Category Archives: 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 letters on a field of 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 a 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.

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–

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(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 effectual?  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, and then 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 until then familiar 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–Arnie Albright 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.)

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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.  The mob guys are there there.  But 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.  But 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.   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 deep in the 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 shredded beef with garlic sauce–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.  Change created these books we’re talking about.  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 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.  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?

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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–

Healey-Silverstone-1949-1950-by-B

(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.

IMG_2311

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

Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

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

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

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

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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Bad News, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arraignment of Redcorn:

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

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

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

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

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

(Lucky horse.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Un-Busy Body:

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

Tiny said, “What you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bet they would,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The signage stunk,” Kelp said.

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

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

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

“You got it again,” Tiny told him.

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

“Did I know about what?”

“Southwest,” Tiny said.

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

Kelp looked up there.

“Back on the road!” Dortmunder yelled.

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

“Very useful,” Dortmunder suggested.

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

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

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

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

The Native Nephew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Color is Dortmunder’s Parachute?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We also go for quieter,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

“You don’t have a purpose in life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t hear it,” Margaret said.

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

Margaret looked interested.  “Oh yeah?”

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

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

“Frank.”

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

“Yes.  And I know it’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that leaves us nothing but–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Bad News

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

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

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

“We know,” Kelp assured him.

Dortmunder said “Little Feather’s an Indian.”

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

Dortmunder said, “And putting casinos on them.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Anastasia,” Tiny said.

Dortmunder said, “That’s it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why–Why that thing?”

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

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

“At the moment,” Tiny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(horns come in lower now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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