  If you want to see why–

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(She looks good in it, we’re told.  “With the beautiful long-haired blonde at the wheel, flashing through the lush green Pennsylvania countryside on the first day of June, it was a sight to make you glad there’s evolution.”)

Chapter 4 is Dortmunder walking into the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars are discussing global warming, air conditioners, and why all the holidays are on Monday except Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Rollo the bartender has a new electronic cash register, the functioning of which he explains to a skeptical Dortmunder, while the regulars begin pondering the weighty question of whatever happened to Armistice Day.  If you are a reader of these books, you are experiencing a warm inner glow right now, just thinking about it.

Dortmunder takes the usual array of beverages back to the back room, which he’s happy to see he’s the first to arrive at, so he can sit facing the door (no doubt thinking of poor Mr. Hickok).  Murch arrives, later than he’d hoped, complaining about bicycle lanes on the BQE, and monorails on the Van Wyck (there are not, to this day, any monorails in the five boroughs, unless you count the one in the Bronx Zoo, but the word ‘monorail’ is just inherently funny, ask The Simpsons).

Kelp and Chester arrive, while Tiny lingers behind at the bar a short time, to explain to the regulars that he really does not care whether we ever celebrated Decoration Day in America.  The regulars should have learned by now not to confuse Tiny Bulcher, but maybe this is a new set of regulars, to replace past sets he was forced to chastise.  Chester looks at the Kong-like hand Tiny proffers to him, the knuckles damp, and asks if Tiny hurt himself.  “I don’t hurt myself,” is the rejoinder.

So Chester tells his story again, and Tiny expresses the opinion that this Monroe Hall person could do with a little chastisement, and at this point the reader is of the opinion that the world could use a lot more Tiny Bulchers in it.   Like one stationed right outside Mar-a-Lago would be good.

Basically, the idea is that they steal the six most valuable cars, and maybe pack them with a lot of smaller collectibles, like music boxes and cuckoo clocks, that Hall accumulates to himself like the world’s richest and least lovable pack rat.  But this rat has a large security staff (larger than ever, now that the whole country wants to dismember him), and is surrounded by an electrified fence that is also alarmed, so that if the current is broken, the rent-a-cops come running.  So everybody looks at Dortmunder, like they always do when they need a plan to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be and come back out again.  And he says they need to go see the place.

So then we meet Mac, Buddy, and Ace, three stout-hearted union members (not stout in heart only), parked outside the Hall estate, singing their union anthem:

“Who will always guide the way?
Give us comfort in the fray?
Gain us benefits and pay?
The A C W F F A!”

If you were wondering whatever happened to the American labor movement……well, let’s say it’s come a long way since Killy, and probably the wrong way.

They follow Alicia around the countryside, as they have done many times before, which is at least aesthetically pleasing, but brings them no closer to their goal of getting their hands on her husband, who screwed over them and their union siblings something fierce.  But in this instance, it brings them allies–of a sort. Remember what I said about how it wasn’t only the working class who have bones to pick with Monroe Hall?

These two gentlemen sidle up in their leased Lincoln Navigator, “the most carnivorous vehicle on the road, the Minotaur of motoring.”  As thin and natty as their bluecollar counterparts are pudgy and disheveled, they go by the names Mark Sterling and Osbourne Faulk.  Venture capitalists.  Relative small fry in the seas of commerce, but with the ambition of someday becoming full-fledged sharks.  Or rather, that was their ambition, before the blandishments of Monroe Hall & Co. induced them to invest heavily in Somnitech stock.  Uh-oh.  Every time Mark brings up what followed this investment, Osbourne (‘Os’ to his friends, Mister Os to his enemies), growls softly.

Buddy says they can relate–they lost everything too.

Surprised, Mark said, “You invested?”

“Everything,” Buddy told him.  “Life insurance.  Health insurance.  Pension plan.”

Oh, those things.  They hardly mattered in the grand scheme of existence, after all, but Mark could just see that Buddy and his friends might treasure them more than they were really worth.  Symbolic value, and so on.  Sympathy at full bore, he said, “So you see, we are in a similar situation.”

As the scorpion once said to the frog.  But Mark does have some valid points to make here–the three amigos don’t really have a workable plan.  They think if they can capture Monroe Hall, they can hold him for ransom, ten million dollars, to be distributed equally to all of their members–a bit over 3k apiece.  As Mark thought–symbolic value.  Though in his own cold way, he does find their altruism moving, if naive.

He lets them down gently–even if they could get Hall, even if Alicia agreed to pay, as she probably would (none of them believes Hall would pay ransom for her, or his own mother, were she unfortunate enough to be among the living now)–as soon as the money got stateside, the Feds would siphon it up.

No, the thing to do is to get Hall in their clutches, and then, fixed beneath the baleful gaze of Mister Os, who keeps saying things along the lines of “With our hands upon his throat,” they can gently persuade him to transfer the needed funds–ten million for the union,  millions more for Mark and Os to invest in a new business opportunity they believe will proceed more felicitously–from his numbered overseas bank accounts, via their laptop.  Do it all electronically. Don’t bother with such a greasy fungible as mere cash.  He doesn’t mention bitcoin, but how much you want to bet he would have had this book had come out a few years later?

So the bargain is struck.  They will work together as a team, and since they have mutually concluded Hall is never coming out, they will have to figure out a way to go in and get him.

And now we’re with Andy Kelp, called upon to provide a car for the gang to head over to Pennsylvania in, and still imbued with a deep faith in doctors–not their medical expertise so much as their good taste in cars, and he is pleased to have his faith borne out once more, as he finds a Buick Roadmaster Estate station wagon, circa the Mid-90’s, complete with MD plates.  Seats nine, or in this instance, four plus Tiny.

This grand vehicle was a color not seen in nature, nor much of anywhere else except certain products of Detroit. It was a metallic shimmering kind of not-chartreuse, not-gold, not-silver, not-mauve, with just a hint of not-maroon.  It was in effect a rendering in enamel of a restaurant’s wine list descriptions.  But even better, from Kelp’s point of view, the Roadmaster was dust-free.

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As one auto-centric website describes it, “The last of its kind. An end of an era. The final chapter.”  In short, the ideal transport for the Dortmunder gang.  But far from ideal for Dortmunder, who ends up sitting in the auxiliary seat in the far back, that you have to enter via the tailgate, and which faces the rear of the vehicle, meaning that he has to put up with all kinds of disrespectful gestures from passing motorists and their bratty kids.  He bears it with his usual stalwart dignity and forebearance.  Tiny suggests they get some carpet tacks to fling under the tires of the offending motorists.  Dortmunder is grateful for the suggestion.

So they size up the security at the estate.  If only Somnitech had been this secure. Dortmunder quickly figures out there’s no way they can break in there undetected and get the goods out.  So it’s no go?  Not quite.

They had a lot of time to gab on the way there and while sizing up the terrain, and Chester has understandably had a lot to say about his former employer–and he lets it slip that nobody really wants to work for the guy anymore.  He’s pitifully understaffed.  And here is the point of vulnerability Dortmunder’s practiced eye always looks for.  “Monroe Hall needs staff,” Dortmunder said. “We hire on.”

So he declares at the end of Chapter 9, and now the premise of the book is is fully established.  Dortmunder & Co. will pretend to be the faithful employees of a faithless billionaire.  The union guys and the baby capitalists will pretend to be on the same side.  Monroe Hall will pretend to be a human being and Alicia will go on pretending to believe that he is one.  The ducks are lined up.  The stage is set.  The cast is assembled.  Part 1 is concluded.

Which leaves a whole lot of book left for Part 2.  Not quite four fifths of the book, to be precise.  But that four fifths includes a whole lot of extraneous material we can skirt past, which is the primary weakness of this novel–and at the same time, one of its undeniable pleasures.  As I like to say, reading the late Dortmunders is a bit like hanging out and chewing the fat with old friends.  It may not always be as productive or enlightening as one might hope.  But if there’s a more pleasant method for frittering away one’s spare time betwixt the cradle and the grave, I’ve yet to find it.

PS: The title of this book had been used several times before–in several different genres and artistic medias.

So which of these might have inspired the erudite Mr. Westlake to choose that title?  I’m guessing the first.  But hell, let’s say all of them.  Why not?  It’s the road we’re all on, after all. These gents will vouch for that.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels