(Disclaimer: Turns out disclaimers aren’t legally required, and who would ever believe I could come up with characters this good? Not for nothing, but I’ve yet to shoehorn a single Mary Sue into this thing. If I ever did, her name would be Mary Fred, and that’s been done.)
Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot;
Or garden tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights, explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.
From Essay on Man, Epistle I, by Alexander Pope.
MUCH AS DORTMUNDER HAD ALWAYS AND WOULD ALWAYS LOVE NEW YORK, his devotion was not of the sightless kind. He knew very well the bellicose burg he had chosen as his lifelong abode must test the constancy of her myriad suitors, by periodically attempting to kill them. If you can’t put up with the odd attempt on your life, her reasoning ran, maybe city life isn’t for you. For Dortmunder there was only the one city, so he learned to duck early and often.
Multifarous are Manhattan’s murderous methods, and it was a chore keeping up with them all. Dortmunder read the papers, knew there was some new kind of flu bug or whatever going around, but since the primary means of avoiding it was staying far as you could from the madding crowd (which he did as a matter of course) he figured it wouldn’t be a problem.
He did note with professional interest the normalization of wearing masks in public, but was skeptical of their efficacy. Cops could probably still recognize you from just the top of your face. He was looking for something with more coverage. And then something found him.
Sitting at the dinner table one evening, looking down with satisfaction at a steaming portion of May’s famed tuna casserole, he leaned down to savor a prefatory whiff–and whiffed again. The anticipated aroma was not detected. He forked some into his mouth–not only had the salt lost its flavor, but all the other ingredients as well. Come to think of it, he wasn’t hungry, though he’d skipped lunch to knock over a jewelry store (conveniently closed for the duration).
He asked May if she’d left anything out of the casserole–tuna, perhaps–she gave him a narrow look. Out came the thermometer (oral, thankfully). Into her eyes came something he didn’t often see there. And upon him dawned the realization he’d ducked one time too few.
Dortmunder’s profession had its perks, but health insurance didn’t number among them. No doctors, no hospitals. May vetoed any notion of his finding another place to stay. Not like she could go work at the supermarket now, anyway. She did lay in a large supply of necessities, prior to announcing her leave of absence–even paid for some of them. They had shared everything else, after all. He tried to object, but was already too weak to put up much of a fight.
Her symptoms, when they came, were mild. Dortmunder’s, predictably, were not.
The thing he most objected to was breathing, something you tend to take for granted, until you realize you shouldn’t have done that. Not since that wretched reservoir in Putkin’s Corners had he felt so in danger of going down for the last time, but this time he was drowning on dry land, which was somehow worse, though not so muddy.
Just as May told Dortmunder she was going to call 911 whether he liked it or not, in waltzed Kelp, his arms loaded with boodle from a medical supplies warehouse, including this boxy gizmo. (Kelp and his goddam gizmos). He said it was a Nebulatizer, Nebu-louser, something like that. (It was all pretty nebulous for Dortmunder by that point).
Kelp showed May how to hook it up, told her to stay out of the bedroom when it was on, so she wouldn’t be further beladen with bug. Dortmunder just had to wear this mask thing (bit late now, wouldn’t you say?) and respire. Oxygenation got easier. Kelp’s gizmo had worked. Just one more thing for Dortmunder to feel sore about. But he had pills for that.
In one moment of near-delirium, the Nebu-louser droning away in the background, he thought he saw God again, bald and bespectacled, leaning over him with a look of what might have been concern, but was probably more like annoyance. “Sorry, John. No early parole for you. You still have time to serve.” Well didn’t that just figure?
Finally well enough to watch TV in the living room, he saw President Fairbanks, telling the entire planet this was no big deal, minor hiccup, definitely not his fault (no one had asked him if it was). Just go about your business, it’ll all be fine, if you catch it spread it around, herd insanity. You can wear a mask if you like, but they’re so out of fashion. He spoke as if he was literally The Boss of Everybody, and had caught them all lallygagging at the water cooler–back to work, layabouts! Then he went golfing.
Dortmunder was good with getting back to work. Sooner the better. He began to feel stronger. Unresolved vengeance issues had that effect on him.
So he started making calls. On the landline. Touchingly archaic as that might be. (He’d have used a payphone, but forget that now–if they weren’t already gone, the powers that be would have probably ripped them up to avoid further spread). A meet at the OJ was clearly called for, but as Rollo dolefully informed him, that wasn’t an option for the near future.
Then Kelp proposed this video chat thingy, which Dortmunder begged Kelp not to tell him about, but Kelp went blithely on regardless, until Dortmunder conceded the point, just to stop the explication. Equipment was installed, by Kelp, at no charge naturally (if Dortmunder had only realized Kelp would have paid him for the sheer delight of bringing the cyber domain into Dortmunder’s, at long last–ah, what a tangled web we weave….).
An (appropriately) illegal connection to some unfortunate neighbor’s WiFi was devised with Wally Knurr’s assistance. They assured Dortmunder that measures had been taken to prevent their private communications from becoming public. Dortmunder didn’t believe one word of it, but if this was the only way to move the Fairbanks Agenda forward, he was willing to pretend he did.
So when the meet began, he was there, however grudgingly, a laptop atop his lap (if you’re not supposed to put them there, why are they called that?), and he had witnessed the distracted proceedings with the firm and unastonished conviction that this was even worse than all the previous communications advances Kelp had stubbornly insisted on informing him of. He endeavored to say this, only to find himself unable to join in the audiovisual melee, until something Wally did loosed the digital logjam, and now it was his turn to expound at some length.
“What are any of you talking about? How are we ever going to get the the point of anything, if you keep dancing around it? Stan is jacking a car, Tiny is making everyone wear a mask, Herman is leading another revolution, Wally is still waiting for Myrtle, and that’s all dandy, but Quid lucrum istic mihi est, you know? The issue at hand is how do we take down Fairbanks while making bank? We did it before, we can do it again. Am I right?”
A long embarasssed silence.
Kelp spoke in the low humble tones he used when Dortmunder required placating. “John, we were just waiting on you. It’s a new thing, this video-meet, we needed some practice anyway. And we always used to socialize a bit at the OJ before getting down to business.”
“Okay, so the greet part of the meet is now concluded. Unless there’s somebody else who hasn’t gotten to tell us what he did on his vacation?” Dortmunder knew he’d regret those words the moment they left his mouth, but it being impossible to recall them, he waited fatalistically, and not long.
“Um, guys, it’s me. Victor.” Said Victor. Kelp’s Nephew. Who worked for the FBI. Hard to be confused about that, since they could all see him clearly on their screens. Based on the official-looking photograph of President Fairbanks visible on the wall behind him, he was sitting at his desk, at the Bureau, as he spoke. Either that or he was a fan.
“Why is there a Fed at our meet?” Rumbled Tiny, who reached up to make sure his mask was still on tight.
“Victor, I said I’d fill you in later.” Mumbled Kelp, who was starting to see the flaws in this mode of communication.
“You said what!?” Exclaimed Herman, who remembered Victor very well and not fondly from a previous job that had not gone well, but Victor hadn’t been an active-duty cop at the time.
“Victor, you know, I was only kidding about this car being stolen.” Explained Murch, now parked at Maximilian’s Used Cars, conveniently near the city line, not that it mattered if this was going to be a Federal rap. Maybe as long as he didn’t drive it over a state line?
“You’re Victor? I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’ve heard great things!” Enthused Wally Knurr, who knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.
“Victor, it’s fine. You can join in. Why the hell not?” Philosophized Dortmunder, who wondered idly to himself what else could go wrong, but didn’t ask that question out loud, because you really do need to learn from your mistakes.
“I shouldn’t be here, I know, but–”
“How are you here?” Inquired Kelp, with a befuddled look. “I didn’t give you the number to call.”
“You gave me your PMI, Uncle Andy–for that one-on-one conference we had the other day. You mentioned what time you were holding it. Not hard at all–it’s just that I needed to reach you right away, and….”
(As Victor went on, Dortmunder thought nostalgically of the days he would have been stupid enough to ask what ‘PMI’ stood for. Pure Mad Idiocy?)
“Listen, you guys don’t have to worry.” Reassured Victor, with a worried look on his face. “The Bureau isn’t going to find out about any of this. That’s really what I needed you to know. My office is terminating its involvement. Budget cuts. And there’s too few people left here who can be trusted to keep quiet.”
“And this is why you’re talking to us from your office?” Interjected somebody. (It doesn’t matter who, since they were all thinking it).
“I’m supposed to be on desk duty today. I don’t have good enough internet at home, anyhow.” Excused Victor, threadbarely.
“Victor, I’d be happy to help you out with that.” Volunteered Wally, always eager to make a new connection, both digital and personal.
“Hey, would you?” Importuned Victor, whose nerdishness was of a different order than Wally’s. “I keep meaning to upgrade my personal equipment, it’s just that I was never very good at that kind of—”
“ENOUGH!!!!!” Concluded Dortmunder. “We are here to discuss a job. Victor, are you in or out? You can do it off the books if you like.
Victor wrestled with his conscience, but that was never a lengthy match–early filler, well before the Main Event, which would presumably involve The Undertaker. “Sure, I’d love to. I can take a leave of absence. There have been hints about that from upstairs, anyway.”
“Good to have you aboard. Now if there’s nothing else, we can–what’s that?”
Looking down at the laptop screen, Dortmunder had suddenly discerned what appeared to be text messages (Kelp had also insisted on telling him about those) flashing across the bottom of it. Disconcertingly, it appeared to be a free-ranging discussion of their discussion, with numerous asides. A sort of virtual peanut gallery. Perhaps with actual peanuts. Maybe a few beers. The style of discourse seemed oddly familar…….
Dortmundweiser is giving ’em hell!
That ain’t his name, it’s Dortmiller.
I thought it was Coorsmunder?
I hear he had Covid-19.
How did we miss the other 18, is what I want to know.
I think it was in beta before now.
Is there a VHS version?
What do they have against Fairbanks? He made America great again!
Grate again, maybe.
I don’t see how he can be President. Isn’t he from Alaska?
You’re thinking of Gnomes. Gnomes are from Alaska. That’s why they always wear those hats.
Alaska is America, moron!
You have to drive across Canada to reach it. That means you need a passport to get there. Therefore, not America. QDE!
What’s QDE mean?
Quite Definitely Explained. It’s Latin.
No lousy Brazilian can tell me what’s America or not!
Don’t Brazilians speak Brazilese?
Only at home. So the children don’t forget their mother tongue.
Nobody got an earful from my ma ever forgot her tongue, I’m tellin’ ya.
This isn’t happening, Dortmunder thought to himself. I’m still delirious, hooked up to the Nebu-louser, and maybe they put the wrong meds in this time. Or May really did send me to the hospital, and I’m being ventilated. Or I’m dead, and this is Hell. That would explain why God showed up.
Unable to persuade himself of these happier alternatives, Dortmunder was forced to conclude that these were in fact the OJ Bar and Grill regulars. Watching their meet. Online. Commenting on it. Possibly tweeting about it. Yes, he knew about that now as well. Damn Kelp anyway. Not that this explained anything. The OJ was closed. That’s why they were doing this, right? There had to be some reason.
“Rollo? Are you here? Everybody else is. Olly olly oxen free.” Dortmunder waited patiently, and in a sconce, the balding bluejawed bartender himself appeared on everyone’s screen, wearing an apologetic look under his face mask (which had the letters ‘OJ’ stenciled upon it, along with the image of a brimming beer mug. If you care.)
“The other bourbon shared his PMI thing with me too. I figured I’d be the bug on the wall. Gets boring here.”
“Imagine my surprise,” Dortmunder said drily. “Did he ask you to cater the event?”
(Kelp was being very quiet now.)
“Nah, just wanted to gab. Said he missed the place. I forgot to tell him we’re doing takeout now. Anyway, some of the guys were picking up eats when we were chatting, I guess one of them recognized him, took a pic of the PMI thing with his phone from where I wrote it down, shared it with the others. They’ve stayed in touch, you know–online–keep the home fires burning and all. Thing is, they were always curious what you guys were doing in the back room. They used to talk about eavesdropping, but they were too scared of the Vodka and Red Wine.”
“If they think they’re scared now–” Tiny didn’t finish his thought. The text messages had abruptly ceased appearing. One could imagine the regulars now discussing the price of a one way ticket to Brazil. And how hard could it be to learn Latin? It’s a lingua franca.
“Yeah, it’s working out better than I thought. Nobody can go to the bar, so everybody wants to order from the bar. Next best thing to being there. Worked it out with Otto in Florida. You wouldn’t believe what we get away with charging, it’s–”
“So people are allowed inside now.” Dortmunder persisted.
“We talked about curbside pick-up, but some of the regulars kept saying that meant they had to be standing out in the street, and the others said they didn’t feel like buying a car, so–”
“So you can let us use the back room now.” Dortmunder stated.
“I’m not sure that’s legal.” Rollo objected.
“So when has this been an issue?” Dortmunder riposted.
“I know, but–” Rollo wavered.
“So no food. No drinks. We’ll mask. And distance.” Dortmunder insisted. More distance the better, he was thinking, but you can’t do a job like this without a string, more’s the pity.
“Yeah, okay.” Rollo relented. “We close 7pm now. Come in around then, and I’ll pretend your orders are delayed until everybody else is gone. What day do you want to do it?”
“Why don’t we discuss that over the phone?” Dortmunder switched off the laptop, placed it in a nearby wastebasket, and went to heat up some tuna casserole.
(Disclaimer–I really thought I was done with this travesty, but seems like it’s not done with me yet. Or at least something isn’t. All these august personages belong to the Westlake Estate, wherever it be, yet somehow they belong to all humankind, a most ingenious paradox indeed. Perhaps this will shake me from my torpor. Or deeper into it. One way to find out…..come on and Zoom Zoom Zoom a Zoom…..)
IN A DARKENED ROOM, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK, a digital screen flickered to life–emblazoned upon it was the narrow-nosed visage of Andrew Kelp, looking even more pleased with himself than usual. He spoke as though he addressed the multitude, having just supplied it with loaves and fishes, presumably not half-baked or raw.
“Hey guys! Can you all see me? It’s time we started the meet. Since we’ve never done this before, I’m gonna call the roll, make sure we’re up to speed. Remember to keep your mikes turned off until it’s your turn to speak. John? You there?”
Nothing happened. Kelp waited as long as courtesy required, then changed tack–“Okay, John will be with us soon, I’m sure. Stan?”
As though invoked through arcane incantations, there appeared the cheerful face of Stan Murch. His hands were gripping a steering wheel, and his eyes were switching back and forth, as if his attention was divided. A light hum that could be interpreted as a running engine was audible in the background. Kelp, his face taking up half of the now-split screen, asked the logical follow-up.
“Stan, are you driving now?”
“Just nicked this brand-new Enorma with superfast connectivity and a high-def display. I’m on the way to Max’s. If I get there before the meeting’s over, I can idle in the parking lot before going in. I may watch an online movie release before I hand over the keys. This screen is huge! I think there’s a popcorn machine in here somewhere.”
Now returned to full screen status, with a dubious expression, Andy tried to regain control of the online colloquy. “Stan, I don’t know as you should be working the same time you’re attending our meet. We have important planning to do here, right John?”
The screen buzzed and fizzled a moment, as if someone was trying to contribute something, but hadn’t quite figured out how, what, or possibly why. Then silence once more.
“John, we’ll come back to you in a jiff. Maybe ask May to help you out there. So Stan, I respect your enterprise and all, but I think you should chime in once you’re parked somewhere. You wouldn’t want to have an accident and the cops show up. They are not in a good mood lately. By the way–does it have MD plates?”
“Yep! Vanity plate says “I Doctor” so opthalmologist, I guess–I see what you mean, Andy–super comfortable. I may steal one of these every time we have a meeting.”
“I’m happy you found a nice score, but I still think…..”
“I can multi-task here, no problem at all–better than a home office. And you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get around now. Nobody on the roads! Every creampuff in the city just sitting there waiting for me! This eye doc won’t notice his ride is gone for weeks, and I can make it across town faster than you could walk to the corner store and back. I won’t even tell you what route I’m taking, because it doesn’t matter anymore! Clear sailing everywhere! It’s The Golden Age of New York Driving. I’m blessed to have lived to see it.”
Stan’s eyes grew misty, contemplating the limitless vistas of near-empty asphalt ahead, like a movie cowpoke surveying the open prairie from his trusty cayuse, while yodeling softly to himself. Fenced in no longer under starry skies above.
“Great, but just to be safe, turn off your mike until you’re parked, and focus on the road. You are present, let’s move on. Tiny?”
The monitor flickered once more, and a head roughly the size and shape of a now-defunct rock formation that once served as a pretext for tourism in New Hampshire, loomed across it, albeit incompletely. Only Cinerama could have encompassed both the face and the ominous black mask covering much of it. Zorro crossed with Pantagruel, only without a trace of rakish good humor.
A voice sounding much like the ill-fated rockslide that put an end to the Old Man (Not to worry, New Hampshire, you still have autumn foliage and maple syrup–although those are under siege as well) rumbled through, muffled somewhat by the mask. “Why am I seeing your nude face, Kelp? Do I have to chastise you as well?”
“Tiny, you don’t mask at a video chat. That’s the point of a video chat. Nobody catches anything from anybody. That’s why I went to the trouble of setting this up.” Kelp looked more hurt than intimidated, though he was both.
Even behind the dark mask, Tiny’s darkening scowl was made manifest.
“You think I’m scared of your germs, Kelp? They wouldn’t last two minutes in here. It’s a matter of principle. If I have to wear one, so does everyone else. It’s just good manners. I’m out walking yesterday, Upper West, this guy goes right past me, inches away, mask hanging down around his neck, gabbing away on his phone, his droplets spewing all over.” Tiny’s voice dropped dramatically–“You want to guess where that phone is now, Kelp?”
“I get it, Tiny.” Andy’s tone was notably meeker, but he still had a rebuttal. “Obviously he should have been wearing it out there on the street, but we’re not on–”
“Oh that reminds me, this other guy, at the OJ, who was ahead of me to pick-up takeout–”
“–The OJ is doing takeout?–”
“Are you interrupting me now, Kelp? Like I was saying, he was there ahead of me, chatting up this broad ahead of him, and he had no mask on at all, not even around his skinny neck. I asked him, very courteous-like, to please get it out, and he says he forgot it, big deal, what business was it of mine anyhow, we should let the virus run free, survival of the fittest, and then we’ll all have horde inanity, something like that.”
“I have a hard time imagining anyone saying that to you, Tiny.”
“He was caught up in the dame, who I will say was cute, even behind her mask, so he didn’t look back to see whom he was talking back to.”
“You get the picture.” Tiny allowed a pregnant pause, before continuing. “So the long short of it is, I found a way to solve his problem. You’ve heard of the wedgie, right? Regular and atomic?”
“That’s right,” Tiny concluded, with grim satisfaction. “Even though he didn’t think he had a mask, he did anyway. Lucky for him he wasn’t going commando. The skirt looked relieved he’d stopped chatting her up. Pretty sure I saw her wink at me.”
Kelp had been fumbling around for something, and all of a sudden there was a camo-patterned mask on his face–the type with valves on it. Made him look like something out of an old war movie, with gas, barbed-wire, trenches, etc.
The masked marauder was not propitiated. “You know those valve things only protect you, right Kelp? I think that may be ruder than not wearing one at all…..”
“I did not know that, Tiny. This was a freebie from MyUncle, after I dropped off some flatscreens there. I’ll get one without valves. ASAP. As soon as the meet is over. We good?”
A noncommittal grunt being his only response, Andy felt at liberty to unmask and proceed. “Herman? How’s tricks?”
There then appeared the suave sentient silhoutte of Herman X (he had brought back the ‘X’ due to popular demand), their lockman on the job they were perhaps someday going to get around to discussing. “Yo, Andy. Been a while.”
“You look good, Herman. We appreciate you coming in on this–it kind of links up to your other thing, anyway.”
“Oh, you might say that, Andy.” In what might be considered an implicit pun, Herman had dropped into an exaggerated Amos&Andy drawl only he could have gotten away with at the present time. “Massa Fairbanks and me, we just don’t see eye to eye, sho-nuff.” (He smiled in a way that would have made the erstwhile progenitors of Amos&Andy look for the nearest available exit, hoping their feet would not fail them now.)
“How’s all that going, anyway? You’re with that BLT gang, or whatever?”
“Close enough. Like the song says, Everything Old is New Again. I came out of retirement to give these kids the benefit of experience. And trust me, they need it. Oh, they have some good ideas, don’t get me wrong. Great spirit, can’t fault them for that. They just need to learn how to know how to tell the good ideas from the stupidass ones.”
“Oh yeah? How so?” Noting the failure of their string leader to materialize thus far, Andy figured he’d stall for time. Anyway, he always liked hearing what Herman had to say.
“Just to name one particular–this ‘Karen’ thing–it’s getting out of hand. Karen this, Karen that–it started as a way to tell off snooty white chicks–don’t ask me why they couldn’t pick a man’s name, since that’s where most of the really bad shit comes from–and now basically anybody on the fence about this or that plan of action– say there’s some folks questioning the wisdom of pulling down statues of the half-dozen or so white people from the 19th century who weren’t racist–as a protest against racism–Karens!”
“That does sound a bit random…..”
“It’s become a catch-all, and the thing about catch-alls is that they get repurposed. They like it as a way of shutting folks up, so they can go on doing what they like–like some bored brother is setting off M-80’s in the middle of the night because why not, some Dominican nurse yells from the fourth floor she has to work tomorrow–in a ward full of sick people–Karen!”
“But if it’s about privilege why would he call her…”
“Translation–“My life sucks, so I don’t have to care about your problems.” Works pretty much the same way as all the shit folks call us, though I suppose agenuine Karen wouldn’t use that word–just think it. While calling the cops on her cell. Cops don’t need to call anyone names to get their points across.”
“Why did they pick ‘Karen’?” Kelp was fascinated. There was a growing danger of him forgetting what they were virtually gathered to discuss, which the renewed buzzing and fizzling from the screen might have been trying to get across to him, but he ignored it in favor of becoming still more woke.
“The etymology is obscure, which is pretty much always the way. The basic idea is sound–make whitey finally feel what it’s like to have an effective slur directed at him. One with teeth, since ‘honky’ never worked. Not over-specific, like ‘guinea,’ ‘kike’, ‘taig’–at this point, we’re all so assimilated, melanin content is all anyone sees, unless you’ve got some kind of religious garb on.
“And that would mainly be the people you don’t want to piss off.”
“You got it. We need something relating to content of character, but still strictly for the ofays. However, since ‘Karen’ is really more about hating on women, the execution is half-assed, all the more since misogynists like using it as well–possible that’s where it started, which would be ironic. Well, we’ve had so much less practice than you with this shit. We’ll catch up. My question is, why not try ‘Fairbanks’? Unisex, and that sure has teeth now. Nobody wants to be a goddam Fairbanks. Except him, naturally.”
Deeply moved by Herman sharing all this with him, Kelp felt an expression of professional solidarity was called for. “The cops have been pretty tough on you guys lately.”
Herman’s shrug was eloquent. “Sure. They’re cops.”
There being nothing to say to that, Andy opted to move on in the queue. Dortmunder had still not made his entrance. Time to call in tech support.
“Wally? We can’t seem to get John. Could you maybe look into that?”
As a djinn from a bottle emerged the plump bearded countenance of Wally Knurr, whose informal position within the gang was roughly homonymous with his surname.
“Already on it, Andy! I think there’s a problem with the…” (technobabble ensued, which Kelp pretended to follow–interested as he invariably was in gadgets of all kinds, he never worried overmuch about terminology).
“Great, Wally! I’m sure you’ll have John up to speed in no time. There were bound to be a few hiccups the first time, right John? (Buzzing. Fizzling. It didn’t sound happy, but then, how could it?)
Kelp made a valiant attempt at condolence, not normally his strong suit. “Wally, how’s Myrtle doing? I heard about her mom…..”
“Still pretty sad, Andy, thanks for asking. I proposed marriage, and somehow that didn’t cheer her up, but I got a hug, anyway.” Wally looked pensive a moment, then went back to pecking at his laptop. A sconce later–“There! That ought to do it. John, could you try again?”
The display changed once more, and this time it was indeed the saturnine sad sack visage all had been awaiting. Andy Kelp cried out, in unparalleled delight, “John! At last! Welcome to the Digital Age!”
John Dortmunder gazed upon all virtually assembled, with a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and incredulity. “What is any of this crap supposed to accomplish?”
A question he was not alone in asking, but the answers to these and other questions would have to wait a while longer.
(Disclaimer: Whatever the hell I said last time, sincerest form of flattery and all that, plus you can’t really know how a magician does a trick until you try doing it yourself.
You know, I’ve been thinking, most people who post this kind of thing online come up with odd romantic pairings that could never happen in the real stories, though with these pay-per-view services, maybe that will change. It’s almost a requirement of the form. I’ve been a mite curious about what Tiny and J.C. get up to in the sack. They can’t possibly do the missionary, right? Leaving aside that she’s the dominant partner, she’d need some kind of body armor designed by NASA, just to survive the T-forces. A body like that you don’t want to damage. I guess it could be kinky if she had a thing on the side with Judson, but maybe she did, Tiny found out, and that’s why Judson’s not heard from in this story. An eloquent silence, let’s call it.
Kelp and Anne Marie might have some wicked make-up sex after their argument in Part 1–that could almost be considered story-related, not that anyone cares. Their sex life’s been pretty well been covered in the books; we can imagine the fine details ourselves. Dortmunder and May want their intimate moments to stay intimate.
As for the slashfic contingent, there’s always Herman X–the possibilities there are endless. But none shall be explored by me. I find that I am constitutionally incapable of going where no fan has gone before, nor will I ever write another Dortmunder story of any type. Once was enough. I am, however, thinking about doing an F-Troop fic where Sarge gets it on with the Wrangler. You all know the legend of Forrest Tucker, right? Just FYI, there are actual F-Troop fics online. You can’t make this shit up. But we still try.)
Dortmunder stared at the author of his very being with a mixture of stunned amazement and keen resentment. God was not, it turned out, an imperious-looking old man with a beard, up in the clouds, waited on by harp-strumming cherubs, engraving stern commandments on tablets in-between plagues of locusts. He was an unprepossessing balding bespectacled schmo in the backroom of a bar, cleanshaven (maybe the beard was itchy), surrounded by cartons of liquor, pouring himself a glass of corn whiskey. But yeah, old. Him and the whiskey both.
The Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery had failed (miserably) in their attempt to instill any form of religiosity in the foundling left at their doorstep long ago, but they left their mark on him, all the same. Growing up as a most unwilling Catholic, Dortmunder had somehow always sensed God was out there, had some latent pre-conscious sense of what He looked like (and that He laughed a lot), and here He was, big as life, twice as crafty.
Having just called The Supreme Being an s.o.b., Dortmunder braced himself for thunderbolts, but none issued forth. The good Lord merely pulled out a chair, and gestured for Dortmunder to sit. He reached for a second glass on the table.
“No. Thank you.”
“I’ll pour you one anyway. You’re going to want it.” He filled the other glass with a generous portion of amber liquid, and nudged it over by the waiting chair.
“Since when have you ever cared what I wanted?” Dortmunder sat down, rage swelling within him. If this bastard was expecting any show of reverence from him, He’d be waiting a long time. Of course, He had eternity.
God’s face got serious. “That’s all I’ve ever cared about, John. Understanding you, and the others. What you wanted, what you needed, the line between the two. It was never easy. I got it wrong sometimes. But I did the best I could, to listen to all of you. To hear your prayers. I didn’t always say no, but that was the right answer, more often than not.” His contrition seemed sincere enough, if not what you’d call abject.
Dortmunder noted the past tense. “You retiring or something?”
“After a fashion. I won’t be telling any more stories. You’ll continue, in one form or another, but I won’t. Moving on.”
God spread His hands. “I’m not that omniscient. It is what it is. I’ve got an author too. Maybe He’s got one as well. Or She. I’d prefer a She. Though She would probably insist I do a stretch in purgatory for all that smut I used to crank out.”
This was going nowhere. “Okay, fine, you did your best, your time is up, I’m on my own. Best as I can tell, I always was. I’ve been a Jonah all my life, and now I’m remembering why people call guys with luck like mine by that name.”
“Different storyteller, but there are parallels, I’ll admit. Call it an homage.”
“I can think of a lot of things to call it.”
“I’m sure you can. Though I never did give you much of a vocabulary. You or the Other Guy. Words were never going to be your thing.”
“Other guy?” Dortmunder inquired, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“The one I made damn sure you never met. Don’t say I never did anything for you. I protected you more than I ever did him. I gave you better scores. A lot fewer bloody-minded enemies. A more reliable string. You did fine. Better than I’d hoped. I was always proud of you, John. You surprised me. That’s the best thing a creator can hope for. C’mon, take a sip, it’s really good stuff.”
Dortmunder lifted the glass and drank. It was good. Even better than the bourbon he got from Chauncey. That lousy job, that ended with him chasing Kelp over the Scottish hillside in a suit of armor.
“Remember that, do you? Not one of my better efforts.” Lips pursed, in self-disapproval. “I was going for Tom and Jerry, and it turned out more Heckle and Jeckle. Probably some Bob Hope in the mix…..”
“Get out of my head!”
“You’re always in mine. You and a host of others. Tormenting me with all your potential. That most of you never came close to using. But that’s free will for you. I gave you a set of options, and it was up to you to choose–to be true to your natures, or not. You chose better than most of them, but that’s not saying much.”
Dortmunder glared at this, but God was on a roll, and paid him no mind.
“The best stories usually came from those who chose wrong, at least at first. The important thing is they had a choice. The one thing I can’t forgive myself for is Paul Cole. How could he ever have known what his choices were, with that handicap I laid on him? But I had to look into that abyss…..”
God was starting to ramble. An occupational hazard, perhaps.
“So you don’t feel bad about anything you did to me.” Dortmunder didn’t want to let go of his anger, which was paradoxically increased by the growing sympathy he was feeling for his maker.
“Be a little more specific. I mean, there was so much…..”
“After the Balabomo Emerald thing ended, I was dead broke…”
“Because you blew all your money from the Akinzi at the racetrack.”
“You invented parimutuel betting!”
“That was Joe Oller. A higher deity than myself. Anyway, it was always going to be something. You had fun spending it, right?”
“I was running this lousy door to door encyclopedia scam, and there would always be dogs. I had to steal from supermarkets just to eat. This one time I got caught at the Bohack, with cans falling out of my sleeves…”
“Yeah? Meet anybody that day?” Looking much too pleased with Himself.
A confused look appeared in Dortmunder’s eyes. The aroma of Tuna Casserole fresh out of the oven was suddenly redolent in the air around them.
“You’re welcome. See? Give and take. Can’t have one without the other. If for no other reason than that it would be boring, like everywhere in the universe life, with all its conundrums and contradictions, doesn’t exist. It’s not a mathematical formula, it’s a jam session. Though most of you are not exactly Bird or Pres.” The Almighty rolled his eyes a bit.
“There’s so much bad stuff happening.”
“Something a crook like you would know all about, and a crook like me can appreciate. What’s a story without plot complications? It’s not like I gave any of my people wasting diseases, crushed them in earthquakes, or drowned them with tsunamis. You’d have to take that kind of thing up with a different department. But I’m sure there’s reasons for all that as well. I’m just as sure nobody could ever explain it all. A world that is simple enough to be fully understood, all the rules cut and dried, isn’t much of a world, from where I stand. Might as well be playing a video game.”
“So you’re saying I was lucky.”
“I’m saying it could have been worse. You had friends. You had work you liked doing, that you were good at, but never so good that you didn’t need to do it anymore–a dead end for someone like you. You had a roof over your head and someone to come home to. And you had some moments of true greatness. They usually involved getting even with someone, but I’ve never thought a bit of creative vengeance was a sin. So long as you don’t make it your whole life.”
“Yeah. Him.” A sour note crept into the voice of the divine presence.
“That’s not on me. I told you, most people make bad choices. They had all the information they needed to make good ones. I can’t do everything for you people. You need to take responsibility for your mistakes. But I have to say–that was a doozy.”
“I didn’t vote for him.”
“You never vote.”
“Nobody I know voted for him.”
“Most of them don’t vote either. Though you might be surprised by which of them did, and how.”
“You made Max Fairbanks!”
“I made a lot of people. If I just decided which of them end up in charge, make sure that the worst never happens, what would that make me?”
God was pissed now. He proceeded to wax wroth.
“You want life to be fair? You’ve committed even I don’t know how many felonies since you last got out of stir. I aided and abetted you, repeatedly obstructed justice on your behalf. If life were fair, we’d be having this debate in Dannemora!”
“Yeah, like you ever served a day in stir.”
“I served five. You’ll remember, I’m supposed to have created the whole world in six. It felt like a lifetime. I was lucky, but I imagined you as what I might have become if I hadn’t been–if I’d been in that place a long time. But because I wanted to see what you could do out here in the world, I sprung you, and kept you free–with a leash on you, but a damn long one.”
“I felt it anyway. You kept letting me think I’d won the game, and then you’d yank the leash–I’d have to start all over again. You kept changing the rules. It wasn’t fair.”
“Nothing ever is, and you should be grateful. Nobody who takes a good long honest look at himself ever wants life to be fair. You all just want it to be fair for others, for the ones you don’t like, but it ends up only being fair for rich bastards, because they fix the game. While the rest of you whine about it, then knuckle under to them. If you want it fair, make it fair, damn you!”
He pounded the table for emphasis, and the bourbon leaped up in the glasses.
“You’re not supposed to swear.” Dortmunder looked more subdued now.
“I didn’t take my name in vain.” God was embarrassed by his loss of composure. “I hear what you’re saying, but I abide by the choices you all make. And I give you the opportunities to make up for them.”
“What’s that mean?”
“If you’re so bothered by Max Fairbanks, do something about it. You’ve taken him down before. You could do it again. I gave you the skill set. I gave him no end of weak spots.”
All of a sudden, Dortmunder felt suspicious. “Is this another mission, like with that nun?”
“I seem to recall that assignment worked out for you. But no. If you just want to do your own thing, cultivate your garden, that’s fine. That’s really all anyone should have to do. That’s all I did, most of the time. I never let myself lose touch with what was going on around me, though. Which I’m sorry to say is a failing many share with you. But you know, à chacun son goût.
(Dortmunder wanted to ask what the hell that meant–checking one’s goo? But if he asked, who knew how long this would go?)
God seemed to be wrapping up now. “I enjoyed watching you all go through your paces, even when you stumbled. But it’s time I was out of here. Really should have been gone before now. I was waiting for the right opportunity to spring it on you. You know, nobody else is getting an exit interview. You should be proud.”
“I’m overcome by the honor.” Dortmunder’s voice was very dry.
God was delighted. “Sarcasm! See, I never could pull that off with the Other Guy! Irony he could sort of manage, but it was like pulling teeth.
“What did he have to say when you braced him?”
“What did I just tell you? I didn’t. I mean, I thought about it, but he’s hard to find. And sometimes, he even scares me a bit. Suppose he decided to take ‘Gott ist tot‘ literally? He knows me by a different name. I’ve got a lot of them. You might say my name is Legion.”
God (or was He?) chuckled at His little joke.
“Hey–wait a minute,” Dortmunder interjected. “If you’re the one telling the stories, and you’ve retired, who’s telling this one?”
The Creator’s eyes took on a baffled look. “Say–that’s right! I’m not supposed to be a protagonist in these things. I’m the narrator. Nothing gets narrated without me! What gives? Stop, thief! I still have copyright!”
He looked around wildly for a moment, seeking a target to blast with his wrathful gaze–then shrugged, laughed to himself. “Oh well, some joker fiddling around in his spare time. All the hallmarks of an amateur. I just hope it’s not a script treatment. Too wordy.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know. They never work out well for you and yours, my son.”
“What did you call me?”
“Who do you think wove that basket you came in? Just know that even though I’m going, I am with you always–to the end of the world.”
Dortmunder did not like the sound of that. “Listen, you could maybe, I dunno, stick around a while. Meet the gang.”
“I made the gang. But you were always my fair-haired boy. Metaphorically speaking. I figured dark hair would match your mood. Lighten up a bit sometimes, why don’t you? Enjoy the bourbon. My Own Brand, you know.”
He was gone.
Dortmunder blinked. He looked at the bottle. Still there. Still more than half full. He sipped. Still much too good to be from the OJ. Something had happened. But the memory was already starting to recede, back into some Marianas Trench of the mind, where his innate knowledge of his maker resided.
He hadn’t been hearing anything outside the backroom during the conversation, but now there was sound again, emanating from the bar. He could hear a voice that sounded like a gravel pit with anger issues, saying “My mother always told me you take off your hat in a polite drinking establishment!” followed by explanatory expostulations, followed by a fist the size of a canned ham colliding with a bearded face, which then collided with the floor, along with a toppling barstool and a glass of over-hopped ale. That’s what it sounded like, anyway.
Cries of “DUDE! Harsh!” were then heard, followed by thunderous approaching footfalls, and in through the door of the backroom, filling it to capacity, stepped the harshest of all dudes, Tiny Bulcher, followed by Andy Kelp and Stan Murch. (Nobody thought to mention that Tiny was still wearing his own hat, but nobody should ever bring that up with a guy who sports a Homburg.)
And, interestingly, there also appeared the fetching figure of Josephine Carol Taylor, Tiny’s beloved, who did not usually venture to the OJ, her interests lying elsewhere. Maybe a little more cynical and world-weary than usual, but as always, it looked good on her.
“John, you started without us?” Kelp inquired, his eyes noting two glasses that had already been imbibed from. He was holding a tray with more glasses.
“There was somebody else here. Old friend, you could maybe say–had to step out. He left us some good stuff. Tiny, Stan, maybe you could put aside your usual drinks, join me and Andy? You too, J.C.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” J.C. said, reaching for the bottle, as she took the seat facing the door. “The day I’ve had, I could use it. So many second-rate hucksters out there now, it’s screwing up my rackets. Would you believe some Russian clown called the UN Ambassador and convinced her he was representing a made-up country? That guy owes me money! Who else wants some of this?”
Tiny was not going to drink red wine and vodka, his usual beverage of choice, when his woman was having straight bourbon, so he held out his glass for a pour.
“I’m not driving, so fill ‘er up,” Stan moodily responded. “You can’t navigate this city in daylight anymore. I might as well indulge. Doc says I need to cut down on salt, anyway.” (It being his normal habit to nurse along a glass of beer by sprinkling salt in it to restore the head, which I only mention because it’s traditional to do so for those who came in late, and one likes to observe the formalities.)
“To crime,” said Kelp, and they all clinked glasses.
They drank–and after a momentary look of astounded euphoria had passed over everyone’s face but Dortmunder’s, Kelp got down to business. “There’s two things to discuss. First, the Going Out of Business store on Seventh. John and me had a look, seems like a possible. Shouldn’t need more than the four of us–I can handle the alarm system myself.”
“Don’t mind me, boys,” J.C. smiled, knowing full well the boys never could help minding her.
“It’s always good when you kibitz, J.C.,” Andy riposted gallantly. “Anyway, the other potential thing is from my nephew Victor.”
“This is the G-Man?” Tiny rumbled, not saying it in a pleasant way, though it would have been noteworthy if he had.
“Yeah, but he says no cause for worry on that score. He’s got this job; we go into this office, we take this dossier he needs for this investigation, we get a flat fee in cash. Discretionary funds, for informants, which is what we’d technically be.
“Quid lucrum istic mihi est?”
Not a lot, John–two g’s a head–sounds like an easy grab. The kind of thing they wouldn’t be able to do themselves, so they subcontract, off the books. This is maybe a bit further off the books than usual, but that’s Victor” Kelp didn’t sound enthused about it, but family is family.
“They always sound easy,” Dortmunder mused. “What did he say about this information he wants us to get? It’s about the election?”
“Connected with that, yeah. Thing is, the people who have this aren’t supposed to have it. They came by it in an illicit manner themselves, so they can’t make a stink if it goes missing. It’s just for Victor and his buddies to eyeball, so they can know what questions to ask when they’re having a friendly chat with some of these people, maybe under a strong lightbulb, I wouldn’t know.”
“Pass,” Tiny decided.
“Doesn’t sound like there’s any driving in it,” Murch opined.
“John?” Kelp inquired.
“Let’s see how the other thing works out,” Dortmunder concluded.
As they filed out past the bar, a bearded youngster with a swollen jaw whipped off his knit hat with alacrity. “Better late than never,” Tiny said, his ill humor having subsided under the influence of fine liquor. “Rollo, set this fella up with whatever it was he was drinking before I chastised him.”
Gazing at the outgoing assembly, Rollo looked perplexed. “Where’d The Good Bourbon go?”
“Out the back door,” Dortmunder responded.
“We don’t have a back door.”
“He made one.”
As Rollo pondered this imponderable, Dortmunder and the others headed out to the sidewalk.
“John, you want to share a ride?” Kelp asked.
“I’ll walk. Need to clear my head.”
“Josie and me got that hired stretch limo.”
“Stan? You got a car nearby?”
“Took the subway,” Murch said with distaste. “Sure, why not? Just drop me at the A train.”
“Great, I’ll get an Uber. Bad time of night to find anything with MD plates.”
Uber? Dortmunder started to ask what was wrong with a cab, but he caught himself just in time to avoid inviting an explanation. Andy started cheerfully fiddling with his phone, and in no time at all, a black sedan came rolling up to the curb. A familiar face stuck itself out the driver’s side window.”
“You all know about congestion pricing, right?” It was Gladys Murch.
“Mom! Not you too?! This is why I can’t drive in the city anymore!”
“Got to get with the times, Stanley. Cash or credit? It’s going to be forty dollars upfront.”
Dortmunder just did not want to know what any of that was about.
He walked slowly back to May’s apartment, looking up at what little could be seen of the stars in the night sky, trying to make sense of it all. What was he supposed to do? Was it coincidence he’d just been told he could do something about Max Fairbanks, and now all of a sudden there was something he could do about Max Fairbanks? Not likely.
But Dortmunder had no real beef with Fairbanks. That had all been settled in Vegas. If the poor stiff wanted to play at being Leader of the Free World a while, and the Americans were dumb enough to let him, that was their mutual misfortune. Nothing to do with him.
He figured he’d walk by the Going Out Of Business store on Seventh, give it another looksee. That was a real job, stealing real things, getting real cash in exchange, that would not remotely savor of work for hire.
He got to the shop. He stopped. His jaw dropped.
It was boarded up. Covered by a wood scaffolding. Along with everything else on the block. They were out of business. For real. Looking through the gaps, he could see all the merchandise was gone. No more store. No more score.
He looked about for some explanation of this impossibility. Tacked to the wooden shell was a notice of foreclosure. Something about how the landlord had taken possession of the premises. Some mention of Trans-Global Universal Industries. Oh shit.
Over to one side, he saw a poster bearing the image of an impossibly gaudy tasteless egocentric structure–and the words SOON TO BE THE SITE OF FAIRBANKS TIMES SQUARE.
Dortmunder could feel the chain reaction starting up inside his head, unstoppable as a landslide, inexorable as a typhoon, implacable as an erupting volcano.
He knew it was a set-up. He knew who was really behind it. Didn’t matter. Dortmunder was very very very very angry now. And there was only one outlet for his rage to expend itself upon. Because its author had left the building. By the back door. That sly bastard.
“Okay, fine, you want to see my paces?” he snarled, hackles raised, eyes turned heavenward. “Just lay your bets and watch me run!”
And over in DC, as he slept the fitful sleep of aspiring despots, President Fairbanks shivered, clutched his smartphone reflexively. Later, there would be confused tweets in the wee hours before dawn. Something else Dortmunder wouldn’t care to know about.
A few days later, a secretary working at Fairbanks Tower found an envelope in the box for items to be sent to the boss by special courier. She dutifully relayed it onwards. It contained a cheaply made ring with strange symbols on it. And a note saying only “You win.”
Max was enraptured when he got it. Slipped the ring on, laughing softly to himself. It fit like it was made to order. This really was going to be his year.
And as Samuel Fuller concluded one of his westerns–“THE END OF THIS STORY CAN ONLY BE WRITTEN BY YOU.” Happy New Year. I mean, why not, right?
(Disclaimer:John Archibald Dortmunder and most other people who appear in this story are creations of the late Donald E. Westlake, and have appeared under the auspices of numerous publishers. They are currently under the control of his estate. Donald E. Westlake himself was a real person, far as I know, but so were Jesus and Buddha. Max Fairbanks is real, all too real. I am not profiting in any material sense from writing and self-publishing this, nor would I have any idea how to do that. I present this travesty as an homage, as well as an act of hubris, but mainly as an expression of latent OCD, because I know he would have written a lot of the same gags for this crew, if he’d stuck around a bit longer. It is, of course, possible he did write some of them already, and I’m just regurgitating them without realizing it. C’est la mort.)
John Dortmunder, a man chosen by fate to march resolutely against the currents of his times, was now marching disconsolately against the currents of midday traffic in Times Square, which didn’t look anything like it did when he first came to New York, though this would have been true even if he’d arrived last year.
There is some obscure and ancient city edict that militates unceasing change for Manhattan’s palpitating heart, and insists furthermore that the changes lean towards ever-increasing displays of commercialism, not that it was the Piazza San Marco to start with. The pigeons inhabiting both spaces don’t seem to care much either way, being the Philistines of the bird world. One supposes this would make Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks the Davids, but the Gotham branch of Columba Livia bears their slings and arrows with equanimity, so long as the bread crumbs keep coming.
Pausing beneath a billboard devoted to the boxer-clad crotch of a model who may have eaten at some point in life, Dortmunder’s eye was drawn to a massive video screen ahead of him, now displaying the bloated features of his old nemesis Max Fairbanks, three stories high, in glorious HD, which stood for Hellfire and Damnation, going by the expression in Max’s glazed baby blues.
The world was wrong, Max Fairbanks was right, and the world had better just grow up and accept this, was the general gist of his remarks, as spelled out in the word crawl beneath the screen (the ‘or else’ was only implied). If it were possible for a human face to look triumphant, mocking, gleeful, embittered, enraged, and terrified, all at the same time, that would be a fair description of his expression, assuming you wanted to call that a human face.
Dortmunder, who paid about as much attention to current events as he did to modern dance, had been forced, much against his will, to note the meteoric rise of his former foe, and deemed it irritating. “You are vanquished,” he muttered at the looming screen. “I vanquished you.” Max didn’t look vanquished. Dyspeptic, maybe. The scowling visage was then replaced by a Tums ad, which seemed synergistic, somehow.
Dortmunder stalked onwards, feeling the need for some digestive relief of his own, but he had an appointment to keep, which was all that had brought him through the world’s neon-crusted navel to begin with. (Nor would it have comforted him to know neon itself was a relic of the past, much as he was.)
GOING OUT OF BUSINESS read the banner over the store on Seventh, which had hung there since time immemorial, whatever that means. The display windows were a cornucupia of overpriced electronic devices, varied optical equipment, and garish objets d’art with a decided oriental twist, including what appeared to be ornately carved elephant tusks (strangely, no animal rights picketers; well the store was going out of business, right?)
Times Square is the Mecca of rubes. Suckers from all over the planet descend upon it, wallets bulging, and they don’t know the store has been going out of business since the Carter administration. They assume they’re getting a deal. If the merchandise turns out to be defective, they don’t even try to bring it back, since that’s the chance you take when you participate in a going out of business sale.
(This visionary business plan has since been adopted by many modern mall chains, for which its originators, whoever they may be, have received neither credit nor compensation, an injustice they have accepted philosophically, since everybody’s got to make a dishonest living.)
It was Kelp’s latest idea that they should plunder this treasure cave, thus putting the store out of business for real. Dortmunder had voiced an objection to the effect that Times Square is also a Mecca for cops, not to mention surveillance cameras. It had been decided they would meet there, and determine whether Kelp’s idea was workable, as if any of them ever had been.
Approaching the store on Seventh, Dortmunder saw the familiar sharp-eyed narrow-nosed visage, out on the sidewalk. Kelp was already deep in conversation, with an invisible companion. He gesticulated with both hands in an agitated manner, pacing back and forth, as he expressed sundry emotional grievances to the world at large, in an unnecessarily loud voice. The passersby ignored all this, walked a little faster perhaps, praying there were no sharp objects concealed in the madman’s many-pocketed coat.
Approaching, Dortmunder picked up from context that Kelp was arguing with Anne Marie Carpinow, the woman he had lived with for some time, who was of course nowhere to be seen. The litany of past injustices flowed unstinting from Kelp’s agitated lips, as he laid bare to the world at large the most intimate disquiets of his private life, and then paused, as if listening to a voice in his head with many similar accusations to levy at him.
Dortmunder surveyed his colleague with bemused sympathy. He’d always known it would come to this. The slender thread that was Andy Kelp’s sanity had finally snapped. He had some kind of weird-looking earring on. Dortmunder had noticed these adornments on other street corner shouters. Maybe a cult?
Andy looked up from his curbside tirade and saw Dortmunder. His face brightened, and he said “Anne Marie, John’s here, gotta go. We’ll talk later, okay? Bye.” He reached down to his belt and pushed a button on the phone hanging there. “Hey John, what’s up?” He took the earring off, and shoved it into one of his waiting pockets.
Dortmunder, just then grasping that the world was not, in fact, experiencing a mass outbreak of schizophrenia, tried to conceal his relief, mingled with a certain thwarted feeling. Still just a matter of time.
“Harya,” John responded, and headed over the store window without further commentary, hoping Andy wouldn’t feel the need to share any further details regarding his domestic troubles. If May ever burned the tuna casserole (which she never did), it’s not as if Kelp would ever hear about it from him.
The ruse succeeded, Kelp snapping right into business mode. “So what do you think? Doable?”
“Probably alarmed. They don’t take those down until they really are out of business.”
“Yeah, but my feeling is response time would be slow. I’ve seen cops shopping here. Fresh out of Long Island, don’t know the score yet. When they find out, they get sore. They hate being taken for suckers, even when they are.”
“They’d always rather nab crooks like us than crooks like them,” Dortmunder observed mordantly.
“Yeah, there’s that. But anyway, I bet these guys did their alarm on the cheap. Fits the profile. And they’re middle eastern, so no dogs.”
“We could maybe get in and back out again. How much you figure all this stuff is worth?”
“Some gray-market goods, nothing first-rate, but I could unload it easy with MyNephew. Just opened a new store in Gowanus.”
“I thought Victor was back with the Feds?”
“Not that Nephew. And yeah, happy as a clam, my sister says. The job is finally what he always dreamed it would be. He landed a spot on that squad investigating the election. I guess some cops go in for the other kind of crook, after all.”
“Seems only fair,” Dortmunder said, not wanting to hear anything more about it.
But just in case someone does, let’s take a quick hop over to 26 Federal Plaza, and check in on our old friend Victor, happier at present than any bivalve mollusc born since the Cambrian Explosion. (Those were the good old days.)
Much has changed at the Bureau since last we saw him, and from his perspective, all for the better. For one thing, nobody there thinks he’s paranoid anymore. For another, the secret FBI handshake he once got in trouble for advocating is being discussed at a policy level. The true visionary always senses when his moment has arrived.
It had long been Victor’s dilemma that he identified with lawmen and outlaws at the same time, and now to his amazed delight he was both. The better he and his fellow G-Men and G-Women did their dreary fact-finding jobs relating to the last election, the more roundly excoriated they were by The Powers That Be, while the underground counterculture spoke of them as brothers in arms.
Everyone talked about shadowy government conspiracies now, without the slightest sense of self-consciousness, or in most cases, evidence. It was the fashionable thing to do. He tried very hard not to look smug, having been so far ahead of the curve.
Cable news (one channel in particular), had become a guilty pleasure. Special Agents had never heretofore been so special. To be an FBI employee now was to have all the notoriety of a bank robber, a guerilla leader, or a Colombian Drug Lord, without the need to maintain a hideout in the mountains (though Victor had one anyway). It was like being in a gang, only with health benefits and a pension. He had to hug himself sometimes, to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. So far, he hadn’t woken up. So far, neither had anyone else.
But enough of selfish personal pleasures–there was work to be done. Victor had been tasked with obtaining information about a business associate of the President, the President being Max Fairbanks, which to a less febrile intellect than Victor’s might have seemed in itself so astonishing a thing as to render him jaded, innured, cynical, incapable of being surprised by anything, whereas in fact he was surprised by everything. And never unpleasantly.
Certain colleagues of Victor’s on the team had expressed faint qualms about his enthusiasm, infectious though it was, and inquiries had been made about his social media habits, only to learn he had none. Friends, love life–ditto. Not even porn. He still collected old pulp magazines and Big Little Books.
Family might have been a red flag, but the one black sheep in Victor’s fold had evaded the law dogs too well, and seemed to be some kind of secret NYPD informant on the side, for a detective who had once investigated their primary target, so bringing all that up would be a delicate matter, stones best left unturned.
A file containing a deranged-sounding letter from a police captain (retired) named Deemer, regarding a stolen bank (that can’t be right) had been mislabeled, and would not see the light of day again for many years, or the bank ever.
Might as well try to find dirt on one of those monks over on Park. Who Victor had joined for a spell, but he loved Travel, so it didn’t work out. He still sent them a card every Christmas, receiving an oaken keg of frothy brown ale in return, which always went down well at the office New Year’s party. It was concluded that if Victor was strange, the times were stranger, and the beer was fucking great, so let it go.
The information he was supposed to get would, Victor reasoned, never actually need to be presented as evidence in a court of law. It was more like information you needed in order to know where to look for information you could present. For this job, you would require people who knew how to get into a place and back out again without being detected. He reached for his trusty rolodex (try hacking that, why don’t you?) and leafed through to the K’s. If you can’t trust family……
When Dortmunder walked into the OJ Bar and Grill, Rollo the Bartender was writing the specials on the blackboard. There was blackened this, smoked that, and pulled whatever. The beer list was written in an obscure pidgin dialect, where every other word began with “Hop.” Hopalonius, Hopasaurus Rex, Hoparific, Hopfrog The Jester, Hop-ity Hipster, Hop Springs Eternal, The Hop Diamond, Hop Is the Thing With Feathers, Hoppy Ever After, Cross My Heart and Hop To Die, Hopalong Cask-o-Rye. (At least some of those really exist, but who has time to check?)
The OJ regulars had refused to leave when the new crowd showed up, reasoning that if anybody ever had squatter’s rights, it was they. Rollo, always the peacemaker, had made room for extra barstools, so the learned colloquy might continue apace.
“I hear we get a tax cut,” one of the old regulars said.
“Yeah? I hear the only ones getting a cut of anything are the fat cats,” retorted one of the new regulars, sporting a festive knit hat, though it was quite warm inside.
“That’s a sexist term,” complained a member of the ladies auxiliary, with a pleasingly plump posterior.
“Only sexy if it’s firm,” said a roguish regular, who got summarily slapped for his nit-witticism.
The first regular said “Way I figure it, the more they cut taxes, the faster they grow. It’s like grass. Or hair.”
Another regular, whose follicles had gone the way of all things said gloomily, “I wish it worked like that with hair.”
“Have you tried Rogaine?”
“I tried capital gains, but my accountant told me I had to get some capital first.”
“No pain, no gain.”
“They stole that from Nietzsche,” a spirited young regular with a hat and a soul patch insisted. “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.”
“So Nietzsche never had a colonoscopy, I’m guessing.”
“Wasn’t he the joker who said God was dead?”
“God’s just playing dead.”
“So am I. Went out for Chinese eight years ago, never came back.”
“Don’t tell mom!” they said at the same time, and after that there was a debate over who had to buy whom a rum and coke.
Dortmunder asked Rollo, “Anybody else here yet?”
“Just The Good Bourbon.”
“Beats me. He showed up acting like he owned the place, though last I heard Otto’s still with us. Silent partner, maybe. Said you’d know him when you saw him. He brought his own booze, real top-shelf merchandise, and something told me I better not say anything about us not being BYOB. He’s in the back room.”
Dortmunder didn’t know what to make of this, but then again, how often did he get a chance to drink good liquor? He walked back, past the doors marked POINTERS and SETTERS, until he reached the door to the backroom. He opened it.
God was sitting there at the table, pouring Himself a drink from what looked to be the most expensive bottle in all creation.
“Hello, John,” The Author Of All Things said, in a vaguely apologetic tone. “Thought it was time we had a talk.”
Portrait of US writer Donald Westlake. Portrait de l’ecrivain américain Donald Westlake.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.
But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. A book we read as children, then comprehend (maybe) as adults.
“John,” Kelp said, “the next time there’s gonna be money in that place it’s gonna be our money, from England. You wanna go steal your own money?”
“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said, “is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There’s no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it’s yours because you took it.”
“Basically, Dortmunder,” Tiny said, “I agree with you. But there’s an extra little spin on it this time.”
“Because it’s fun,” said the one-note kid.
“Also,” Tiny said, “I agree with Kelp. I want Josie to see this thing. I want to tell you, Dortmunder, I’m impressed by every one of us, and that’s also you. I looked at those guys in that back room, I believed them.”
Dortmunder sat back, appalled. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he said. “You people have completely forgot who and what you are. You want to go down to that place, day after day, and pretend to be, pretend to be I don’t even know what.”
“Ourselves,” Kelp said.
“You don’t have to pretend to be yourself,” Dortmunder said. “You are yourself.”
“But this is fun,” the damn kid said.
From a book children probably should not read, though they might also think it was fun.
I love John Dortmunder.
I mean, not that way. I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea here. Well, nobody’s getting the wrong idea here. And I’m hardly alone in this. My blog stats assure me that a whole lot of people out there love this thieving schmuck.
Parker, Westlake’s other most popular series protagonist, is not loved. Nor does he give a damn if he is or not. Respect, mingled with envy, would be the default reaction to him. Mitch Tobin, who had a much shorter run, you empathize with, admire his abstracted acuity–he’s too morose and abrasive to be lovable.
Many other of Westlake’s fictive foils and felons we’ve looked at over the past few years come to mind, vivid memories come with them, but how many would you want to sip beer or bourbon with? We’re talking about a yarn spinner who gave the world many a diverting rogue, but Dortmunder is Westlake’s beloved rogue.
And it seems reasonable to say, as many have, that this is because he’s the one who most closely resembles his creator–but is that true? Westlake was, to all accounts, a warm witty winning fellow in real life, not some crusty curmudgeon. You watch the few bits of video there are of him online, you see the sunny side, more often than not. Then again, he knew he had a camera on him when he gave those interviews.
I watched his friends talk about him at The Mysterious Bookstore, at that event held to commemorate the release of The Getaway Car. No doubt they knew many sides to the man, but the one that came foremost in their thoughts when he was gone was not some gloomy gus, peddling hard luck stories. Dortmunder is but one surly surrogate for Westlake’s many-faceted persona–it had taken him a lifetime to cover them all. (Assuming he didn’t have a few more tucked in his back pocket, in case of a quick getaway.)
Much as Dortmunder came after Parker, after Tobin, after Grofield, after Levine, after the first six ‘Nephew’ books, he still has a certain belated primacy. Sure though I am that most of Westlake’s best novels are not Dortmunders–that if you only know him through Dortmunder, you don’t know him at all–it’s still altogether fitting we finish here. With a book that is philosophy as much as fiction.
One might argue it’s more successful as philosophy. True of most of the books he completed in the 21st century. Like many a great before him, he had outlived his era–to a certain extent, his inspiration went with it. He must have known that. Nor was this such a new sensation. He’d been out of sync with the times for most of his life. Easier to cope with when you’re young; a trial at any age. The Kelp in him was waning, as Dortmunder waxed prolific.
But there are compensations. To stand just outside the times you live in can enhance your perspective on them. You may even get an inkling of things yet to come. And try–in futility, most often–to sound a warning. So just once more, let’s listen to what the man has to tell us.
All that’s really left to cover in this book is the most important aspect of it–which is to say, the work. The gang is doing two jobs here–one is the job they always do, which is to get in somewhere they’re not supposed to be, take stuff they’re not supposed to take, and get back out again without getting caught.
The other job is to pretend to do all that, on camera, to entertain the masses–which, let’s remember, is precisely what they’ve been doing all the time we’ve known them. We’ve even had multiple filmed versions of them in the past, none of which were at all satisfactory–the Dortmunder of the movies is not Dortmunder at all. Turn a camera on him, he fades away to nothing. Must that always be true? I could not say.
But leaving that aside, it’s fair to say that what Doug Fairkeep is doing with them now is, in a sense, the same thing Westlake has been doing with them since 1970. And yet, not the same at all.
So what’s different? This time they know about it. I started off with Bishop Berkeley–to be is to be perceived–but I put more stock in The Hawthorne Effect (no relation to Nathaniel), as laid out by Henry A. Landsberger. To be perceived–while being aware of it–is to be something other than what you were before. Self-awareness is one thing. Self-consciousness quite another.
And self-consciousness occurs when you know you’re being watched. Most of all when you’re playing to a camera. Playing yourself. Instead of just being yourself. Which was hard enough to begin with.
To Donald Westlake, identity is the central element in life, and the central element in identity, for him at least, was work. What you do shapes everything about you. He resisted all his life the temptation to take a teaching job when writing gigs were scarce, revenues deficient, because he knew that would change him.
Many if not most of us have jobs that really are just swapping our time and labor for money, but to the extent we’re doing something meaningful to us, we become our jobs. If not, then we have to seek meaning and identity elsewhere. (Like on the internet. Uh-oh.) But some people, against all odds, find or just plain invent jobs that suit them right down to the proverbial T.
And what do reality TV shows about people doing their quirky individualistic jobs do? They corrupt that. Because all of a sudden, your actual job becomes secondary to the metatextual job of explaining your job while you’re in the process of doing it. Dramatizing your workplace relationships to the point where you don’t know where the drama ends and the relationship begins. The image of you doing the job becomes more important than the job itself. Work is no longer done for its own sake, but rather for the sake of being seen doing it. To be is to be perceived.
This is normal for entertainers, of course. That is their work, to be seen working (more true for a stand-up comedian than a third violinist in an orchestra–and who is more likely to have severe personality issues?) But how about a writer? Writers entertain (hopefully), but tend to do their jobs in private.
Harlan Ellison challenged that perception–I remember watching him write a short story in the window of a 5th Ave. bookstore. B. Dalton’s I think–hard to remember–can’t remember the story either. I know it was 1981, because it was right after the first space shuttle landing, and I asked him about it at the Q&A afterwards–he wasn’t impressed. Not much of a techie, is Mr. Ellison.
If somebody had asked him to comment on the work he was doing, while he was doing it, tried to turn his work on a piece of fiction into a piece of docu-fiction itself, I’m guessing that somebody would have had a fat lip shortly afterwards.
Ellison’s point was that he could get so deeply into what he was doing, it didn’t matter that he was being eyeballed by hundreds while he did it. He didn’t need an ivory tower, because his mind was the tower. Few can claim to be that focused.
Westlake and Ellison respected each other, their backgrounds and work habits were not too dissimilar, but I don’t think you could have gotten Westlake into one of those bookstore windows without pointing a gun at him. Maybe not even then. In Westlake’s mind, to be is to be. To be perceived–incompletely, and too often inaccurately–an unfortunate side effect of being.
To bring another genre writer into the discussion, perhaps you are only truly yourself when nobody can see you?
I was not kidding when I said this book is more about philosophizing than storytelling, and so has the review been, but the story is still interesting. As they’ve been learning how to play themselves on TV, the Dortmunder Gang have been trying to solve the mystery of Combined Tool. They believe there is cash stored there for illegal pay-offs to foreign companies. They’re quite right to think so, as we learn from discussions between Doug Fairkeep and Babe Tuck, when the gang isn’t present.
Doug himself learned about the money a while back when he had to use his status as a TV producer to help a man named Muller, a German producer who had dealings with Get Real’s corporate overlords, get past a police search at the Third Ave. corporate headquarters, with half a million dollars. Doug told the cops it was fake money for a show, and they believed him. That’s why, when Dortmunder asked him if there was any cash they could steal, he hesitated a moment before responding in the negative.
So part of the book is the gang going back there, again and again, after closing time. Looking for a way into Combined Tool, which has a suspiciously good alarm system. As heists go, this is first-rate material–with Andy Kelp doing most of the heavy lifting.
Andy was never considered a first-rate lock man, but seems he’s been upgrading his skills–and given his fascination with electronics and computers, his love of figuring out how they work, how to turn them to his advantage, this makes sense. The more security systems rely on newfangled tech, the better he likes it. (Also, there isn’t really time to deal with the eccentricities of a Wally Whistler, or a Wilbur Howey.)
Dortmunder, by contrast, could never follow this kind of thing. He can snip a few wires in an alarm system, but his skills are more rooted in the concrete. He’s the planner, who works out the general logistics, not the techie stuff. I’d say he’s Jobs to Kelp’s Woz, but the dynamic isn’t the same. Usually somebody comes to him with an idea, then he figures out how to make it work. There is no Jobs, no CEO. Because this isn’t a company, but a collective of freelancers. An assembly of autodidacts, if you prefer.
It’s commented here that he’s not the leader of the gang–there is no leader. Whoever has the skill set best suited to the given moment takes the lead, and the others follow. Creative anarchism. (Also rather similar to the way some field biologists now think a wolf pack operates). And because all they care about is getting the answer to their problem–ie, the loot–they’ll listen to anyone who has a good idea. No seniority system, which has been working out great for Judson.
Their task is complicated greatly by the need to steal from their employers without their employers knowing it. Not just to get in and back out again, but to do it without leaving a trace, tripping any wires. So night after night, they go in, poke around, snip wires, and every night they get a bit closer. Here’s just one exchange from that process. (Chosen because it demonstrates that Kelp quite certainly does not think of Dortmunder as the boss of him, for all he’s been promoting him like an over-assiduous talent agent all these years). Kindle, allow me one last outrageously long quote.
“Wires,” decided Kelp.
They both had flashlights out now, shining them on the walls and ceiling. Kelp said, “Electricity. Phone. Cable. Security. A cluster of wires.”
Dortmunder pointed his light at the stone side wall of the elevator space. “They gotta do surface-mount. You can’t bury wires in a stone wall. See, like that.” And his light shone on a gray metal duct, an inch square, coming down from above. “That’s where they put in those cameras, to screw us outta the storage space.” “
Well, let’s see.” Kelp turned the other way, looking at the side wall where it came close to the front of the building. “There we go.”
His light showed another gray duct, a little larger, coming out of that side wall, very low and almost to the front. The duct emerged, made a left turn to go downward, then another left and headed off toward the door they’d come in.
Kelp called, “Tiny! You see that duct? I’m shining the light on it.”
“I got it.”
“Find where it goes, I’ll be right down.”
Dortmunder said, “And what am I doing?”
“Same as last time. Comere.”
They went over to the impregnable door, and Kelp withdrew from one of the rear pockets of his jacket the stethoscope and earphone gizmo. As Dortmunder watched, he bent to the door, listening here, listening there, then saying, “Hah.”
“You got it.”
“We know the thing has to be alarmed,” Kelp said, “and here it is. Only this time I want it to stop.”
“Give me a couple minutes to get set,” Kelp said, “then you listen, and you tell me when it switches off.” He tapped a fingertip on the appropriate spot on the door. “Right there.”
Kelp went away down the ladder, and Dortmunder experimentally listened to the door’s faint hum for a minute, then, tiring of that, walked around in this blank, supremely uninteresting area until Kelp, from far away at the ground floor rear, yelled, “John!” “
“You got it.” Bending to his work, Dortmunder listened through the gizmo to the humming of the door. It was a very soothing kind of hum, really, especially when you positioned yourself so your back could be comfortable. It was a non-threatening hum, an encouraging hum, faint but unending, assuring you that everything was going to be all right, all your troubles were over, you’d just sail along now on the calm sea of this hum, no nasty sur—
“JOHN! WHAT THE HELL’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?”
The scream, about an inch from his non-gizmo ear, was so loud and unexpected he drove his head into the door to get away from it, and the door bounced his head back into the scream with a new ache in it. Staring upward, he saw what appeared to be Kelp’s evil twin, face twisted into a Kabuki mask of rage. “What? What?”
“Can’t you hear anything?”
“The hum.” Dortmunder straightened, pulled the earphone out of his unassaulted ear, assembled the tatters of his dignity about himself, and said, “You wanted me to listen to the hum, I listened to the hum.”
Once Kelp realizes the hum never stopped (meaning he hasn’t figured out the alarm) he apologizes. Dortmunder accepts. Graciously, if a bit stiffly.
Why is this work so good to watch? Because they don’t know we’re watching them, and are therefore living and working and dealing with their personality clashes and minor misunderstandings entirely in the moment. This, in a nutshell, is fiction. (And life, or it ought to be.)
Reality TV, in a nutshell, is a hybrid of reality and fiction, where we tell ourselves “This is more interesting because it’s really happening” but then we stop and think “But it’s less interesting because they know we’re watching them, so nobody is being real–and it’s still basically scripted. There’s a strict formula they have to follow, because these people don’t dare be 100% themselves in front of an audience of millions. They’re just playing cutesy versions of themselves. It’s a lot more predictable than fiction.”
I guess you could argue that there are formulas we follow in unscripted reality as well, but that’s because we’re creatures of habit, slaves to routine–patterns from which we seek temporary escape. Great fiction provides that escape, distills reality, ferments it, transforms it into something revelatory.
Documentaries do that in a different way, simpler, more direct–but perhaps more deceptive as well (all the way back to Robert Flaherty). Reality TV takes both approaches, mashes them together, and corrupts them to make half-hour blocks of entertainment to sell soap. But we watch it. Because it’s fun! Vérité be damned, we crave variety.
(And let it be said, at least the people on the better Reality TV shows aren’t all airbrushed airhead aquiline actors, seemingly cultivated in tanks in top secret studio-owned warehouses. Yeah, talking about you, Matt Damon. Won’t even mention Keanu. Too obvious. Reality TV is our punishment for allowing fiction, especially in its filmed variant, to be drained not just of reality, but humanity. The corporations are to blame for both poisons, but so are we for lapping them up.)
The gang isn’t going to be watching these shows–but they can’t very well help watching themselves, the daily rushes, once they’re the subject. They’re trained how to play to the camera, how to hit their marks, how to present themselves to the world, and it starts out as just a way to be in that building so as to pillage it, and failing in that, at least to get their 20g a man payout.
And see, the people making this show around them are solid pros in their own field–and what’s their job? To make you look good doing your job. Which makes them look good at their jobs. One hand jacking off the other. Which doesn’t even make any sense, but there you are.
The exchange you see up top is Dortmunder, tied to the mast you might say, berating his fellow sailors for falling under this siren’s spell. This is not who they are. If there was ever a profession that positively requires the complete absence of cameras and microphones–to the point of disabling them where they are found–it is theirs. For them, to be is not to be perceived. To be perceived is to shortly afterwards be perceiving iron bars, bad food, and undesirable neighbors for ten to twenty.
They shouldn’t be pretending to take stuff that isn’t theirs to get paid by some dodgy foreign production company (as it happens, Mr. Muller’s company). They should be taking what’s rightfully theirs, theirs because they took it. That’s how they get real.
They’re not convinced the show is corrupting them, but he still strikes that professional chord in each–this acting thing is a nice diversion and all. It’s not what they do. Maybe there’s money waiting for them in Combined Tool and maybe there isn’t, but either way, they gots to know. To thine own self be true.
Then comes the whole thing with Babe Tuck accusing them of stealing cars that Murch actually stole without telling them, and they walk out in a huff, because really. Doug seeks them out at the real OJ, where all the usual hijinks are transpiring, without any cameras to record them for posterity.
The regulars discuss this new scam they’ve been hearing about called ‘the internet.’ You have to buy some kind of adding machine to use it. There’s also an English-deficient tourist, who speaks in keyboard symbols, who wants to exchange some strange foreign currency for beer, and won’t believe Rollo when he says they only speak dollars. Tiny finally tells the guy “What you want to do is, when in Rome, don’t be Greek.” Well, maybe if it’s a diner.
The regulars are now asking themselves if while you’re looking at the internet, it looks back at you. Kelp, for what I think is the first and only time in the series weighs in, telling what is for him a cautionary tale of a woman who worked for the Apple Store, whose computer was stolen, but she knew how to track it down in cyberspace, and then she used it to take pictures of the people who stole it, and then she called the cops. Andy says the moral of that story is never commit a crime anywhere near the internet. Um–but isn’t the internet everywhere? Andy? Oh never mind, they’re back into the backroom. The internet is definitely not there.
But Doug is, and that’s even worse. He doesn’t belong in the real OJ. They shut the door in his face. But he persists. The corporate overlords love the new heist show. They want to go ahead with it. Please, please come back! They’re kind of meh about it. The kid says they already cast a professional actor as one of the gang, to spy on them–why not cast the whole gang that way? Doug says that’s not how reality works. John says “Why not? How real is reality anyway?” That is the question, all right.
But they come back. Because money. And before long, even Dortmunder is starting to discuss with Kelp about how natural and fluid they are on camera. Not like Babe Tuck, who did a bit part in one scene. Very stiff. But that’s okay, they can carry him. They’re professionals. They better pull this job fast, before it pulls them.
So they pull the job. The cash is there, just like they thought. So is an irate Asian man with a Glock, but Kelp and a nine inch cast iron skillet attend to that. Philosophy aside, reality still hurts when you get hit upside the head with it. Leaves a bump that feels pretty real as well when you wake up.
To Dortmunder (and not the one note kid, whose deductive skills fail him this time) goes the honor of finding the hidey-hole in this apartment inside Combined Tool–a compartment behind a dishwasher in the kitchen. This almost makes up for the time he nearly crippled himself hiding in a dishwasher in Good Behavior, and they found him anyway. I think the moral here is that dishwashers are not good hiding places.
There’s a ton of cash in there. Stacked in such a haphazard way as to make clear that not even the people who put it there know how much there is. The idea is, their foreign guests (like the Asian guy) stay the night there, take what they came for, then go back home. The pile gets diminished, then replenished, then diminished again. They can’t keep accounts, get receipts, because it’s black money.
So not only can’t the Get Real people report it stolen, they won’t even know that it was. They’ll just assume somebody (they will, of course, suspect Dortmunder & Co., but what of it?) broke in, clobbered their guest, looked around for the money, didn’t find it, left. Because the gang didn’t take all of the cash, just a lot of it. $162,450, is the final count–$32,490 for each string member.
“I begin to believe,” Dortmunder said, “that a jinx that has dogged my days for a long long time has finally broken.” He smiles. And we frown–hasn’t he had bigger scores in the past? The Avalon Bank Tower heist. The epic fleecing of Max Fairbanks. Why is this better? Because it’s repeatable. They can keep going back for more. As long as they work there, they’ve got the perfect alibi to really work there.
Except they don’t work there anymore. Corporate moves in mysterious ways. Monopole loved the show–sent it up to the next rung in the ladder–who loved it too–so they sent it up to TUI–who said it glorified criminals. They can’t be associated with crime!
(Final sidebar: This came up in the comments section last time, might as well mention it again. Westlake was still thinking about Trump. Who had recently started his own reality show about what he did at work, which seemed to consist mainly of insulting and firing people, then rehiring them, then insulting and firing them again, and there was some other stuff he did off-camera, when he was really being real. I doubt Westlake was a regular viewer, but he knew about it.
Doug Fairkeep’s name is too similar to that of Max Fairbanks to be a coincidence, and he lives in a Trump apartment building. TUI, Fairbanks’ company, is one of the owners of Get Real. And it’s TUI that cancels the show. I don’t think we need grieve too much that Mr. Westlake didn’t make it to 2016. Much as his insights may be missed.)
So with The Stand now canceled, and The Gang’s All Here (with all its variant titles) stillborn, it’s time to just fold the Get Real production tent. Only Doug and Babe keep their jobs. Everybody else is fired. The show is canceled. Shut it down.
Just in time, too. They’re filming a scene for the show when Babe comes with the good bad news. Dortmunder’s self-consciousness in front of the camera has vanished, and he’s talking in clichés, like an off-the-rack TV crook. “There’s too much tunnel traffic around that place. You can’t keep a getaway car hanging around there.”
Like himself, but not himself. Just like the others. They’re being digested whole in Leviathan’s belly. Then it vomits them out again, like the whale in Pinocchio. Bit off more than you could chew this time, eh tough guy? You can dish it out but you can’t take it!
Marcy is so happy. This is her script they’re reading, that nobody is allowed to call a script, and she’s a real writer now, though she can’t call herself that on her resumé. The gang really likes her, she’s worked hard to create characters for them to play. Then Babe comes in, with orders from Corporate, and she’s canned. Now she’s an unemployed–um–whatever it was.
Dortmunder and the gang get paid off–only half what they were promised, but that’s only fair, since they didn’t finish filming season one. 10k a hood, I mean head. Plus they got some money upfront. Plus Stan is going to take a lot more cars from that garage (Max will be so proud). Plus they got the money from the dishwasher. Plus they’re going to go back next week and clean it out. (Perhaps Mr. Westlake’s final implicit pun.)
“This is a little too much like wages,” Dortmunder thinks. Already snapping back to his old self. You can talk about that irksome Irishman Bishop Berkeley all you like, but it was that savage Scotsman, David Hume, who said that however impossible it may be to prove that reality is real, it’s such a damned persuasive, pervasive, and downright invasive thing, going on all the time, all around you, whether you notice or not (and no commercials!) that after a while (if you’re not stark raving mad), you just kind of give in and go along with it. It’s a living. We suppose.
Dortmunder and Kelp leave the building together, and they see Marcy, looking disconsolate. Dortmunder feels bad for her. She was a good writer, whether they called her that or not. She did her best to help them, mere hireling that she was–she had something. Maybe they could help her, give her some of their cash. “There’s an idea,” says Kelp. He doesn’t stop walking. Disappears around the corner. Dortmunder hesitates, just a moment, then says “Oh, all right” and follows him.
John, stop. Wait. Come back, John. Please come back. You can’t leave us. We love you. John?
Just like the man who first made him real. I guess, if you consider Dortmunder the Ultimate Nephew, that would make Westlake his Uncle–right? He modeled Dortmunder after an earlier (and much grimmer) toy in his workshop, but the more the craftsman worked on his new toy, the more he became his own thing, his own reality, his own unique expression of things no other character in all of fiction could ever say quite the same way.
But if you’ve read Margery Williams’ forty-four page masterpiece, you know that being real doesn’t happen all at once. The Velveteen Rabbit thinks he’s real when the boy who loves him says that he is, but that’s just the first stage. There still has to be a fairy in the mix to complete the nursery magic, and send him out to play with the other rabbits. And that’s us, get it? We’re the fairies. Don’t get wise, I’m being real here.
Fictional characters, from Gilgamesh to Gatsby, from Odysseus to the Odd Couple, from Micawber to McGuyver, from Hamlet to Homer (woo-hoo!), from Beowulf to Babe (the other one), all began in the minds of creators (sometimes many), who loved them, and thereby imbued them with pieces of their souls–but it’s when that character is appreciated by audiences for generations after the creator is gone, that he/she/it gains lasting reality. Transcendent reality. And once you’re real like that, you can never be unreal again. (I’m not holding out much hope for McGuyver, but maybe he can rig something out of a paper clip and some chewing gum that’ll work just as well).
Dortmunder, along with Westlake’s other creations, is still in the early stages of that long process of becoming. I like to think I’ve hastened it along with this blog, if just in a small way. The best way is to read the books. Over and over. Until the pages are tattered and stained and dog-eared, and the spine is broken, and the cover is coming loose, and this doesn’t really work with an ebook, does it? Which is what I re-read Get Real on. Well, let it get stained and tattered in your mind. And share it with someone who loves you. Then you’ll be real too.
Anyway, the next book in our queue is–what? No more? Well then. Guess I’d best be headed around the corner myself. I appreciate you guys coming here to read all this crap I’ve typed when I was supposed to be doing my job. It’s been real. You know? Open bar at the OJ. Bourbon’s on me. Tell Rollo Fred sent you.
PS: I made this little video of myself, with my computer, saying a few parting words. Uploaded it to YouTube. You can view it here.
It’s not hard finding images of movie stars online. When putting together my recent piece on the seven actors I thought might have played Parker in the past, but never did, I had an embarrassment of pictures to sift through. I picked the ones I thought got my points across best.
With one exception. Tom Reese. Born 1928, six feet three inches tall. My personal favorite of the bunch. By far the least famous. (Compared to him, William Smith was an A-Lister.) Call it my love of the underdog. That’s an IMDb link, incidentally. Google “Tom Reese, Wiki” and you get an article about a cricketer from New Zealand. (Editing: Not anymore!)
You can find the odd few screen captures of Reese, from this or that film, but the only one I could find from The Outfit was of very poor quality. The others I found, relating to different roles, did not do him justice. To be honest, most of his film roles did him no justice. He fared somewhat better on television, where many a first-rate thespian eked out a living back in the day (and still does). In no way shape or form could you call him a movie star.
I mean, when one of your career highlights on the big screen is playing an Oddjob style villain named Ironhead in one of those ultra-kitschy Matt Helm movies, and you have to pretend Dean Martin can beat you up–you get the picture. Or you would, if you Googled around some.
(At least Harold Sakata got to knock Sean Connery around some before he took a dive. Geez, Reese was asked to autograph these things.)
Hating injustice as I do, I ordered a brand new remastered DVD of The Outfit, which just arrived this morning. I did some screen grabs, and from now on there will be decent pics of Tom Reese online.
In The Outfit, Tom Reese plays a hit man. Whose name in the credits is “Hit Man.” He’s the first character of any note we see in the film’s opening scene, where he kills Macklin’s brother, while dressed as a priest (which makes no sense, like most of the film). He’s accompanied by another hitter, Frank Orlandi, played by Felice Orlandi. But Reese’s character is the one that matters, the boss killer, who plans hits for The Outfit.
Reese and Duvall have no scenes together–Macklin isn’t interested in taking revenge on mere mechanics, seeing the organization itself as his target. I suspect they didn’t have the budget to write more scenes for Reese, give him a name, motivation, etc–that way they’d have had to pay him more. Their loss. He gives the most interesting performance in this movie, far as I’m concerned. (Okay, tied with Joe Don Baker, having fun with his second banana role.)
Reese comes on like a major player in every scene he appears in, somebody Macklin will eventually have to reckon with. But for whatever reason, he’s treated as secondary (maybe more like tertiary) to Timothy Carey’s sneering over the top underboss. Carey, who played small roles in a lot of important films, has something of an online cult, and maybe he earned that elsewhere, but not here.
“Hit Man” pops up again at a restaurant owned by Cody, the Handy McKay of this story, played by Joe Don Baker. This time, he’s dressed as a hunter. Suits him.
He and a different partner (played by former boxer Roland La Starza) are there to kill Cody, but because the local law is eating there, that gets called off. Reese, realizing the game has to be called on account of cops, gets up to go, nonchalantly tosses a coin on the counter, walks out, pausing at the door to say–
“You know something, Cody, you ought to play the races. You’re that lucky.”
No outward emotion. He plays every scene, reads every line, 100% deadpan. Not because Reese couldn’t do emotional reactions, if the director needed some. He’s making a deliberate choice to keep it all inside. You can see just a glimmer of annoyance when he realizes he can’t do the job now. But he’s not frustrated. If at first you don’t succeed…..
The attempted hit on Macklin, borrowed in a ham handed way from the novel, doesn’t involve Reese’s character. They send Orlandi, without back-up, even though he’s nowhere near as good as Reese’s hitter. (I mentioned this movie makes no sense, right?)
But as The Outfit begins to realize Macklin and Cody are a threat, they get the A-talent back in the game, and Reese is seen talking to a man outside the motel Macklin, Cody, and Karen Black’s Bett are staying at. He walks off, a cheroot in his mouth, arms swinging at his sides, and I’ll say again–I don’t give a hoot what the credits say. This is Parker!
And after all that build-up, he is seemingly killed off in a perfunctory manner, almost as an afterthought, along with Carey’s character Menner and some other guy I don’t care about, when they use some bought cops to try and whack the independents out on the highway. They come driving up slowly from the other direction, while the fuzz have them distracted, and you can just barely make out Reese in the back seat of the car.
As they close in for the kill, you see Hit Man’s gun (same one he used on Macklin’s brother) stick out of the rear window–it’s a terrible position for him to be firing from. You can sort of infer what happened, if you read between the scenes–he found Macklin, scouted the terrain, planned the hit, but Menner, looking for revenge, forced his way in, took it over, screwed it up. Kibbitzers. They’ll get you ever time.
Macklin and Cody, having neutralized the cops, respond with superior firepower, the Outfit car goes off the road, turns over, bursts into flame–after Menner comes out shooting, with predictable results. Bett gets killed in the crossfire. You don’t see Reese or the other guy at all. The implication is they’re unconscious/dead, and will get burned to a crisp, leaving an interesting puzzle for the real law when they show up.
Macklin, now having both his brother and his girlfriend to avenge (::sigh::) will mount an improbably successful attack on Mailer’s mansion (they do not reconnoiter before moving in, like Parker and Handy), then drive away with a wounded Cody in an ambulance, yelling “The good guys always win!” Yeah, but you didn’t win any money, did you?
Flynn later explained that an MGM exec insisted on an ‘upbeat’ ending. Which sounds a bit odd to me. The end of the novel isn’t at all depressing. It’s one of the most upbeat Parker novels I can think of. Parker and Handy kick ass and get paid. Nobody they like gets killed. I don’t know if Flynn’s story means Cody originally died in his script, Macklin went back to jail, or they just had to throw in the good guys joke at the end to send the audience out happy. If it was either of the first two, I’d say the suit was the good guy here.
I know I’ve been very down on what is, for many, a classic of the genre (and a movie Westlake is known to have called his favorite of the Parker adaptations–I have my own opinions as to what he meant by that).
For me, it’s an exercise in frustration. This could have been something amazing, if the script wasn’t so lousy. Great cast, great atmosphere, great cinematography, great music. Flynn does a fine job coordinating all this; he knew how to do that. But he just had to write it himself, didn’t he? Be the auteur. He didn’t know how to do that. Anymore than Menner knew how to plan an ambush. Kibbitzers.
After the shoot out on the highway, we never see ‘Hit Man’ again. There’s never any direct confirmation he’s dead. He and Macklin never once eyeball each other, even though he was the one who got the whole story kickstarted, before we ever laid eyes on Macklin. It’s a very unsatisfying conclusion to a character arc. If you want to call it that.
Here’s what I say happened–I’m imagining a post-credits scene, which they didn’t have very often in the 70’s, but what the hell. Hit Man gets out, after Macklin and Cody (and the now deceased Bett) drive away, before the car explodes. He dusts himself off. He walks away calmly, arms swinging at his side. He bides his time, makes his plans, no amateurs this time. A few minutes after that ambulance leaves the mansion–well, turns out the good guys don’t always win.
I’m allowed to be prejudiced on my own blog. In a good cause. Giving an honest workman a bit of overdue credit surely qualifies as that.
And speaking of honest workmen–hello, John. You seem upset. What’s that you say? Fourteen straight posts about the other guy? Fancy that. Funny story, I actually reread your book like a month ago, but the other thing kept expanding, and I figured you could wait. Save the best for last, you know? Technically, Ask The Parrot was better, but your final outing is quite interesting. I just have a few more things to say about the finer nuances of the Starkian aesthe–I beg your pardon? You want your review now?
John, I’m sorry you’re upset, but you must recognize, I’m in authority here. Anyhow, what are you going to do about it? Everybody knows you never hurt anyb–oh. Hi Tiny. Didn’t see you looming in the shadows there. You move quiet for a big guy.
No, I would never want to be rude, Tiny. Proper etiquette is the driving force of my existence. Ha, that’s a clever pun. Yes, I heard the story about what you did to that procrastinator who annoyed you. I know all those stories. I should probably start working on that review now. Good seeing you guys. Regards to May and Josie. Tiny, please don’t slam that–damn. Better call the locksmith.
Well, no point putting it off any longer, folks. All good things must come to an end. Time to get real.
“What it is,” Mr. Dortmunder said, “we got a real problem getting at that thing down in that place, like I told you last time.”
“I’m sorry this whole thing got started,” she said.
“Well, so am I, but here we are.” He shrugged. “The thing is,” he said, “your grandfather and the guy working for him, they’re pretty set on getting that thing. Or, I mean, me getting that thing.”
She felt so guilty about this, much worse than mistaking him for a beggar. “Would it help,” she said, “if I talked to my grandfather?”
“Defeatist isn’t gonna get far with him.”
That sounded like her grandfather, all right. Sighing, she said, “I suppose not.”
“But there maybe could be another way,” he said.
Surprised, ready to be pleased, she said, “Oh, really?”
“Only,” he said, “it’s gonna mean I’m gonna have to ask you to help out.”
She stopped, absorbed a couple rabbit punches from the hurrying throng, and said, “Oh, no, Mr. Dortmunder!”
They’d reached the corner now, and he said, “Come on around here, before they knock you out.”
The side street was easier. Walking along it, she said, “You have to understand, Mr. Dortmunder, I’m an attorney. I’m an officer of the court. I can’t be involved in crime.”
“That’s funny,” he said. “I’ve heard of one or two lawyers involved in crime.”
“Criminal lawyers, yes.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
This title begs a rhetorical question–and the answer is “lots, but not the title itself.” Rather generic, isn’t it? You’d think Westlake could have stuck a chess reference in there, given the subject matter. Kings, queens, knights, bishops, castles, gambits, sacrifices, isolated pawns–it’s endless.
The Dortmunder titles (and many other non-Dortmunder titles of Westlake’s) are often popular turns of phrase, turned on their heads. But I can’t see how that’s the case here. The word ‘funny’ appears an unremarkable nine times in the book (thank you, Kindle), one of which you can see in the quote up top, but nothing close to this specific phrase ever appears. Whereas, in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, the titular phrase serves as a leitmotif, a much-repeated rhetorical question that keeps getting answered in ways that are all too sadly predictable, much like the currently breaking news stories that refuse to stop breaking, no matter how you beg.
If he didn’t want to get all inside-chessball, Your Move would have worked better than What’s So Funny? Too Many Rooks would work, but is derivative of an earlier story. Every Rook and Plan B? I’m not saying the title couldn’t be worse, you understand.
This becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that Westlake did not shun chess-themed titling when it came to the internal structure of the book, divided as it is into two roughly equal parts–Knights Errand and Pawn’s Revenge. Part Two begins with Chapter 33. (I’ve given up trying to figure out how Westlake decided whether the chapter count should be reset when he started a new section. Maybe he flipped a coin? Or the bird?)
Pawn’s Revenge would seem to refer to Dortmunder’s retribution against newly minted private investigator, Johnny Eppick. This comes, paradoxically, towards the end of Part One, after Dortmunder is told his services won’t be required after all, and he won’t be paid for his time, which predictably triggers his less lethal version of Parker’s reaction to being shortchanged.
He holds Eppick responsible for this indignity, even though it’s Hemlow who is stiffing him. It was Eppick who put a handle on his back, forced him into a job he never wanted, by finding proof of his involvement in a minor burglary. Eppick’s the one who has to pay.
A few weeks pass, and then the cocksure retired police detective, enjoying his little private eye fantasy (and hoping to somehow make it pay) finds his own office has been burgled, clearly by a seasoned pro, who defeated his security system with contemptuous ease. Everything there worth stealing is gone. The evidence against Dortmunder has mysteriously disappeared (along with the computer it was stored on). Takes him a while to figure out whodunnit (not much of a sleuth, when you get right down to it).
This is the pawn’s revenge, and I’m not sure I see how what follows in Part Two is revenge of any kind. Dortmunder is only interested in profit after that. So I’m even quibbling over the sub-titles. Enough about the titles, already. I’ve some of my own to think up, as I finish this one out. How about we start off with–
This is a subplot that straddles both parts of the book. In the early stages of planning the heist of the chess set, Dortmunder and Kelp are chauffeured to a Hemlow’s hunting lodge in the wilds of northern Massachusetts, which nobody in his family wants to use anymore, and he figures would be a good place to stow the goods until the heat fades.
They check the place out, and it’s definitely isolated. What they miss out on is the porn. See, there’s two kids from Nebraska holed up there, and I use that phrase advisedly.
Brady tried find his place in the Kama Sutra even while Nessa kept on galloping beneath him at cheetah speed, putting him in a position similar to the person who has to rub his belly and pat his forehead at the same time. Got it; that page! Brady bent to his lesson, and Nessa abruptly stopped.
Brady reared back. “Already? No!”
An urgent hand reached around behind her to grasp his hip. “A car!” she cried, her words only half muffled by the pillow.
Now he too heard it, the throaty purr of some expensive automobile rolling up toward the house. Flinging the Kama Sutra away, he leaped off the bed and ran across the large master bedroom toward the front windows, as behind him Nessa scrambled into her clothes.
A long sleek black limousine rolled to a stop at the garage door behind which Brady’s battered Honda Civic sat, as Brady peeked around the curtain. The car doors opened down there and four men climbed out, one at first on hands and knees until two of the others helped him up. The one from the front seat in the chauffeur’s hat would be a chauffeur, and he’s the one who led the others toward the house, taking a key ring from his pocket.
The door wasn’t locked! Racing back across the room, grabbing his jeans from the floor but nothing else, Brady shrilly whispered, “Hide everything!” and tore out to the hall as behind him Nessa, already hiding the Kama Sutra under a pillow, wailed, “Oh, Brady!”
Brady and Nessa are basically ripped straight out of the ‘sleaze’ novels Westlake used to write in the late 50’s/early 60’s, which he’d sent up memorably in Adios, Scheherazade. Less memorably here, but it’s the same basic story, only without all the deconstruction and soul-searching. Porno-picaresque. Brady took one look at Nessa, decided she was all he was ever going to be interested in, and they took off to see the world and each other’s genitals, not necessarily in that order of significance.
Brady, who thinks of himself as a real operator, found a way for them to get into the lodge undetected, and they’ve been living there a while now, raiding the freezer, and hiding whenever somebody shows up to do a bit of maintenance work. They similarly avoid detection by these new interlopers, and Brady can’t help but listen in with interest, as Kelp (not that Brady ever knows his name) once again shows us he’s a reader.
“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.
Both of the others seemed stymied by that. Johnny finally said, “Was that supposed to be something?”
“Short story by Edgar Allan Poe,” the chipper one said. “Whatsamatta, Johnny, you never went to high school?”
“Yeah, that’s all right,” Johnny said. “What’s this letter? We’re not talking about a letter.”
So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?
“We’re talking about something where you hide it,” the chipper one told him, “that nobody’s gonna find it. In the story, it’s a letter. And where the guy hid it, turns out, was right there on the dresser, where nobody’s gonna see it because what they’re looking for is something hidden.”
“Crap,” Johnny announced.
The weary one said, “You know, Johnny, maybe not. You got something, you can’t find it, turns out, it’s right in front of you. Happens all the time.”
“Nobody’s gonna look at that set,” Johnny insisted, “and not notice it.”
Set? What the hell is it? Brady was about to go out and ask, unable to stand it any more.
But then the chipper one said, “How about this? We get it. On the way up here, we get cans of spray paint, black enamel and red enamel. We paint ’em all over, this team red, this team black, nobody sees any gold, nobody sees any jewels, it just looks like any chess set. We can leave it right out, like on that big table over there with all that other stuff.”
Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.
Tiptoeing as fast as the first night he ever sneaked into Nessa’s house back in Numbnuts, Brady made his way to the second floor, where Nessa, tired and sweaty, was just finished bringing all their dirty used stuff up from the kitchen. “Baby!” he whispered, exulting. “We’re in!”
More (heavily euphemized) sex follows (That’s what you paid your thirty-five cents for, right? Wait, you paid how much?), but here’s the thing about Mr. Westlake and the pseudo-porns he wrote to pay bills. I’ve read enough of them to know that he was satirizing this shortlived publishing niche even while he was working in it. And he does it again here, nostalgically, you might say.
Brady is determined to heist the heist, but Nessa thinks these were just three idiots shooting off their mouths, and is getting cabin fever out there at the lodge. She insists they leave, and then she leaves Brady for another guy, and that guy for yet another guy, and turns out she was the protagonist of the sleaze novel within the heist novel after all, a sexual adventuress sowing her wild oats, a figure we saw more than once in the Westlake sleazes of bygone days, and one last time here.
Which is why she’s back in Part Two, and Brady is seen no more after Part One ends, having returned to the much-despised Numbnuts (there are towns with much weirder names out there in the American hinterlands). He lands a job at Starbucks, nothing interesting ever happens to him again, and he only occasionally wonders what happened with that purloined chess set. Not that he’d believe it if you told him.
But would you believe in–
The Wicked Witch of the East Side:
Mrs. W (as she preferred to be called by the staff) was, for instance, on the boards of many of the city’s organizations, as well as a director of a mind-boggling array of corporations. Beyond that, she was a tireless litigant, involved in many more lawsuits than merely those involving her immediate family. Solo, or as a very active member of a class, she was at the moment suing automobile manufacturers, aspirin makers, television networks, department stores, airlines, law firms that had previously represented her, and an array of ex-employees, including two former personal assistants.
While passionately involved in every one of these matters, Mrs. W was not at all coordinated or methodical and never knew exactly where she was in any ongoing concern, whom she owed, who owed her, and where and when the meeting was supposed to take place. She really needed a personal assistant.
And Fiona was perfect for the job. She was calm, she had no ax to grind, and she had a natural love for detail. Particularly for all the more reprehensible details of Mrs. W’s busy life, the double-dealing and chicanery, the stories behind all the lawsuits and all the feuds and all the shifting loyalties among Mrs. W’s many rich-lady friends.
And, just to make Fiona’s life complete, Mrs. W was writing an autobiography! Talk about history in the raw. Mrs. W had total recall of every slight she’d ever suffered, every snub, every shortchanging, every encounter in which the other party had turned out to be even more grasping, shrewder, and more untrustworthy than she was. She dictated all these steaming memories into a tape recorder in spurts of venom, which Lucy Leebald, Mrs. W’s current secretary, had to type out into neat manuscript.
Perhaps predictably, Westlake’s deep animosity towards the very rich abated just a touch when it came to very rich women. Not that they were ever fetching fantasy figures in his fiction. But he could appreciate that great wealth, inherited or otherwise, was one means whereby a woman could be absolutely unequivocally herself in a chauvinistic society, without anybody calling her on it. Or at least anybody whose opinion she is obliged to give two shits about. Whether this is a good thing or not, is, of course, a different matter. But it’s a thing.
Livia Northwood Wheeler is a dominating presence in this book, and not only because she is at least part-owner of this chess set Dortmunder is out to steal, which she knows literally nothing about except the fact that she doesn’t want her scheming relations to get it. She has no idea her grandfather stole the set from his army buddies, and used it to build a real estate empire that has given her the position in life she now enjoys. She’s never laid eyes on it. But Fiona’s seemingly innocent questions about it, that led indirectly to her now being very happily in this dragon lady’s employ, have made the dragon lady ask some inconvenient questions.
“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”
“Of course it is. But it’s a different history I want you to think about now.”
“Do you remember a discussion we had—two discussions, I think—about the Chicago chess set?”
Oh, dear. Fiona had been afraid to even mention the chess set, but wanting to help her grandfather in his quest—even if at the moment he believed he’d given it up—she had given it a try. She’d even—when they were looking together at the photos of the pieces on Mrs. W’s computer—managed to “discover” the mismatch in weight among the rooks.
But that had been some time ago. She’d given the effort up when she’d seen she was getting nowhere and might even be putting herself at risk. But now Mrs. W herself had raised the issue; for good, or for ill?
Heart in her mouth but expression as innocent as ever, Fiona said, “Oh, yes, ma’am. That beautiful chess set.”
“You noticed one of the pieces was the wrong weight.”
“Oh, I remember that.”
“Very observant of you,” Mrs. W said, and nodded, agreeing with herself. “That fact kept bothering me, after our discussions, and I soon realized there was far more mystery surrounding that chess set than merely one unexpectedly lighter rook.”
“Where is that chess set from?” Mrs. W demanded, glaring severely at Fiona. “Who made it? Where? In what century? It just abruptly appears, with no history, in a sealed glass case in the lobby of my father’s company, Gold Castle Realty, when they moved into the Castlewood Building in 1948. Where was it before 1948? Where did my father get it, and when? And now that we know the one piece is lighter than the rest, and is a castle, now we wonder, where did my father get his company name?”
“Gold Castle, you mean.”
Knowing how she could answer every last one of Mrs. W’s questions, but how doing so would be absolutely the worst move she could make, Fiona said, “Well, I guess he had to have it somewhere else before he put up the new building.”
“But where?” Mrs. W demanded. “And how long had he had it? And who had it before him?” Mrs. W shook her head. “You see, Fiona, the more you study that chess set, the deeper the mystery becomes.”
“History and mystery,” Mrs. W mused. “The words belong together. Fiona, I want you to ferret out the history and the mystery of the Chicago chess set.”
I am being given, Fiona thought, the one job in all the world at which I have to fail. I’m the mystery, Mrs. W, she thought, I’m the mystery and the history, my family and I, and you must never know.
So this is Fiona’s latest identity crisis, but I see nary a one for Mrs. W. She never, at any time, questions her right to the massive wealth and influence she inherited. She does, eventually, learn of her grandfather’s crime, and she finds it appalling, and never does she make the slightest existential query as a result of that. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the very rich, and most particularly those who were born that way, are very different from you and me–not because they have more money, but because they just assume it’s their natural inalienable right to have all that money. And in their position, so would you.
The Devil Wears Prada was published in 2003, perhaps around the time this book was written, and there is a hint of the relationship between that novel’s title character and protagonist and that between Mrs. W. and Fiona. However, it’s a very different thing to scratch and claw your way to the top, and to simply be born there as a result of somebody else’s scratching and clawing.
So perhaps fortunately for Fiona, there is no friction between her and her new employer. Mrs. W. can never see her as a rival, let alone a protégé. Simply one in a long chain of people who exist to service her needs. It may have seemed as if she was making it up to Fiona by hiring her on after accidentally getting her fired from her law firm, but who ended up with the perfect assistant as a result? At her most altruistic, she is still helping herself more than anyone else. Well, that’s the unfortunate part of it, you see.
When Mrs. W. learns of the secret connection between their families–and she knows Fiona was born into a moneyed family as well, even though she’s clearly not inheriting any great wealth–she’s politely apologetic, and not the least bit sorry. The fact is, it’s all working out in her favor, as things pretty much always tend to do. And she’s not done helping herself yet.
Fiona has a live-in boyfriend, named Brian, who works at some youth-oriented cable channel, that does a lot of snarky youth-oriented programming. Brian was definitely not born into a moneyed family, but clearly wishes he was, and his interest in Fiona is pretty clearly motivated at least in part by her proximate connection to great wealth, though the life they lead is anything but lush.
He’s delighted when Fiona gets the job with Mrs. W, and wants to find some excuse to meet the old gal. He finally hits on inviting her to this ‘March Madness’ party at his office–which is a costume party. He invariably goes as a character from one of the shows his network puts on. The Reverend Twisted. Fiona seems to always go as herself, and never really fits in with all the pretenders.
But who will Mrs. W. appear as? She keeps it a secret to the last possible moment.
Yes; that was it. The clunky black lace-up shoes; the black robe; the tall conical black hat; the outsize wart on nose; the green-strawed broom held aloft. It was Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz to the life; to the teeth. “And that goes for your little dog, too!” she cried, exiting the elevator and announcing her presence.
She was an instant hit. Awareness rippled outward through the hall, and people were drawn as by magnets in her direction. People crowded around her, people applauded her, people tried to hold conversations with her, people gave her about thirty drinks. The only sour note in the event, as it were, was the band’s attempt to play “Over the Rainbow”; fortunately, most people didn’t recognize it.
The first excitement and delight soon passed, and the party returned to approximately where it had been before Mrs. W had made her appearance, only with an extra little frisson created by this new presence in their midst. It isn’t every party that has a drop-in from the Wicked Witch of the West, perhaps the most beloved and certainly the best-known villainess in pop culture.
With the theater ticket sales to prove it. So rich she was able to order a rewrite, with herself as the beautiful young heroine! Wicked opened on Broadway the same year The Devil Wears Prada saw print, and that does not seem like a coincidence to me, but who the hell knows?
What Fiona knows, watching her employer dance with her boyfriend, while she sits on the sidelines, holding the witch’s broom, is that she is definitely getting the short end of the stick. But we can talk about that later. Right now, we’re going to be–
Watching The Detectives:
In the earliest days of his retirement years, Eppick had thought about hiring on somewhere, but a life on wages after so many years on the Job had just seemed too much of a comedown. It was time to be his own boss for a while, see how that would play out. So he got his private investigator’s license, not hard for an ex-cop, and set up the office down on East Third because it was inexpensive and he didn’t feel he was going to have to impress anybody. All he needed was files and a phone. Besides, private eyes were expected to office in grungy neighborhoods.
Jacques Perly was the only private detective Jay Tumbril knew, or was likely to know. A specialist in the recovery of stolen art, frequently the go-between with the thieves on the one side and the owner/museum/insurer on the other, Perly was a cultured and knowledgeable man, far from the grubby trappings associated with the term “private eye.”
Tumbril had known Perly slightly for years, since the Feinberg firm had more than once been peripherally involved in the recovery of valuable art stolen from its clients, and now, although Fiona Hemlow could not fairly be described as either “stolen” or “art,” Jacques Perly was the man Jay Tumbril thought to turn to when there were Questions to be Asked.
They met at one that Monday afternoon for lunch at the Tre Mafiosi on Park Avenue, a smooth, hushed culinary temple all in white and green and gold, with, this time of year, pink flowers. Perly had arrived first, as he was supposed to, and he rose with a smile and an outstretched hand when Tony the maître d’ escorted Jay to the table. A round, stuffed Cornish game hen of a man, Jacques Perly retained a slight hint of his original Parisian accent. A onetime art student, a failed artist, he viewed the world with a benign pessimism, the mournful good humor of a rich unmarried uncle, who expects nothing and accepts everything.
Westlake made a very interesting choice here, in giving us two private detectives to watch, one of them trying to arrange a heist, the other trying to prevent it. But we’re not supposed to root for either of them. Just watch them, and note the differences. A study in contrasts, something he was always good at.
What he always had trouble with was identifying with detectives–that is to say, with those who have made it their business to sniff out secrets, solve mysteries, tiptoe around in gum-soled shoes–as far back as Killing Time, his mistrust of them was made clear. (Though the Mitch Tobin mysteries rank with his very best work, and in my estimation are a cut above all but a handful of stories written in this subgenre, that’s basically an anti-detective series.)
To write about detectives, he needed to subvert the formula, defeat expectations, because he just did not believe in detectives, though he was fascinated by the idea of solving puzzles. There could be many reasons for that, but I’d assume one of them would be that it was detectives working for the NY state police who caught him stealing in college, and threw him in a cage for a few days. They humiliated him, and he spent the rest of his life returning the favor with interest. (We Irish are noted for our long memories.)
So you would think, wouldn’t you, that it would be Eppick, the retired cop, ready to put our beloved Dortmunder in a cell for the rest of his life if he won’t cooperate, who’d be the nemesis here. Maybe he was originally intended as such, and Westlake changed his mind.
There are darkly ominous moments relating to Eppick, such as when he surprises May at her job, getting in the checkout line at the supermarket, to send a message to Dortmunder that he knows his every weak spot. His interest in the chess set seems much more than just professional; his distress when Hemlow calls the whole thing off for a time is palpable. But he likes the life he’s got, and the wife he’s got, has no interest in going off to build a new identity with ill-gotten goods. This is just a way to pass the time for him. He’s enjoying the drama, the intrigue, and quite honestly, the company of men he used to incarcerate for a living.
This is the second time I’ve read this, but memory is a sieve, and again I found myself thinking Eppick was going to try a cross, steal the stolen chess set for himself, leave Dortmunder & Co. holding the empty bag–and clearly we’re supposed to expect that, but that’s not what happens. Both detectives ultimately prove honest, each after his own fashion. Westlake ultimately sides with the one who proves to be an honest crook.
Eppick ultimately gets his drama, and Jacques Perly gets the shaft (and I don’t mean the one who’s like a sex machine with all the chicks). Perly gets hired by the same high-powered lawyer who fired Fiona, because he’s worried–Mrs. Wheeler, his very lucrative litigious client, wants that chess set taken out of the bank vault and examined by experts. For no other reason, really, than that Fiona has aroused her curiosity about it. Her squabbling relations have no objection, probably because they’ve always been curious about it themselves. None of them has ever laid eyes on it (and none of them ever will).
Perly is supposed to find out if there’s some nefarious scheme behind all this, and his suspicion somehow falls on poor Brian, who may have some vague designs on Mrs. Wheeler’s money, but could not care less about the chess set (whose real story he knows from Fiona).
Here’s the problem with this approach–knowing there’s some kind of scheme afloat, and knowing what it is–two different things. A good detective, like a good scientist, doesn’t shape the facts to fit his theory. Perly, a polished professional lackey to the rich and powerful, knows everything but what he doesn’t know, but that’s the most important thing anyone can ever know. Once his instincts tell him Brian is the malefactor, he can’t let go of that assumption, and it irreparably warps his ratiocinative processes. The narrative builds towards that moment in every mystery book, where The Great Detective unmasks the villain–and we watch with some satisfaction as he falls flat on his smug round face.
Eppick, by contrast, is not significantly better or worse off by the end–he had his fun, and he’ll probably never have another case half as good (though maybe he’d have shown up in future books, if there had been more than just one more book in the future). He’s actually advocating in good faith for Dortmunder & Co. with Hemlow–a hireling himself, and perhaps more of a rogue than he ever dreamed, he identifies more with them than with his employer. What you’re watching in him is a detective and former cop finding out he prefers the black side of the chess board after all. Maybe he started out as the antagonist, but he ends as decent enough guy, who holds no grudges against Dortmunder for burgling his office.
The Irish have a long memory for slights, as I said, and I don’t know offhand of any ethnicity with a short one–but I’d guess Westlake had made the acquaintance of many a police officer since his youthful disgrace. He must have had a fair few fans among them, and some would have perhaps aided his research. Privately, some might even have been willing to admit to the failings of their profession, and in the words of Lucius O’Trigger, “An affront, handsomely acknowledged, becomes an obligation.” An obligation to at least be an honest dealer, but since the pleasure of a Dortmunder novel is dishonest dealings, it’s time we move on to–
Gansevoort Streeet is part of the far West Village, an old seafaring section, an elbow of twisted streets and skewed buildings poked into the ribs of the Hudson River. The area is still called the Meatpacking District, though it’s been more than half a century since the elevated coal-burning trains from the west came down the left fringe of Manhattan to the slaughterhouses here, towing many cattle cars filled with loud complaint. After the trains were no more, some cows continued to come down by truck, but their heart wasn’t in it, and gradually almost an entire industry shriveled away into history.
Commerce hates a vacuum. Into the space abandoned by the doomed cows came small manufacturing and warehousing. Since the area sits next to the actual Greenwich Village, some nightlife grew as well, and when the grungy old nineteenth-century commercial buildings started being converted into pied-à-terres for movie stars, you knew all hope was gone.
Still, the Meatpacking District, even without much by way of the packing of meat, continues to present a varied countenance to the world, part residential, part trendy shops and restaurants, and part storage and light manufacturing. Into this mix Jacques Perly’s address blended perfectly, as Dortmunder and Kelp discovered when they strolled down the block.
Perly had done nothing to gussy up the facade. It was a narrow stone building, less than thirty feet across, with a battered metal green garage door to the left and a gray metal unmarked door on the right. Factory-style square-paned metal windows stretched across the second floor, fronted by horizontal bands of narrow black steel that were designed not to look like prison bars, to let in a maximum of light and view, and to slice the fingers off anybody who grabbed them.
The single best part of the book is not the heist itself, but Dortmunder and Kelp doing a bit of scouting in advance of the heist. In fact, it’s one of the best pieces of writing in any Dortmunder book, or even any Westlake book–worth the price of admission all by itself. And if you found some way to sneak in and read it for free, well that’s entirely appropriate.
Dortmunder knows the chess set is coming out of its grim redoubt, and he knows that Jacques Perly has, perhaps imprudently, volunteered his own office on Gansevoort Street, as the site where it will be evaluated by experts. Security will be tight as hell–they’re going to need to know the set-up in advance. So he and Kelp head down there at night, and look for a way to break in without triggering any alarms or leaving any trace of their presence.
They find an apartment with a window that looks down on the small building the detective agency is headquartered in. (The resident of said apartment is out enjoying the nightlife.) Maybe they can go in by the roof. Kelp goes out the window to try and find out. Dortmunder waits for him to come back, but you know what? Sometimes people come home earlier than you’d think. He hears a key in the door. He sees light in a nearby hallway. Time to improvise.
Dortmunder didn’t go in for agile, he went in for whatever-works. He managed to go out the window simultaneously headfirst and assfirst, land on several parts that didn’t want to be landed on, struggle to his feet, and go loping and limping away as behind him an outraged voice cried, “Hey!”, which was followed almost instantly by a window-slam.
Dortmunder did his Quasimodo shuffle two more paces before it occurred to him what would be occurring to the householder at just this instant, which was: That window was locked. Once more he dropped to the roof, with less injury to himself this time, and scrunched against the wall to his left as that window back there yanked loudly upward and the outraged voice repeated, “Hey!”
“Who’s out there?”
Nobody nobody nobody.
“Is somebody out there?”
“I’m calling the cops!”
Fine, good, great; anything, just so you’ll get away from that window.
Westlake had been working on this type of parkeur-esque escape scene for a long time now, at least as far back as God Save The Mark–Manhattan is a vertical environment. Cliffs, plateaus, canyons and arroyos, made of masonry and brick and glass and lots of empty air a person could fall through on his way to the very hard ground below. There are people who have fun by learning ways to negotiate this hazardous terrain. Dortmunder would think those people are nuts. But he’s in a poor position to throw stones right now.
Kelp is nowhere to be seen, obviously he heard the shouts, knows what’s going on, took a powder. Dortmunder figures Kelp found his way into Perly’s building, and that seems as good an escape route as any. He can’t just wait around here for some curious cop to show up in response to the householder’s distress call. But there’s no way into the building from its roof–how can he find his way to some useful doorway?
Rungs. Metal rungs, round and rusty, were fixed to the rear wall, marching from here down to the wrought iron. They did not look like things that any sane person would want to find himself on, but this was not a sanity test, this was a question of escape.
Wishing he didn’t have to watch what he was doing, Dortmunder sat on the low stone wall, then lay forward to embrace it while dangling his left foot down, feeling around for the top rung. Where the hell was it?
Finally he had to shift position so he could turn his head to the left and slither leftward across the stone wall toward the dark drop which, when he could see it, was nowhere near dark enough. In the lightspill from across the way, many items could be seen scrambled together on the concrete paving way down there: metal barrels, old soda bottle cases with soda bottles, lengths of pipe, a couple of sinks, rolls of wire, a broken stroller. Everything but a mattress; no mattresses.
But there was that damn iron rung, not exactly where he’d expected it. He wriggled backward, stabbed for the rung, and got his foot on it at last.
And now what? The first thing he had to do was turn his back on the drop and, while lying crosswise on the stone wall, put as much of his weight as he could on that foot on the rung, prepared at any instant to leap like a cat—an arthritic cat—if the thing gave way.
But it didn’t. It held, and now he could ooch himself backward a little bit and put his right foot also on the rung. One deep breath, and he heard that far-off window fly up, and knew the householder was looking for him again. Could he see this far into the darkness, at the shape of a man lying on a stone wall?
Let’s not give him enough time to pass that test; Dortmunder clutched the inner edge of the wall with both hands in a death grip, and slid back some more, letting the right foot slide on down past the safety of that rung, paw around, paw some more, and by God, find the next rung!
The transition from the second rung to the third was easier, but then the transition to the fourth was much worse, because that was when his hands had to leave the stone wall and, after several slow days of hanging in midair, at last grasp the top rung tightly enough to leave dents.
Overcome, he remained suspended there a minute or two, breathing like a walrus after a marathon, and then he progressed down, down, down, and there was the porch which was really just an openwork metal floor cantilevered from the building, with a skimpy rail at waist height.
Next to him. The rungs did not descend into the railed metal floor but beside it. So now he was supposed to let go of these beautiful rungs and vault over the goddam rail?
He manages, somehow, to overcome this Escherian nightmare. Down the fire escape, into a little courtyard with a back door to the building waiting for him. Of course it’s all walled in, no way out to the street, he’s got to go inside, as he still thinks Kelp has done, without leaving any trace of tampering with the lock–very nice work–he pulls out his set of lockpicks. He wants to do just as well as his comrade in arms. Professional pride and all.
So he’s in. Might as well look around. Has one of those tiny powerful flashlights that most people use as keychains–civilization will eventually provide an industrious thief with every tool he could ever desire. One door leads to another, and he’s got the run of the place. Scopes it out, seeing its potentials, its vulnerabilities. He sees a nice wooden door he deduces must lead to Perly’s office. Locked of course. Easily unlocked, of course.
And within this holy of holies, right there on Perly’s nice desk, he finds Perly’s extensive notes on the security provisions that will be in place the day the chess set arrives. And there’s a photocopier he can use to bring them home with him with none the wiser, so helpful. A bit more poking around yields a garage door opener that can get him and his buddies in there anytime they want.
In his mind, Dortmunder has been following Kelp through this labyrinth, the way Professor Lidenbrock was following Arne Saknussemm to the center of the earth. But that, he learns, was all in his mind. Kelp’s parkeurian path led him in an entirely different direction. So when they meet up later, Dortmunder has to tell him the whole story (and we get to enjoy it all over again).
Kelp was astonished, and said so. “John, I’m astonished.”
“No choice,” Dortmunder said. “Down the rungs, down the fire escape. What got me was how clean you went through that basement door.”
“What basement door?”
“Into Perly’s building. What other way was there?”
Kelp was now doubly astonished. “You went into Perly’s building?”
“What else could I do?”
“Did you never turn around?” Kelp asked him. “Did you never see that humongous apartment house right behind you? You get thirty-seven windows to choose from over there, John.”
Dortmunder frowned, thinking back. “I never even looked over there,” he admitted. “And here I thought how terrific you were, you got through that basement door without leaving a mark, got through and out the building and not one single sign of you.”
“That’s because I wasn’t there,” Kelp said. “Where I was instead, I went into an apartment where there’s nobody home but there’s a couple nice de Koonings on the living room wall, so I went uptown to make them on consignment to Stoon, and then I went home. I never figured you to come down that same way. And wasn’t that a risk, you go in there before we want to go in there? Did you leave marks, John?”
Insulted, Dortmunder said, “What kind of a question is that? Here I tell you how impressed I am how you didn’t leave any marks—”
“It was easier for me.”
“Granted. But then, back last night, you were like my benchmark. So what I left was what you left. Not a trace, Andy, guaranteed.”
“Well, that’s terrific, you found that way in,” Kelp said. “Is that our route on the day?”
“We don’t have to do all that,” Dortmunder told him. “While I was in there anyway, I looked around, I picked up some stuff.”
“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”
“Come on, Andy.”
“You’re right,” Kelp said. “I know better than that. Maybe I’m like Eppick, I’m getting a little tense. So what stuff did you come out with?”
“Their extra garage door opener.”
Kelp reared back. “Their what?”
And all he got was a couple de Koonings. Actually, as matters arrange themselves, Andy probably ended up doing better out of their night’s work, but there’s no question in either man’s mind which of the Parkeur Brothers did the niftier bit of burglary that night. There’s always a friendly competition going on between those two, and Andy, to his credit, is only delighted that John got the better of him this time.
You know, all these long quotes are really piling up the word count. Sorry, I just recently found out how easy it is to copy/paste from Kindle, and it’s going to my head. Not going to do a Part 3. Not really feeling the need to cover everything in this book–I’ve spent almost three straight months now, reviewing Dortmunder stories, more than I ever have before–and that’s fitting, since Westlake was likewise writing more Dortmunder than he ever had before.
The results were a bit mixed, but far from unhappy. This book is a very fine bit of late Westlake, well worth reading. However, while it’s a more organic bit of storytelling than the last two, its principle pleasures are still to be found more in the individual bits and pieces than in the finished whole.
I think we’d best move to the endgame now. Hmm, ‘Endgame’ is too obvious a subheading, and this isn’t Samuel Beckett we’re talking about here. I wouldn’t say chess was ever the true theme of this novel (I rather doubt Mr. Westlake played it well, if at all), but it was, you might say, a stylistic motif. How about we go with–
Before dinner, Mr. Hemlow read to them, in the big rustic cathedral-ceilinged living room at the compound, with a staff-laid fire crackling red and orange in the deep stone fireplace, part of a paragraph from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue on the subject of chess: “Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random; I will, therefore, take occasion to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”
Closing the book, nodding his red-bereted head this way and that, Mr. Hemlow said, “What Poe calls draughts is what we know as the game of checkers.”
Kelp said, “I like checkers.”
Eppick said, “That’s easy. Everybody likes checkers. Shall I put the book back on the shelf, Mr. Hemlow?”
The heist does not go off quite as planned, because Perly, that eager beaver, shows up earlier than expected, forcing them all to scramble for hiding places. But the gang somehow avoids having The Great Detective, you know, detect them. Dortmunder figures out a way to conceal himself in the shower of Perly’s private bathroom.
Dortmunder had it all worked out how they were going to disguise themselves as the private security detail (from the unfortunate Continental Detective Agency, that seems perpetually doomed to keep crossing paths with Dortmunder & Co.), and make away with the goods.
But that all goes into a cocked hat, as you’d expect, and Dortmunder improvises a bold gambit. Thankfully, things don’t go wrong just for him–the armored car with the chess set won’t fit into Perly’s garage, gets stuck on the way in. That’s from an entirely different security company, which means you have a bunch of unrelated security guys milling around–the problem with hiring a lot of extra security is that you end up with a lot of extra security guys who don’t know each other. Or what the hell is going on. Until it’s too late.
The gang, improvising to beat the band, poses as yet another layer of security hired by Perly, just take the chess set, put it in their own van, and leave. He closes the garage door with the garage door opener. By the time the befuddled rent-a-cops have gotten it open again, the Chicago Chess Set is long gone. Like a turkey in the corn. And Perly may never get that armored car out of his garage.
Dortmunder isn’t the type to plan a cross, so they drive the set out to Hemlow’s country place, as planned. They spray-paint the pieces to disguise them, as planned. Hemlow comes out with Eppick to view his long-sought holy grail, as planned. And then Nessa and her latest none-too-bright boyfriend, who got into the house the way Brady showed her months before, come out of the woodwork. Nessa decided Brady had an idea there after all.
They load the heavy gold bejeweled playing pieces, two of which are fakes, into a bright red Cadillac Colossus with MD plates that Kelp picked up back in the city. (Westake’s final fake car name? We shall see.) All that remains is the very nice ebony and ivory chessboard, and a fat lot of good that does anybody. What was it Robert Burns said about the best-laid plans? Oh wait, that was schemes. Same thing, really.
Hemlow is disgusted, but at the same time philosophical. He gets a bit less philosophical when the sticky question of payment for goods received yet not retained arises, but he reluctantly agrees the laborer is worthy of his hire, and the gang reluctantly agrees to a stiffly reduced fee. And they just decide to keep it to themselves that Anne Marie’s jeweler friend cooked up a fake queen, and they still have the real one. I mean, any landing you walk away from is good, right?
Elsewhere, a more successful heist is pulled–Perly insisted that Brian be hauled in and interrogated. He’s no genius, but he knows enough to keep his mouth shut. Perly’s case, such as it is, falls to pieces when he triumphantly produces security footage of Brian in the vicinity of his office, in the company of this older woman who he thinks may be a real Ma Barker type.
It’s Livia Northwood Wheeler. They went to this hot new nightclub down on Gansevoort Street, after the March Madness party. If Mrs. W. is secretly flattered to be described as a criminal mastermind, she hides it very well, and there is very little in this world as intimidating as an outraged rich lady with all the lawyers in the world at her disposal. All charges are dropped, and Perly’s reputation is in tatters, much like his garage.
There is also very little as nakedly acquisitive as a rich lady–she’s lost the chess set she never really gave two figs about, but somehow ends up with a badly traumatized and deeply grateful Brian in her tender custody–had her eye on him ever since the party, just like he’s had an eye on her money. What Livia wants, Livia gets. Leaving Fiona out in the cold. It must be in their genes, she thought. Her father stole my great-grandfather’s future. And now she’s stolen my boyfriend. (You ask me, our mouse is better off without her social-climbing louse, but that’s not going to be much comfort in the moment, is it now?)
As to the chess set, fear not. It finds a good home. Nessa and whatshisname never stopped to consider that the car they stole in order to steal the chess set might itself be stolen. The cops get them in New Hampshire. Nessa claims she never saw this boob before he picked her up. He’s going down for grand theft auto, she’s off to her next sleazy adventure, while Brady writes people’s names on paper cups in Numbnuts Nebraska.
The incognito Chicago Chess Set, the theft of which New Hampshire policemen neither know nor care about, winds up in the custody of–wait for it–the Little Sisters of Eternal Misery. Yes, I believe we can assume this is the same order that raised the infant Dortmunder, after he was abandoned on their doorstep, in Dead Indian, Illinois. They seem to have dropped the Bleeding Heart part of their name, perhaps that was deemed excessive.
They run a home for the elderly in the town. Old people like to play games to pass the time. And the pieces are so heavy, it’ll give them a nice bit of cardio to boot (maybe a hernia or two). Eventually, the paint will start to chip away, and looks like Dortmunder just paid his childhood benefactors off with considerable interest. He’d be so pleased to know that.
And there’s just one Dortmunder novel remaining–which will mark the end of the main part of my reviewing project. Still a few months away. Next in view is a novel that might well have remained forever unpublished, if not for the hard cases at Hard Case Crime. A James Bond novel–without James Bond. Without Spectre. Without gratuitous sex. Without even a single car chase. And most definitely without easy answers. But some rather troubling questions.
So you go get the popcorn, and I’ll just put on a little mood music. This is very definitely the mood I’m in about now. Don’t know about you.
When I was writing novellas for the pulp magazines back in the 1950’s, we still called them “novelettes,” and all I knew about the form was that it was long and it paid half a cent a word. This meant that if I wrote 10,000 words, the average length of a novelette back then, I would sooner or later get a check for five hundred dollars. This was not bad pay for a struggling young writer.
A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words. Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words), it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain’t easy to write. In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all.
Ed McBain. AKA Evan Hunter. AKA Salvatore Albert Lombino.
This assignment turned out to be more complex than expected. Which is par for the course. This is the mystery genre, after all. Does a book detective ever have a less complex assignment than expected?
Originally, I was just going to review the Dortmunder novella Westlake contributed to the Transgressions anthology, edited by his longtime friend and mentor, Evan Hunter, under his more popular crime fiction pseudonym. This being far and away the shortest and simplest Dortmunder that isn’t a short story, I figured it wouldn’t take much time–but rereading it, I came to a realization regarding its true authorship, that had eluded me in the first reading. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is that this time I read all three novellas in the paperback edition I’d originally acquired just to read Westlake’s. The paperback reprints of the original collection were from Tor, a publisher Westlake probably assumed he’d never be involved with again after the Sam Holt debacle. They broke up the original set into several, and it just happened that Westlake’s story shared a volume with McBain’s and Walter Mosley’s.
I know McBain fairly well but not intimately–I’ve read maybe half a dozen 87th Precinct novels, early books in the series, and hope to read a lot more (All of them? Who says I’m living that long?) I’m a fan, with a few minor reservations. I don’t think any mystery writer other than Doyle has been more identified with just one franchise. And that’s the franchise represented here, one of the last 87th Precinct stories ever written, if not the very last (or the very best, but McBain said novellas were hard).
Mosley I’ve only glimpsed from afar, till now–I was bemused at his introduction here (presumably written by McBain), which says he followed in the tradition of Chester Himes and John Carroll Daly, but ‘added the complex issue of race relations’–???–pretty sure Himes beat him to that by over three decades, with the Harlem Detective novels. But Himes left plenty of material for Mosley to work with. He doesn’t write like Himes (no one did), and I don’t get the Daly reference at all. I saw different influences. And a writer I need to maybe move up in the queue. We have some shared interests.
So this is, after all, The Westlake Review, and I could be pardoned for just skipping over the other two offerings here. (I’m sure not reviewing all ten.) I am, predictably, most interested in the Dortmunder story, which is, predictably, the best piece of writing on offer here. But in certain respects, the other two are more interesting to me. I can’t just ignore them, any more than when reviewing The Perfect Murder, I could pass over all the other contributors to that crazy quilt of a book. Mr. Westlake said he and all his fellow authors swam in the same ocean together, and I would be doing him no service by ignoring the other swimmers.
The authors are billed in alphabetical order, then presented in reverse alphabetical order, and I’m going to reverse it yet again, and begin with McBain. Buckle up, we’re headed into Isola, for what is, unfortunately, still a very topical piece, entitled–
The driver behind them kept honking his horn.
“So much hate in this city,” Meyer said softly. “So much hate.”
McBain died in 2005, the year Transgressions was published. At 78 (Aw geez, he died at 78? Invert that and cue the Twilight Zone theme.), his mind was still sharp and inquisitive, his passion for the city of his birth, that became the city of his imagination, still undiminished. He was not quite the writer he had once been, and the 87th was now hopelessly lost in a sea of mediocre copycat procedural melodramas with the precinct as the protagonist. Nothing succeeds like excess.
He was working on novels to the very end, he had assembled a truly prestigious group of authors for this collection (that presaged the recent resurrection of the novella, now once again commercially viable, thanks to e-readers), he had laurels to spare. He could have turned in a standard bit of rigamarole; a sex criminal, a bank robber, maybe bring back The Deaf Man, super villains being hotter than ever in the 21st.
Instead, he chose to take on the issue of Muslim immigrant communities in the big city, post-9/11. The man never lacked for guts, but maybe he figured it was safer to hide this one in a crowd. Or he didn’t have enough time left to do the research a full novel would call for.
But when he summoned up his narrator for these books–who I always think of as the wise and world-weary tutelary deity of Isola, looking down on his people with mingled admiration and despair, seeing them all, knowing them all, willing them to combine their unique strengths, and live as one many-faceted collective organism–knowing that they will fall short of the ideal, calling upon his champions to try and fill the gap, heal the wounds–well, let him tell it.
Just when Carella and Meyer were each and separately waking up from eight hours of sleep, more or less, the city’s swarm of taxis rolled onto the streets for the four-to-midnight shift. And as the detectives sat down to late afternoon meals which for each of them were really more hearty breakfasts, many of the city’s more privileged women were coming out into the streets to start looking for taxis to whisk them homeward. Here was a carefully coiffed woman who’d just enjoyed afternoon tea, chatting with another equally stylish woman as they strolled together out of a midtown hotel. And here was a woman who came out of a department store carrying a shopping bag in each hand, shifting one of the bags to the other hand, freeing it so she could hail a taxi. And here was a woman coming out of a Korean nail ship, wearing paper sandals to protect her freshly painted toenails. And another coming out of a deli, clutching a bag with baguettes showing, raising one hand to signal a cab. At a little before five, the streets were suddenly alive with the leisured women of this city, the most beautiful women in all the world, all of them ready to kill if another woman grabbed a taxi that had just been hailed.
This was a busy time for the city’s cabbies. Not ten minutes later, the office buildings would begin spilling out men and women who’d been working since nine this morning, coming out onto the pavements now and sucking in great breaths of welcome spring air. The rain had stopped, and the sidewalks and pavements glistened, and there was the strange aroma of freshness on the air. This had been one hell of a winter.
The hands went up, typists’ hands, and file clerks’ hands, and the hands of lawyers and editors and thieves, yes, even thieves took taxis–though obvious criminal types were avoided by these cabbies steering their vehicles recklessly toward the curb in a relentless pursuit of passengers. These men had paid eight-two dollars to lease their taxis. These men had paid fifteen bucks to gas their buggies and get them on the road. They were already a hundred bucks in the hole before they put foot on pedal. Time was money. And there were hungry mouths to feed. For the most part, these men were Muslims, these men were gentle strangers in a strange land.
But someone had killed one of them last night.
And he was not yet finished.
(I can imagine Westlake thinking, “If Arthur Hailey had known what a writer is, this is how he’d have written.” It’s sub-par McBain, the clichés are too thick on the ground–hmm, speak of the devil–but it still grips you.)
So somebody is killing Muslim cabbies, and spray-painting a Star of David on the windshield as a calling card. Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer (who is Jewish) are assigned to the case, which means they have to talk to people who worked with the victims, lived with them, ate with them, prayed with them. Bit by bit, the diversity of the Islamic community in Isola is laid bare, people from many parts of the world, united only by faith, and sometimes not even that. Well, most believe a Jew did it, once they hear about the magen David. That’s a kind of unity that hate can bring.
Even the first victim’s wife believes it, though at first she can’t understand why a Jew would kill her husband, since they came from Bangladesh. But when she hears about the graffiti, she says “The rotten bastards.” Clearly, whoever the murderer is, whatever the motive for the shootings, he or she intends to drum up discord between the tribes of Isola. More than merely the usual hate.
Before long, a handful of Islamic extremists have set off bombs in public places, ostensibly in protest of the murders not being solved (dangling subplot, never gets resolved, McBain hadn’t written a novella in quite a long time). No attacks on synagogues or Jewish neighborhoods–just freeform hate.
Carella and Meyer keep looking for a motive, a suspect, doing all the rote things real detectives do, no great flashes of insight from 87th Precinct detectives, though Meyer has one great idea–figure out if the person who is spray-painting the symbol on the cabs is right or left-handed. The killer isn’t a southpaw, so it doesn’t help much (I knew it must be those right-handed infidels! And they call me sinister!)
One of their suspects, pointed out to them by a rabbi, is Anthony Inverni, an outspoken young Italian American, who wants to marry a young Jewish girl. Her family is trying to stop them. The rabbi thinks maybe he’s getting revenge by trying to pin the killings on Jews. An aspiring author, very angry at the world, very anti-religious (one of two such characters in the book), Inverni says he’s going to change his last name to Winters, it’ll look better on a book cover (Hunter would also work, or McBain).
Inverni/Winters also admits he was sleeping around on the girl he means to marry, since he needs an alibi, treats it as no big deal. Under any name, it is now a well-known fact that the compiler of this anthology was not a faithful husband for much of his life. Hate can also be directed towards one’s younger self, particularly in old age.
What McBain does here is take what would have been just one plot skein in an 87th Precinct novel, and make it the whole story. Too cramped for such an expansive topic–he tries to be fair, spends a lot of time in the heads of many different Muslims, showing us their varied lives and interests.
Putting myself in the place of a Muslim reader, I would see the good intentions, the genuine perceptions, and still find it wanting. Too forced, too hasty, and the shock of 9/11 is still there, the wounds still fresh and raw. I don’t buy that terrorist bombers are motivated by a few cab drivers getting whacked. It is mentioned that Muslims died in the towers on 9/11–it is not spelled out whether that happened in Isola, since that would be openly admitting Isola is New York, which McBain was always loathe to do. The problem with fictional cities being used to talk about specific real-life events.
He’s looking for some way to believe that these newest arrivals can also become fully part of his city, join the larger family, without abandoning their core identities. It’s a noble project, that needed more time, more research–and perhaps a fresher eye.
He also doesn’t have much space to talk about his detectives–there’s lots of friendly banter between the two comrades, “a Catholic who hadn’t been to church since he was twelve, and a Jew who put up a tree each and every Christmas”–there’s also a brief cameo by the irascible anti-ideal, Andy Parker–but their personalities don’t really come through strongly here. Nobody who hadn’t read the earlier stories would get a strong sense of who these detectives are.
Comes up short compared to some of his earlier books centered around Puerto Rican immigrants and their kids–who once upon a time were likewise believed to be incapable of assimilation, slotted as gangsters (they did some terrorism too). It’s a long list of ethnic groups who have been declared social undesirables in America, and we’re all on it. But you see how quickly he put this one together, wanting to make some personal contribution of his own to this project he’d embarked upon, wanting to make some final statement. Not enough space, not enough research, not enough perspective.
Maybe he felt the ultimate deadline looming as he typed it. But with so little time left, and nothing left to prove, what would make him care enough to attempt something so daunting, difficult, and controversial, that would profit him nothing? Merely love.
And that was merely adequate, as a review, but at least I’ve read some McBain. Can’t say the same for Mosley, before now. A strange thing to begin one’s acquaintance with an important mystery writer with something he wrote in a format he’d probably never attempted before (since the market for novellas had died out before he even got started).
This is an origin story, along the lines of A Study in Scarlet, with a first person narrator who is both protagonist in his own right and observer of a unique investigative mind. Written as the starting point of a series of stories about two intrepid mismatched detectives–that ends up a bit like those unaired TV pilots you can sometimes see on cable, or get on home video–a series that never happened, stillborn. All kinds of unrealized potentials that were never explored. We can talk about why that is, while we’re–
Walking The Line:
There was a bookshelf in the bathroom. The books were composed of two dominant genres: politics and science fiction. I took out a book entitled Soul of the Robot by the author Barrington J. Bayley. It was written in the quick style of pulp fiction, which I liked because there was no pretension to philosophy. It was just a good story with incredible ideas.
Walter Mosley writes mainly detective novels, series fiction. He started out with science fiction, broke big with mysteries, and wrote a fair bit of erotica on the side–hmm, who does that remind me of? His various franchises are always based around a strong central character with well-established quirks and a memorable name–Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, Socrates Fortlow. I’ve read none of their books. No, I had to start with Archibald Lawless. And his artsy antsy amanuensis, Felix Orlean (of the New Orleans Orleans.)
It’s not clear when he wrote this–there’s a slighting reference by Mr. Lawless to President Bush–probably Bush the Younger, going by context–but you can’t be 100% sure–maybe this dates back to before Mosley was a name, still into science fiction, dreaming of the pulp magazines that folded before he had a chance to write for them.
The narrator, doing Dr. Watson as a cultured young black man, encounters Lawless because he reads all the personal ads in multiple print newspapers. Nobody seems to be using even flip phones, let alone the smart kind. Computers and the internet are a thing, but not really used much. There is a certain retro feel to this one, so Mosley could just be filtering some changes out (hmm, who does that also remind me of?). I find it very hard to believe this was originally conceived in the 21st century, though going by the sarcastic reference to Bush being a legitimately elected President, it was written after the 2000 election (that ref could have been shoehorned in later).
McBain says in his intro that some writers who responded to his entreaties in the positive had ideas too slight for a novel, too involved for a short story–others had a character in mind they wanted to introduce, run him/her up the flagpole, see who saluted. But I’d think a few had something written or half-written already, and just didn’t have a market for it before McBain sent out the call. (In Westlake’s A Likely Story, the anthologist protagonist suspects many of the famous authors responding to his call for Christmas-themed pieces are simply dusting off some unpublished work and reworking it.) Well, the provenance isn’t really the point.
The point is anarchism. Felix needs a job to support himself while he studies at the Columbia Journalism School–for his temerity at rejecting the practice of law his father and grandfather and great-grandfather sacrificed much to attain success in, he’s been cut off from his wealthy New Orleans clan–he personally prefers the less well-heeled more ‘authentically’ black members of his large socially diverse family (he describes himself as being very light-skinned–as is Mosley himself). His father whipped him with a belt as a boy, and he’s scared spitless of the man, was quietly delighted when dad told him to get out and never come back. (But he still thinks about calling him when the cops haul him into a frightening holding pen on a bum rap, where he’s about ten seconds away from getting raped when Lawless pulls a few strings to spring him.)
The man he meets at a midtown office building is the polar antithesis of his father–an alternative authority figure whose enemy is authority itself.
The man standing there before me had no double in the present day world or in history. He stood a solid six three or four with skin that was deep amber. His hair, which was mostly dark brown and gray, had some reddish highlights twined into a forest of thick dreadlocks that went straight out nine inches from his head, sagging only slightly. The hair resembled a royal head-dress, maybe even a crown of thorns but Mr. A. Lawless was no victim. His chest and shoulders were unusually broad even for a man his size. His eyes were small and deep set. The forehead was round and his high cheekbones cut strong slanting lines down to his chin which gave his face a definite heart shape. There was no facial hair and no wrinkles except at the corner of his eyes.
He takes an immediate liking to Felix, who quickly realizes this guy is at least a little bit crazy (more than just a little, as things work out)–but compelling. Convincing. He’s not part of any organization, but he monitors the outpourings of fellow anarchists across the globe, recognizing that much of what they’re saying is demented gibberish (and that they can be as dangerous as the people they’re fighting), but sometimes they stumble across something real. He says there are government and corporate assassins everywhere (calls them ‘killkills’). He sees a world most people choose not to see. His office is full of file boxes containing endless conspiracies of the powerful against We The People.
Yeah, he’s Fox Mulder without the FBI, aliens, mutants, or the ability to hail a cab. And Felix is Dana Scully without the sexual tension to distract you. Definitely conceived after 1993. And just like that overblown accident of a cult show that ran far too long (and still ludicrously clings to half-life, like a TV zombie), the believer is always right, and the skeptic is always wrong. And yet remains a skeptic. I’ve always had issues with that dynamic. It’s very hard to get the balance right.
Mosley mainly doesn’t here, but Felix is a much better-realized sidekick than Scully–helps that he’s the first-person narrator, of course. He even gets himself a waitress/music student girlfriend who shares his congenially complicated relationship with her ethnicity. They enjoy a classic New York date at a classical music concert at The Cloisters, then a sweet raunchy sex scene, and I applaud Mr. Mosley for rejecting the old Chandleresque “Gumshoe meets nice interesting girl he could be happy with, but goes for the deadly noir-blonde siren instead” trope (Though that trope is here in force, her name is Lana Drexel, and she ends up working for Lawless too.)
Who knows if the girlfriend would remained part of the series, if there’d been one? Who knows if Felix would ever have been proven right about anything? The story itself is almost more of a mystery than the mystery its protagonists try to unravel.
So Felix can smell trouble all over this awesome anarchist; he himself is small of stature and timorous of nature, but he really needs the job, he’s got the investigative instinct of a hound dog, and he finds Lawless fascinating, as anyone would, as I do. As indeed nearly everyone we meet in the story does. Lawless can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized–he’s not famous, but everybody knows him, from the humble to the great. (The only one who doesn’t seem to know who he is happens to be the one ‘killkill’ we meet in this story, which I found a bit random, but it’s a cool fight scene.)
And the minute Felix questions anything (like what are the odds an anarchist would be born with the name Lawless?), this peripatetic Nero Wolfe gets up on the invisible soapbox he carries everywhere with him for precisely such occasions. His one weakness, but it’s a bad one.
“I am Archibald Lawless,” he said. “I’m sitting here before you. You are looking into my eyes and questioning what you see and what you hear. On the streets you meet Asian men named Brian, Africans named Joe Cramm. But you don’t question their obviously being named for foreign devils. You accept their humiliation. You accept their loss of history. You accept them being severed from long lines of heritage by their names. Why wouldn’t you accept just as simply my liberating appellation?”
Why can’t Felix, who is no dummy, riposte with “Lawless is a foreign devil’s name, and we’re all foreign devils here except the Indians”? Trouble is, the author identifies more with Felix, but would much rather be Lawless. Which could lead to interesting tensions in the narrative, ways for Mosley to explore his own inner contradictions (that you kind of figure a man with a black father and a Russian Jewish mother is going to have, and who doesn’t?) but there’s not enough room to work with them. Though there was plenty of room for Lawless to just smile at Felix’s little jibe, and say “A man from New Orleans whose last name is Orlean thinks my name is contrived?” And he doesn’t, because that’s not the character. Lawless talks too much and says too little (and I am, after all, something of an authority on that).
This is the longest of the three novellas on offer here–so long, I’d call it more of a short novel. The narrative style reminds me more than a little of the Mitch Tobin mysteries, though the themes and character dynamics don’t. Mosley sticks in a lot of bells and whistles, about stolen jewels, and mysterious murders, and a haven for fugitives in a restaurant on the western banks of the Hudson, and you can tell he’s really jonesing for the halcyon days of pulp fiction, when it was so much easier to get away with crap like this. When it felt a lot more real than it does now. A lot of McGuffins here, none of them terribly convincing, but they never are–the trick is to make the story so engaging, we don’t care. Mosley doesn’t quite pull it off, but he does make me wish he’d tried again, because I do care about these people, I am interested in what they think.
The real story is Felix stepping into a larger world, accepting his alternative father figure (I think we can all see the looming confrontation between Lawless and Orlean Sr., and that would have been something to see.) So when that’s done, maybe all that’s left is formula, and Mosley didn’t see a way forward. He’s clearly more than good enough a writer to know when he hasn’t done his best work. But there’s a lot of good work here, all the same. And a lot more than your standard identity politics. Lawless sends Felix to talk to a snooty real estate agent he suspects of being involved in something more than just gentrification. Felix bluffs his way in by using his father’s name.
“Why did you need to see my ID?”
“This is an exclusive service, Mr. Orlean,” she said with no chink of humanity in her face. “And we like to know exactly who it is we’re dealing with.”
“Oh,” I said. “So it wasn’t because of my clothes or my race?”
“The lower orders come in all colors, Mr. Orlean. And none of them get back here.”
Her certainty sent a shiver down my spine. I smiled to hide the discomfort.
I suppose Mosley could still bring Felix and Archie back someday. But I doubt it. And these days, I’m more afraid of the wild-eyed conspiracy mongers than I am of ‘The Deep State.’ Though there’s plenty of fear to go around, isn’t there? And no clear lines of scrimmage anymore, if there ever were.
So I’m over 4,000 words into a Westlake review, and I’ve yet to talk about what Westlake wrote. (Be warned, there will be a lot more spoilers for this one). McBain contributed a less than fully satisfactory installment to his most famous series–perhaps the concluding installment. Mosley turned in a much more interesting but confused introduction to a series that never happened. Both struggled with the constraints of the novella form, which McBain had abandoned maybe 40 or more years earlier, and Mosley probably had little or no experience with.
Westlake always had problems with the short story, but the novella was a form he felt much more confident in. He’d published a two-novella collection back in ’77, proof of his wishing there was still a market for them. Anarchaos (a science fiction novel I’m not sure would have been in Lawless’ collection, though it fits Felix’s description to a T) is little more than a novella, and he probably didn’t even get 500 dollars for it.
In his early days, Richard Stark was writing basically nothing but novels about the same length as Walking the Line, but a whole lot more focused and sure of themselves, with a protagonist who disdains both soapboxes and sidekicks. And I am much inclined to think Stark’s the one who really wrote–
Walking Around Money:
Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”
“A quiet heist,” Querk told him. “No hostages, no explosions, no standoffs. In, out, nobody ever knows it happened. Believe me, the only way this scores for us is if nobody ever knows anything went missing.”
“Huh,” Dortmunder said.
“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.
I gave the game away up top, so might as well just say it. This is a clear rewrite of The Man With the Getaway Face. I say clear, even though I didn’t twig to it on my previous reading–Westlake always hid his recycling well. It doesn’t play out the same way, because Dortmunder is not Parker, he lives in a much less brutal reality than Parker, and he’s never getting plastic surgery (though he probably could use it more), but the stories share a skeleton, and his name is Querk–though it used to be Skimm.
Querk: A skinny little guy, maybe fifty, with a long face, heavy black eyebrows over banana nose over thin-lipped mouth over long bony chin, he fidgeted constantly on that wire-mesh chair in Paley Park, a vest pocket park on East 3rd Street in Manhattan, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.
Skimm: He was a thin stub end of a man, all bones and skin with no meat. His head was long and thin, set on a chicken neck with a knotty Adam’s apple, and his face was all nose and cheekbones. The watery eyes were set deep in the skull, the jaw small and hard.
In both cases, there’s a woman at the back of it. A mean frustrated New Jersey waitress named Alma who is just using Skimm in the Stark novel. A good-natured hearty trout-fishing upstate New York travel agent named Janet, for Querk, with a pernicious habit of trying to improve the men in her life. Both a bit on the hefty side, but attractively so. Big difference is that Janet actually wants to be with Querk–Stark can relax and be a bit more mellow and forgiving here, but it’s still Stark–hell, he was actually wordier in his physical description of Skimm.
Janet likes the man she’s using (Querk will make a good project for her), but they are still both looking for an escape route–her from a really bad marriage with an abusive paranoid who works for the phone company. Him from having to work at his brother’s printing company, having been trained for the old school non-digital printing industry that no longer exists during his last stint in prison, and only his brother would hire him on.
The plant sometimes prints money–lots and lots of money. But security is lax there, because it’s not our money. It’s Guerraran money, siapas–yep, Guerrera is back for one last encore. (And please recall, Guerrara also exists in the Starkian universe, albeit under the more masculine alias Guerrero.)
The pitch is simple–Querk works at the plant. He can get them in during a period when it’s shut down a few weeks so that the river that serves as its power source can be opened up for the annual trout run. They’ll get the power to run the presses from a mobile generator kept at the local firehouse they can borrow with none the wiser. They print themselves a hundred billion siapas, in twenty million siapa notes. This will come to about 500g’s in our money. (No, I don’t know why they don’t just make the siapa worth more, I’m not an economist, ask Paul Krugman or somebody.)
Instead of being the finger on this job, like Alma was in the earlier book, Janet’s involvement is explained by her having a contact in Guerrera who can fence the money for them, demanding a hefty cut of course. Kelp goes to check out this story, finds it lacking in credibility. Like Parker and Handy before them, Dortmunder and Kelp smell a cross in the making. This alone should tell you who’s writing this, since that’s a common twist in the Parker novels that only showed up once in the Dortmunders before now.
Where Stark and Westlake come together is in their endless interest in their surroundings–you gotta know the territory. But the territory has changed a lot since the early 60’s. Querk explains the job to them while they are parked along the West Side Highway–remember how much I loved the familiar settings of the second Parker novel, so near where I grew up? This is equally familiar, but much more contemporary. And a lot less noir-ish, but that goes with the territory as well.
Querk said, “What is this?”
“Fairway,” Kelp told him, as he found a parking space on the left and drove into it, front bumper against fence. It was hot outside, so he kept the engine on and the windows shut.
Querk said, “I don’t get it.”
“What it is,” Kelp told him, putting the Infiniti in park, “Harlem never had a big supermarket, save money on your groceries, they only had these little corner stores, not much selection on the shelves. So this Fairway comes in, that used to be a warehouse over there, see it?”
Querk nodded at the big warehouse with the supermarket entrance. “I see it.”
Kelp said, “So they put in a huge supermarket, great selections, everything cheap, the locals love it. But also the commuters, it’s easy on, easy off, see, there’s your north-bound ramp back up to the highway, so they can come here, drop in, buy everything for the weekend, then head off to their country retreat.”
Querk said, “But why us? What are we doin’ here?”
Dortmunder told him, “You look around, you’ll see one, two people, even three, sitting in the cars around here. The wife–usually, it’s the wife–goes in and shops, the husband and the houseguests, they stay out here, keep outa the way, sit in the car, tell each other stories.”
Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”
Dortmunder and Kelp don’t make one wrong move this whole mini-book. They scout every problem out before it happens. There are no surprises. The idea wasn’t that Querk and Janet would kill them, but just scoot off to Guerrera with all the cash, never to be seen again. They get surprised–by Janet’s crazy husband, and by their criminal co-conspirators being so much smarter than they look. (As Kelp says at the end, “That’s what we specialize in.”)
But other than uncomfortable rental cars (they decide it’s too long-term a job for Kelp to borrow some doctor’s luxuriant Lexus or whatever), bad upstate food, and a brief moment of buying into Querk’s original story, there are no embarrassments for Dortmunder here. He’s finally what he’s always wanted to be–a Stark heister. But without one vital little element.
See, the job goes off fine, without a hitch, they have the money, they’ve neutralized the crazy wife-beating husband (Janet’s black eye was a vital clue for Inspector Kelp), they’ve got Querk and Janet at their mercy–and they show mercy. Kind of. See, in the words of Lord Vader, they have altered the deal. Maybe Querk and Janet would have been better off with Parker. It’d be over faster.
The original deal was that Dortmunder and Kelp get a bit over 62 grand to split between them. In dollars. New deal is Querk and Janet can run away together to beautiful scenic Guerrera, as planned. They can take one box of freshly minted walking around money, a hundred thousand bucks’ worth of siapas to start their new life together, mazel tov. But here comes the catch.
Querk said, “Where am I gonna get that money?”
“You’re gonna steal it,” Dortmunder told him. “That’s what you do, remember? You gave up on reform.”
Querk hung his head. The thought of a Guerreran jail moved irresistably through his mind.
Meanwhile, Dortmunder said, “If you don’t show up in six months, the four boxes will go to the cops with an anonymous letter with your names and a description of the scheme and where you’re hiding out, and the probable numbers on your siapas. And then, you’ve got nothing.”
“Jeez,” Querk said.
“Look at it this way,” Dortmunder suggested. “You lied to us, you abused our trust, but we aren’t getting even, we aren’t hurting you. Because all we want is what’s ours. So, one way or another, you keep your side of the bargain, and we keep ours. Looking past Querk at the window, he said, “Here’s the goddam compact, I hope we can fit these boxes in there. Come on, Querk, help me carry the loot.”
I can imagine many faithful readers of this series coming to this point in the story and exclaiming out loud, “Why is Dortmunder being so mean?” He was pretty damn mean in The Hot Rock–many since have learned you don’t want to tick him off–usually some wealthy powerful person who did a lot worse than just stiff him. Querk and Janet are basically nice people (as opposed to good people) who only wanted to escape their unsatisfactory lives, and needed to stiff somebody in order to start over from scratch.
But they stiffed the wrong guy. And they didn’t realize who was writing this story. A much harsher god than Donald Westlake. Who is enjoying the chance to administer justice without the use of firearms or huge veiny hands. A change is as good as a rest, as they say.
Far and away the best novella of the three on offer here–I couldn’t say about the remaining seven in the original hardcover. Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King are no slouches, Lawrence Block recently put out maybe the best novella I’ve ever read via Kindle, which is proving to be the savior of that long-neglected form. But could anybody beat a tag-team composed of Donald E. Westlake and Richard Stark? Talk about a handicap match.
His entry, in a form none of them employed regularly, is the best because he’s not trying for something bigger, bolder, brassier, he’s not trying to save the world in 40,000 words or less, he’s not jumping on any soapboxes. He’s just using this opportunity to try a little experiment–what would Dortmunder be like if Stark wrote him? And he’s not going to tell anybody that’s what he’s doing. Because that would skew the data.
Which I suppose is what I’ve just done, but it’s been over ten years now, and I think the statute of limitations has expired, along with the author, sadly. Only Mosley is left now. They should have set up a tontine or something. For all I know they did. That would make for an interesting novella, don’t you think?
I think it’s going to be a while before my next review, since I haven’t had time to reread the next Dortmunder novel, and it’s a long one, with all the extra plot elements Stark summarily dispensed with here. Maybe I’ll find something to write about in the nonce, maybe not. Forgive my transgressions, gentle readers, as I would forgive yours, had you any.
“I’m a guy goes to the O.J. sometimes,” Dortmunder said, “and I thought you oughta know what’s happening there.”
“I’m here,” Otto Medrick told him, “so I don’t hafta know what’s happening there, I got family looking after it.”
“No, you don’t,” Dortmunder said. “Your nephew Raphael, I have to tell you the truth, I met him, and I don’t think he could look after a pet rock.”
“Yeah, you met him all right,” Medrick agreed. “But there’s the rest of the family, his mother, cousins by the dozens.”
“Nobody,” Dortmunder said. “Whatever they’re supposed to be doing, they’re busy doing something else.”
“By God, that sounds like those useless sonsabitches,” Medrick said, and peered all at once more closely into Dortmunder’s face. “I bet,” he said, “you’re one a them back-room crooks.”
Many years ago, I made a mighty vow that I would never write two novels about John Dortmunder in a row, but would always write at least two books about other people and other things in between. The reason was, I didn’t want to overwork John, me or the reader. So far, I think the system has worked pretty well.
So what happened? After The Road to Ruin, clearly, I was supposed to write two non-John novels, and yet, Watch Your Back! is absolutely about Dortmunder, Kelp and all the rest of them. And what happened was, this was the only story I could think about. I resisted, I tried to come up with something else, but the brain refused to move until I had cleared it of this idea. So I hope it’s gonna be all right. I leave it to the reader to judge.
A word about that exclamation point. Generally speaking, I don’t much hold with exclamation points, and certainly not in titles, but some time after I decided this book was called Watch Your Back!, it occurred to me that there are two meanings for that phrase, the American meaning and the New York meaning (America and New York are always at odds, so why not here?), and it was the New York meaning I meant. In America, “watch your back” means be careful, someone means to do you harm. In New York, it means, “Comin’ through!” Move over, in other words, or get hurt. I added the exclamation point in an attempt to juke the reader toward the New York meaning. But whatever you think the title means, I hope you like the story. ~DEW
What did happen? Leaving aside that What Happened? wouldn’t be a half bad Dortmunder title, following in the tradition of Why Me?, What’s The Worst That Could Happen?, and the penultimate novel we’ve yet to cover. Westlake liked taking familiar turns of phrase and standing them on their heads. But why is it a man who had so many novel ideas for novels couldn’t just knock off another standalone, and give his two larcenous franchise boys a break?
As we’ve discussed, his powers were slowly ebbing, his recent attempts to break new ground hadn’t mainly worked out (often to the point of his not even finding a publisher for them), the 21st century was perhaps not entirely to his taste, and even though he was writing as Richard Stark again, this didn’t satisfy his personal and professional need to publish under his birth name.
His memory is a bit selective here–his final seven novels were all Parkers or Dortmunders after 2003’s Money For Nothing (and that title sounds like a Dortmunder too, doesn’t it?) Ask The Parrot wasn’t ready for 2005 so this ended up being the only book he published that year. In fact, 2004 was the last year he published more than one book–in the 60’s, he’d routinely come out with seven per annum.
I suppose I ought to take him at his word when he says the title means “Comin’ Through!”–a phrase I have yet to hear in that context from any New Yorker. What you hear from all the wannabe Lance Armstrongs coming up fast behind you in the park, on their $5,000 racing machines, is “To your Left!” If you can’t process that direction-based directive quickly enough, too bad for you and your bones.
If somebody’s comin’ through, that means you better watch your back, or harm will befall you. The exclamation point makes it more assertive (and therefore, more New York). He knew the title had a double meaning, as so many of his titles did. Believe what writers of fiction tell you in their fiction. That’s where they tell the truth about themselves. But it’s for we the readers to divine that truth, so let’s get back to it.
I think I’ll go back to the titled subheadings approach now, which tends to serve me well in the case of Mr. Westlake’s more rambling endeavors. Beginning with (this will be a long one)–
Florida in August Sucks For Everyone:
The rich and poor alike, but let’s start with the middle class. Dortmunder goes to see Otto Medrick, co-founder of the O.J. Bar and Grill, now retired to Coral Acres, a seemingly fictional retirement community, just outside Jacksonville, as far north in Florida as you could go and still be in Florida; but on the other hand, you were still in Florida.
As you can see up top, Otto has heard of Dortmunder–Rollo told him about these guys who held meetings in the back room, presumably referring to Dortmunder as the taller and gloomier of the two bourbon & ices. But when Otto retreated from winter, he did not leave a phone number or even a forwarding address with Rollo. Nobody has told him about the O.J. being turned into a bust-out joint, with his nephew’s mob friends siphoning away at the bar’s line of credit, planning to leave nothing behind them but dry bones, and a mountain of debt that Otto would then be on the hook for.
Otto’s main interest was always his little camera store on Broadway he had for 42 years. Jerome Hulve (the ‘j’ in O.J.) had the dry cleaners next door. It was Jerry found out this nearby bar on Amsterdam was up for grabs, needed a partner to buy in, dragooned Otto. Neither ever took much interest in running the place, that’s what bartenders are for, though they did briefly try to turn it into a dinner spot (the explanation for the waiter’s uniforms Dortmunder saw when he was snooping around the O.J.’s basement). Restaurants take up a lot more time, you have to deal with chefs and inspectors and stuff. They ultimately decided to focus more on the bar than the grill.
So after accusing Dortmunder of being like his cat Buttercup, who used to bring him little dead creatures and drop them at his feet, Otto concedes that yes, this is happening, and he should probably do something to stop it, assuming that’s possible. All he’s doing in Coral Acres, aside from engaging in ‘kanookie’ with a fellow senior he won’t marry because taxes, is taking pictures of flowers and things with a 1904 8×10 Rochester Optical Peerless field camera–the kind that has a bellows and you go under a cloth to take a picture. This precise camera, in fact. The frame is mahogany. Nice.
Only–and I don’t know precisely what this is meant to convey, which only makes me more interested–Rochester Optical, which was, as the name would suggest, headquartered in upstate New York (same as Donald E. Westlake was in his formative years, fancy that), was taken over by Kodak (still in Rochester today, kind of) in 1904, and the Peerless line had been discontinued back in the late 19th century. Now this is where I’d say ‘Obviously Mr. Westlake didn’t have the internet to do research with,’ but he wrote this book in the Mid-00’s, so obviously he did.
Otto, as stated, got interested in photography well after he started selling the equipment, and his embrace of a camera that was obsolete before he was born stemmed from his dislike of digital imaging (which is all the Kodak in Rochester is doing now, not even making film anymore). He wanted to find the most basic unadorned form of photography available to him that would get the job done efficiently (maybe a bit like a writer working mainly after the IBM Selectric came out in ’61 deciding to work exclusively with manual typewriters).
“Then came digital,” he said, and shook a disgusted head. “What you got with digital, you got no highs and no lows. Everything’s perfect, and everything’s plastic. You see those Matthew Brady pictures from the Civil War? The Civil War! I’m talking a long time ago. You try to take those pictures with digital, you know what they’re gonna look like?”
“No,” Dortmunder admitted.
“Special effects in a Civil War movie,” Medrick told him. “People look at it, they say, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s so lifelike!’ You know what is it, the difference between life and lifelike?”
“I think I do,” Dortmunder said.
The narrator quietly informs us that Dortmunder could not care less about the difference between old and new photographs, but needs Otto to keep the O.J. alive, which he does care about. You have to let people talk about what they care about, so you can eventually get to what you care about. Parker would understand. And not care at all about the O.J.
(Sidebar: This is a very funny chapter in the book that makes me very wistful. My friend, Leonard Abramson, worked in a film lab until he retired, and he also got seriously into amateur photography, mainly nature, some abstract, had exhibits, won a few minor prizes, even got a snap of a Wild Turkey in Van Cortlandt Park published in USA Today–but he, in contrast to Otto Medrick, became obsessed with digital cameras towards the end, loved their precision, their clarity–always an early adopter, was Lenny. He died a few years ago–stuck it out in the Bronx to the [very] bitter end. He was nothing if not argumentative. Would he have differed with Otto over the difference between life and lifelike? Never got to have that discussion with him. Isn’t that just like Life?)
So the photography chapter ends with bad news–Otto talks to Rollo on the phone, and he tells Dortmunder, with dead hopeless eyes, that the mob guys are done with their bust-out scam, and are moving all their ill-gotten swag out of the bar that night. So it’s over, right? John Dortmunder does not know the meaning of defeat! Okay fine, he knows it like the backs of his large knobby hands, but that just makes him more determined to avoid any deepening of the acquaintance.
There was other stuff about Florida and the general Caribbean mileau, scattered hither and yon through the narrative–oh right, Preston Fareweather. My least favorite part of the book, but he sure takes up a lot of it. He sets his sights on yet another short-term hook-up (he’s given up on the serial monogamy thing, since it leads to serial divorce lawyers coming after his money).
Overly long story short, this very seductress in a flesh-colored bikini, parading herself around at the resort Preston is holed up at (that pun was unintended, but I see it now), is a femme fatale in the employ of an ex-wife’s wealthy brother, who inveigles the lustful Preston into going sailing with her, outside the inviolable sanctuary of Club Med, and next thing you know he’s been bundled aboard a very fast drug smuggling boat piloted by some rather caustic Australians (???) who are not interested in his promises of beating whatever the other side is paying them, since it’s all about the purity of their impure profession to them.
All that’s going to happen to him is that he’ll be served with legal papers when back on U.S. soil, and forced to pay off his former spouses for their years of service in the trenches. The thing about some rich people is that the question “Your money or your life?” strikes them as a contradiction in terms. Preston sees a chance to escape to a nearby Florida Key, and so leaps overboard, getting picked up by a scruffy-looking Cuban fisherman named Porfirio, who eventually gets him to a Holiday Inn, where he’s able to contact his secretary Alan, and tell him to come running and bring clothes.
Then he tries to stiff the fisherman, who he’d promised his Rolex back when he was treading water with angry drug smugglers coming after him. He’s going to give poor Porfirio a measly hundred bucks, but the hotel clerk, in a noble act of class solidarity, makes sure his paisano gets five hundred. Which is still a lot less than a Rolex.
Also. The African Queen is there. The actual boat. On display, like a trophy of war. Since this book came out, they’ve drafted the old girl back into service. Not against the Kaiser, one assumes. Alan, once he arrives, can’t get over this disorienting presence, and probably neither could Westlake when he found out about it, perhaps even stumbled across it on vacation–was the boat from Key Largo not available? Did Westlake toy with having the temporarily penniless Preston reference a different Huston? He wouldn’t be the first.
The answers to these and other questions must be out there, hopefully not on the Victoria Nile or Lake Albert, which look nearly as uncomfortable for Bogie and Kate as Florida in August is for mere mortals.
Preston, knowing the forces now arrayed against him will not have given up, is focused on getting back to his penthouse in Manhattan, where he figures nobody will expect him to go, and of course nothing bad could ever possibly happen to him there.
Preston, who visually lives up to the term fat cat, has spent the last forty-eight hours or so in a very skimpy bathing suit (when you’re rich, you don’t have to care how you look, or hadn’t you noticed that lately?), plagued by biblical hosts of mosquitoes, and he even had to eat at Burger King. He swears his former legal concubines shall pay for these outrages, but for our purposes, this section has achieved its goal of demonstrating how at both ends of the state, all through the economic spectrum, Florida supremely sucks in August. Unless you’re a truck driver, in which case your ultimate bete noire is going to be New York City, as we shall now examine in–
No, You Take Manhattan:
In Chapter 22, we meet the guy driving the big semi from Pittsburgh, that’s going to take all the O.J. swag to somewhere it can be disposed of profitably, and we meet Mikey Carbine (yes, that’s a real name that Italian American people really have), the no-good fourth son of Howie Carbine, a no-good Jersey mob boss (The Sopranos without the sexy, would be a good summation of this particular crew, and of Westlake’s general attitude towards ‘organized’ crime).
The truck makes its arduous way through Manhattan, to the intersection of 96th St. and Amsterdam Ave., where the O.J. still tenuously clings to life, the driver cussing under his breath at the sheer unbridled cussedness of New Yorkers, and now I feel fully confirmed in my suspicion that Mr. Westlake was an admirer of Jean Merrill.
Also, no matter what the hour of day or night, there was always traffic everywhere in New York City, darting cabs and snarling delivery vans and even aggressive suburbanites in their Suburbanites. Unlike normal parts of the world, where other drivers showed a healthy respect tending toward fear when in the presence of the big trucks, New York City drivers practically dared him to start something. They’d cut him off; they’d crowd him; they’d even go so far as to blat their horns at him. The people operating small vehicles in New York, the driver thought, drove as though they all had a lawyer in the backseat.
This being New York, they very well might, but lawyers aren’t going to stop him from picking up all the stuff bought with the O.J.’s credit line–guess who is? That’s right.
Dortmunder somehow whipped up a plan right off his sweat-stained cuff, conveyed it to his own crew in absentia, and here they are, not identified by name (since it’s from the other side’s POV), but we may easily discern that it’s Stan Murch, Andy Kelp, and Tiny Bulcher wielding an axe, like this was an entirely different kind of story, set in a much earlier era of pillage. I’ll just let you imagine it, until you get a chance to read it again or for the first time, but the scene closes with the unnerved mob guys in disarray, the empty truck in flames, its tires in shreds, and its driver saying something about overtime.
And now we’re going to hear Otto say something to Dortmunder, that he considers germane to their present situation, as they experience the unparalleled joys of air travel in the Post-9/11 era. Otto wants a seat with one of those air phones, which he uses to tell all the wholesalers who provided the bust-out swag that it’s all going back to them, in the original wrappers.
Prior to that, he tells his brother Frank, father to Raphael, that either Frank gets his idiot Moby wannabe son committed, by the same quack headshrinker who certified him fit to run a bar, or big brother’s coming home to live with them on Long Island, forever. These calls have the desired effect, in both cases. Ah, isn’t the telecommunications era grand?
Neither of them has any personal digital devices they can while away the flight with, of course, so they have to talk to each other. Okay, Otto has to talk, and Dortmunder (as already mentioned) figures he needs to listen and nod politely and occasionally make some proforma response. And this is what Otto has to say to him about–
But Medrick had a point and intended to pursue it. “It’s communications technologies that did us in,” he said. “Now you got your Internet, before that your television, your radio, your newspapers, your telephone, your signal flags, your telegrams, your letters in the mailbox, but it all goes back to smoke signals, the whole problem starts right there.”
“Sure,” Dortmunder said.
Medrick shook his head. “But,” he said, “I just don’t think society’s ready to go back that far.”
“Probably not,” Dortmunder said, and yawned. Maybe he could drink the coffee.
“But that’s what it would take,” Medrick insisted, “to return some shred of honesty to this world.”
Dortmunder put down his coffee mug. “Is that what we’re trying for?” he asked.
“Right just this minute it is,” Medrick told him. “You see, with smoke signals, that was the very first time in the whole history of the human race that you could tell somebody something that he couldn’t see you when you told him. You get what I mean?”
“No,” Dortmunder said.
“Before smoke signals,” Medrick said, “I wanna tell you something, I gotta come over to where you are, and stand in front of you, and tell you. Like I’m doing now. And you get to look at my face, listen to how I talk, read my body language, decide for yourself, is this guy trying to pull a fast one. You get it?”
“Exactly,” Medrick said. “Sure, people still lied to each other back then and got away with it, but it wasn’t so easy. Once smoke signals came in, you can’t see the guy telling you the story, he could be laughing behind his hand, you don’t know it.”
“I guess that’s true,” Dortmunder agreed.
“Every step up along the way,” Medrick said, “every other kind of way to communicate, it’s always behind the other guy’s back. For thousands of years, we’ve been building ourselves a liar’s paradise. That’s why the video phones weren’t the big hit they were supposed to be, nobody wants to go back to the eyeball.”
“I guess not.”
“So that means they’ll never get rid of the rest of it,” Medrick concluded. “All the way back to smoke signals.”
“I don’t think they use those so much any more,” Dortmunder said.
“If they did,” Medrick said darkly, “they’d lie.”
I could quibble here, mention Skype or FaceTime (mainly for conversations with distant loved ones, and only partly to try and determine if they’re loving somebody else). Or videoconferencing (and why precisely do the suits want to gaze upon each other’s unappetizing countenances when hammering out deals?)
I might even mention the way some people in very high places lie straight to our faces and we believe them anyway, or pretend to (Otto mentioned that), but on the whole, I feel this needs no extraneous textual exegesis. If there was any, it’d be lies, right? Hey, anybody know when the next White House Press conference is being televised? They did what?
With Dortmunder, Murch, and Brother Frank at his side, and Raphael now practicing basket-weaving in place of downloading, Otto easily retakes his stronghold from the two gobsmacked gunsels guarding it, who go back to Mikey for new orders.
Otto calls Rollo up, tells him to come back to work, and maybe bring some of his old buddies from the Merchant Marine (well, hello sailor!) to hang out for a week, as a sort of honor guard against the dishonorable. The magic words ‘Open Bar’ are uttered (got to get those regulars back, and that’ll do it). One begins to suspect Otto is enjoying this urban scrum a lot more than flower photography in fetid Florida, but one could always do both, I suppose. Alternate.
Mikey never tries to win back control of the bar, thus depriving the reader of what could have been a delightful donnybrook–in a series that tends to avoid gunplay and fisticuffs like it was a PBS kiddie show. If you’re wondering whatever happened to that old Jersey Mob spirit, here’s the thing. Mikey was doing this way off the books, and also the reservation–by the laws of his own perfidious polis, he’s poaching here. Gotham ain’t Jersey, similar though the accents may be.
There’s already a Mafia in New York, in case you hadn’t heard. Once he got the money from the bust-out, his dad could go through the right channels, make it good, but not if they go in with guns blazing, heads knocking, cops arriving, creating all kinds of headaches for the New York chapter of the fraternity. The bust-out is a bust. Now he just wants payback.
Spies are dispatched to the bar, to get the straight dope on what brought Otto Medrick back from the grave (okay, maybe I’ve busted Florida’s chops enough for one review). Of course, they have to get that dope from the regulars. So it’s what you might call more of a long and winding road.
“Yeah,” said the first regular, and asked himself, “Now, what’s that guy’s name?”
“It’s the same as some beer,” the second regular told him.
“I know that much.”
“Ballantine?” hazarded the third regular.
“No,” said the second regular, as the new arrivals at the other end of the bar started in on some sea chanteys.
The first regular had to raise his voice but managed: “Budweiser?”
“No, it’s something foreign.”
“Molson,” tried the first regular.
“Molson?” The second regular couldn’t believe it. “That’s not foreign!”
“Canadian isn’t foreign!” The second regular pointed perhaps north. “It’s right there! They’re part of us, they’re with us, except for ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’ they talk the same language as us.”
“They’re their own country,” the first regular insisted. “Like Hawaii.”
“It’s not Molson,” the second regular told him, to put an end to that.
The droopy-nosed guy said, “Heineken?”
“No.” Everybody took shots at it now: “Beck?”
“What? He’s not Chinese, he’s like one of us, he’s not even Canadian, it’s just his name is—”
“Nobody’s named Dos Equis! Wait a minute, wait a minute.”
When the second regular put on his thinking cap, it made his entire forehead form grooves, as though somewhere there might be a socket to screw his head into.
“Dortmund!” he suddenly cried.
They all looked at him. “Yeah?”
“Yeah! That’s his name! Dortmund.”
“That’s pretty funny,” said the droopy-nosed guy, and took the name with him back to Jersey, where he gave it to Mikey, who didn’t think it was very funny at all.
We’ll call that a minority opinion, and move on to the heist section of the program. While Dortmunder has been saving the O.J. Bar and Grill for posterity (someday there’ll be a statue of him in Central Park, and the pigeons are just gonna love it), work has been proceeding slowly but surely on setting up the penthouse robbery, which looks really suite (you wish you didn’t see what I did there). Tiny is of the opinion it’s been more slow than sure, to which Kelp tells him Rome wasn’t built in a day. To which Tiny remarks “It was robbed in a day.” Probably by one of his ancestors. Civilization is overrated, anyway.
(Mr. Bulcher is on fire in this one. Later, Kelp says something about how you have to roll with the punches. “Not my punches,” Tiny retorts. I mean, you’d laugh even if you weren’t afraid not to.)
Murch has to get a truck–not stolen this time–then remove Preston’s BMW from the private garage with its own private elevator up to the penthouse. Not necessarily in that order. He has a notion he could do a straight-up trade, the BMW for the truck, and thus he makes his way to Maximilian’s Used Cars in the farflung outer reaches of Brooklyn and Queens. I believe Voyager 2 is getting there any day now. And will be for sale at Max’s lot shortly afterwards, with a sign reading “!!!Creampuff!!!” affixed to its solar panels.
They work out a deal, but Max needs some time to get the truck. Giving us time for yet another sidebar–
Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Broadsword?:
Who wouldn’t? As he did in Drowned Hopes, Mr. Westlake decided to have some fun with car names. But he’s sneaky about it here, starting off with real cars that sound fake, like the Lincoln Navigator. Then, please recall, he has the truck driver complaining about suburbanites in their Suburbanites (almost right). From then on the standard Detroit workhorses still go by their real names, as do the really classy foreign makes (like Preston’s BMW), but you start noticing something screwy about the monikers when it comes to various ill-considered attempts at re-branding. Here’s the list. If I missed any, let me know in the comments section.
Lexus Dzilla (the gargantuan SUV Judson Blint rents for his new boss’ gargantuan guy). Buick Broadsword (the car Stan drives to see Max–not his, naturally). Olds Finali (Olds folded in 2004, though really it was 1908, just three years after that song about the guy who wanted to fuck Lucille in the backseat of one, go figure). Lexus Enorma (When the Dzilla just isn’t enough. Alan and Preston rent two of these, consecutively). Chrysler Consigliere (guess whose ride this is?). Jeep Buccaneer (ditto)
Not much of a list compared to the one in Drowned Hopes, and maybe this isn’t much of a Dortmunder epic next to Drowned Hopes, but at this very late date, I’ll take it. With a Dortmunder, it’s always the fine details that count the most. Also true of some paintings, which brings us to the perhaps over-hasty wrap-up (it’s late, I have a lot of work tomorrow, let’s put this one to bed, so I can do the same).
Only The Young Die Rich:
Oh I will be so impressed with anyone who catches that ref right off the bat. But let me explain, while you cogitate.
Judson Philips was one of Mr. Westlake’s fellow grandmasters in the Mystery Writers of America. Very much an elder of the tribe, since he was born a full thirty years earlier, was publishing novels as far back as the 40’s, copped the coveted title in ’73. I’d say it’s a good bet they knew each other–how well, I wouldn’t venture a guess. (I did find a reference to Philips and Lawrence Block having corresponded briefly, in relation to a book about mystery writing Block was working on–mystery writers are a pretty tight club, and would be even if they didn’t have an actual club).
Now the name Judson, as has been recently observed in the comments section, shows up here and there in Westlake’s oeuvre (as does the name Philip, now I think on it). Westlake even made Judson part of his final pseudonym, and the original Judson also published under multiple pseudonyms himself. I bet I’d have a better idea what all this means (if anything) had I ever read any Judson Philips, but alas.
However, under the name Hugh Pentecost, Mr. Philips published a 1964 novel called Only the Rich Die Young, and that’s a good enough hook for a section centered around Judson Blint. (Or possibly Billy Joel, but let’s put that to one side for now, or perhaps forever).
All through the book, young Judson has been soldiering away in the trenches of mail fraud for J.C., and he’s a quick study, as we’ve seen. So much so that he’s branching out into burglary. Kelp decided to accept his offer of assistance, and after some tutelage from the master, ’twas Master Blint who disabled the alarm in Preston’s garage.
He’s gotten his own walk-up studio apartment through J.C.’s contacts (for $1,742.53 a month, in Manhattan, on West 27th St., Chelsea, in the early 21st century, so J.C.’s got some serious pull, like that was ever in doubt–try getting that rent in East Harlem now). He’s introduced his parents to Andy Kelp. They didn’t know what to say to that, so they said as little as possible. Well, at least he’s getting a career.
He’s a regular go-getter, is young Judson and now he wants to go get him some loot. But of course he’s still too green, too much of a journeyman, and anyway, they don’t want to split the take five ways–he’ll get a taste, for helping out, no more. J.C., sensing his hurt, quietly lets Judson know that where Dortmunder is involved, there might not be any take to split.
But he just wants to know what it’s like! To experience it! He’s balanced on that fine line between amateur and pro, with the boundless enthusiasm and dangerous curiosity of the former, but increasingly informed by the pragmatic prudence of the latter. He doesn’t want the gang mad at him. Most particularly he does not want Tiny mad at him. But he wants to know.
The heist goes off like a Swiss watch (of which no doubt there are many in Preston’s digs), and then something goes wrong. J.C. knows Dortmunder, and she knows his luck. Good and bad, and you never know which until it’s too late.
As the book has been hinting at all along, with the chapters documenting Preston Fareweather’s abduction from Club Med, and his long retreat from the Florida Keys (much like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, only with mosquitos and heat rash), Preston and Alan are both most unexpectedly at home when Dortmunder & Co. arrive, with Arnie Albright in tow (another subplot I don’t want to dwell on much, but basically Dortmunder appealed equally to Arnie’s greed and his rancor towards Preston, so they could have an expert on hand to tell them which valuables to steal). But being exhausted from their trek, they are both dead to the world.
Nonetheless, with the householders enhoused, this burglary is now a home invasion, something Dortmunder would always rather avoid. But the gang is blissfully unaware of their presence, and the somnolent duo are no more aware of the departure of Preston’s worldy goods than Cindy Lou Who was about the Roast Beast.
Everything is being packed into the elevator and taken down to be loaded in the Ford E-450 Stan got from Max, which has the added benefit of having once belonged to the Feds for use in apprehending illegal immigrants coming in from Canada (don’t ask), thus making it a perfect ‘mace’, ie a vehicle with registration papers that make it look legit to law enforcement, man I wish I had time to cover that chapter, but I absolutely can not make this a three-parter.
Arnie goes around slapping red dots on everything he wants to fence, like this was an auction, and they were sold. Dortmunder really had to talk him into this, and the way he did it was to say that when this theft was reported in the news, they’d be saying how these guys were so brilliant, they even got the things no ordinary thief would know were valuable, only Dortmunder is kind of an ordinary thief when it comes to art and shit, so he keeps using the wrong names, which helps convince Arnie he better come along after all.
Filled with a warm larcenous glow of achievement, finally fully participating in the process he normally only sees the final stage of, Arnie wanders into Preston’s bedroom, stops and stares at the fat snoring lump under the blankets. And then Preston wakes up–briefly–looks at Arnie Albright, who you will please recall he had many a disrespectful word with at the Club Med, which is why all this is happening now. Preston recognizes Arnie, but assumes he’s dreaming, and then he really is again. Arnie Albright’s nightmare has now begun. Because Preston can give his name to the law once he realizes it wasn’t a dream. And the law already knows his name.
Okay, it’s clearly time to skedaddle, and they got basically everything of real value anyway–or so they think. Andy already scoped out a place to stow the truck at a construction site (another chapter I had to skirt over, and where’s your hard hat?) Maybe Arnie has a problem, but Preston Fareweather doesn’t know any of their names. The Perfect Crime. Sheah. Right.
Because this is where Mikey Carbine makes his move, with the Consigliere and the Buccaneer, and guns, and Kelp and Murch get hijacked, which is just the most horrible indignity Murch can imagine, never happened to him before! Mikey’s not planning any whackings, not on the NY mob’s turf, just get his money back with interest. Only thing is, what he gets is to hold that proverbial bag.
So many sideplots here. Earlier, we met some members of the staff at Preston’s condo, among them Big Jose and Little Jose, who were watching his penthouse (ie, having the time of their lives partying there). Well of course they can’t do that anymore, now that Preston is back home again, but they have a sort of proprietary feeling about the place, and when they see this truck come out of what they know is Preston’s private garage, they call the cops. Who quickly determine the plates belong to Preston’s BMW (query–if this truck is the ultimate mace, why would they use stolen plates? Oh never mind.)
So what happens next? That’s right. Mikey’s people have control of the truck. Mikey’s people get busted, Mikey not long after, and Howie’s gonna have some ‘splainin to do to New York, and there might be a little war in the offing, and unlikely some sympathetic FBI Agent is going to offer tactical support, so the Carbine Crew is going to end up jailed and/or dead. Stan and Andy walk away innocently from the scene, looking like ordinary working Joes in their yellow hardhats, and indeed they are, but the job didn’t work out. Oh well, beats prison.
So by the time Preston finds out he’s been robbed, and starts ranting about Arnie Albright, the police are there to tell him the robbers have already been arrested, bunch of Jersey mobsters, so he goes back to thinking it was a dream, and says maybe he even owes Arnie an apology (yeah, like he owes Porforio a Rolex, and his ex-wives their alimony).
The place is left vacant, while Preston and Alan go downtown to fill out reports and stuff. And who should wander in but Judson Blint, who came up via the private elevator, like he already had before, with Kelp. He didn’t know exactly when the heist was taking place, but he sort of hoped just to witness a bit of it. He’s downcast when he realizes he missed the party, but he still wanders around, fascinated, figuring maybe he could find some little knick-knack for a souvenir, and then something catches his eye in a dimly lit hallway.
One of the pictures attracted his attention, though it was kind of dark and small, less than a foot wide and maybe eight inches high. But for its size, it had a lot of detail. It was kind of medieval, with two guys his own age, in peasant clothes, and they were carrying a pig hung on a long pole, each of the guys having an end of the pole on his shoulder. They were walking on a path on a hillside with woods around them, and down the hill you could see what looked like a lake, with a few very rustic houses and wagons beside it, and a few people chopping wood and stuff like that.
What drew Judson’s eye to this picture was the expressions on the two young guys’ faces. They had, like, goofy grins on, as though they were getting away with something and couldn’t help laughing about it.
Judson looked at the guys and their mischievous eyes and goofy grins, and he felt a kinship. He’d be one of those two, if he had lived then.
And all at once he got it: they’d stolen the pig.
Judson took the picture down off its hook on the wall, and studied it more closely. It was old, all right, done when those clothes were what you wore. It was painted on wood, and it was signed in the lower right with a signature he couldn’t figure out.
The painting was in an elaborate gilded frame that didn’t seem right for those two guys. There was also a sheet of nonreflective glass. Once Judson removed the picture from the frame, it wasn’t heavy. It wasn’t big. He liked it. He slid it under his shirt, tucked into the front of his pants, and headed for the elevator.
It’s a freakin’ Brueghel. Now I think Westlake made this picture up–I can’t find it anywhere online. But in fact, the elder Brueghel did like to paint pictures of mischievous persons, even thieves, because capturing humanity in all its flailing flawed fulsome fun-loving folly was his passion (one Westlake shared). He also painted pigs, because c’mon, they’re cute, funny, and you can eat them. So maybe Westlake extrapolated, or maybe the online catalogues are incomplete. Academic for our purposes, and Judson’s.
So eventually the whole gang (and Judson too) is listening to WINS in Arnie’s apartment (the narrator makes the quip all of us in that station’s broadcast range have already composed many variations upon. “You give us twenty-two minutes,” they threaten, “we’ll give you the world,” and then they give you mostly sports. They may not know this, but sports is not the world.)
They are slowly coming to terms with the fact that 1)The cops think they already got the perps and 2)One of the most valuable things in the apartment, valued at around a million bucks ten years ago, was stolen, but not by them. Preston is telling the reporter “They even got the Brueghel.” Who is this master criminal who spotted a tiny picture in a dark hallway, kept there to protect it from light exposure?
Dortmunder, master detective that he is, figures it out. Good thing too, because Tiny needs something to distract him from the fact that Dortmunder’s O.J. obsession is the reason Mikey hijacked their heist. Of course, it’s also the reason Mikey is arrested and not them, but you really don’t want to argue the fine points of causality with an irritated Tiny Bulcher.
“Judson,” Dortmunder said.
Everybody looked at Dortmunder, and then everybody looked at Judson, who was blushing and stammering and fidgeting on that kitchen chair with his arms jerking around—a definite butterfly, pinned in place. Everybody continued to look at him, and finally he produced words, of a sort: “Why would you— What would I— How could— Mr. Dortmunder, why would you—?”
“Judson,” Tiny said. He said it softly, gently, but Judson clammed up like a locked safe, and his face went from beet red to shroud white, just like that.
Dortmunder said, “Had to be. He went there, wanted to hang out with us, we were already gone, he went in and up, looked around, decided to take a little something.”
Kelp said, “Judson, what made you take that?”
Judson looked around at them all, tongue-tied.
Arnie, in an informational way, said, “Kid, you’re one of the most incompetent liars I’ve ever seen.”
Judson sighed. He could be seen to accept the idea at last that denial was going to be of no use. “I identified with it,” he said.
Everybody reacted to that one. Stan said, “You identified with it?”
Dortmunder said, “What’s it a picture of, Judson?”
“Two young guys stealing a pig.”
Tiny said, “That’s what goes for just under a mil? Two guys stealing a pig?”
“It’s nice,” Judson said. “You can see they’re having fun.”
“More than we are,” Tiny said. Dortmunder said, “Judson, where is this picture now?”
“In my desk in J. C.’s office.”
Tiny said, “I tell you what, kid. You were gonna get a piece of what we got, but we no longer got what we got, so now we are gonna get a piece of what you got.”
“That seems fair,” Kelp said.
Again Judson sighed. Then he said, “Maybe I can take a picture of it.”
“Good idea,” Dortmunder agreed.
(Ah, what a world it would be if art only belonged to those who most appreciated it, instead of merely the philistines who can afford it. Actually, there’s a pretty good heist movie about that, called Artworks, and Virginia Madsen shows a hell of a lot of skin in it, so check her, I mean it, out.)
Like many another supporting character in the Dortmunders who isn’t one of the core crew, Judson is seen again in future books (of which there are only two remaining), but never has another moment quite so fine as this. But we’re given to understand he’s won the respect of the gang, and a place at the table, even if it’s only the kiddie table for now.
Unlike Raphael, who chose to retreat into what I suppose one might call his mind, Judson chose to go out and engage the world on his own terms, and to Donald E. Westlake, that’s all there is to life, and most of all to youth. Only the young die rich. Because youth is the only real wealth there is. Well, that and bitcoin, of course. (Oh what a shame Mr. Westlake missed out on that–the word first cropped up about a month before his demise, and I doubt he even noticed).
Preston’s own wealth has been recovered, but not by him–he forgot that ex-wives and their lawyers watch the news as well. As one of the tech guys for his interview files out (after Preston strikes out with the hot newscaster), he tosses Preston a summons. He got served. In both senses. And all that recovered swag of his, no longer in his direct possession (since it is now evidence), is going to get divvied up by the exes. And to top off his day, Alan, the closest thing to a friend he had, walks out on him. And so will I, because it’s time to finish up.
Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill, in Mid-September, for a meet with the now free and clear Ralph Winslow, so he can finally find out what kind of job that ice-tinkling fellow felon has in mind. There’s a bad moment when Rollo says the back room is in use but it’s just a support group (support for what we never learn), and they’re leaving. And Dortmunder is staying. His place. His little corner of the planet, his anchor, his respite, his home and hearth, his meat and drink, well mainly just drink. He saved it, and it’s his, as it never was before.
So what if the heist failed. He still won where it counted. And there’s always another day (for something else to go wrong). Also, he pocketed a few small trinkets on his way out, and what the rest of the gang doesn’t know won’t hurt him, particularly Tiny.
The regulars, of course, know not the name of the peerless champion responsible for their triumphant return to their beloved barstools, where they can once more jabber away endlessly about things they don’t understand, which is surely the right of all Americans, it’s in the Constitution, look it up, and we hold it even more sacred than the right to shoot people with guns (relatively few of us actually exercise that right, but everybody’s a know-it-all).
They know not that the champion is in their very midst as they speak (and if they did, they’d probably associate the wrong beer with him). But the one thing all barflies know for sure is that the greatest man in the world is your bartender. And you know, a case could be made. So they sing him a song. And get it wrong.
“The back room is open, gents,” Rollo said.
They all thanked him, not whispering, picked up their drinks, and headed for the back room, Ralph gently tinkling along the way. As they rounded the end of the bar toward the hall, the regulars decided spontaneously to laud Rollo in song.
“For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-oh,
For he’s a jolly good fell-OH!
For he’s a golly good fell.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” the second regular said. “I think the last line goes, ‘For he’s a jolly good elf.’” So they tried it that way.
So I said last week that all the covers I’ve found for this book are lousy, and I stick to that. Maybe the one on the left up-top isn’t too awful in its conception, but impaling Dortmunder on the Empire State Building (which isn’t even in the book) doesn’t quite work for me. What would have? Well, check out the image down below the two covers.
That’s a painting, by Richard Estes, master of photo-realism. From 1995, it’s entitled Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street. Yeah. Where we’re told in this very book the O.J. Bar and Grill is located–not sure it was ever made that specific before.
Westlake went to a fair few art shows, one gathers. I could see him looking a long time at that one. I could imagine him saying quietly to himself, That bar could be the O.J. It really could, you know. Can you prove it’s not? In the real world, no, it isn’t there–or it’s some sad yuppie singles joint–but in a painting–as in a novel–many things are possible. Including immortality. The difference between life and lifelike.
But see that open cellar door on the sidewalk? Just waiting for somebody to fall in. Pitfalls are everywhere. So are bilious billionaires, and gangrenous gangsters. Better watch your back. Or hey, we could watch each others.’ How’s about that?
What was going on? Was it a wake around here? Nobody wore a black armband, but the faces on the regulars were long enough. They, all of them, men and the women’s auxiliary, too, were hunched over their drinks with that thousand-yard stare that suggests therapy is no longer an option. In short, the place looked exactly like that section of the socialist realist mural where the workers have been utterly shafted by the plutocrats. Dortmunder looked up, half-expecting to see top hats and cigars in the gloom up there, but nothing.
“But first I wanna know,” Tiny said, “about the O.J.”
“Well,” Dortmunder said, “it’s a bust-out joint.”
“Shit,” Tiny commented.
Kelp said, “A nephew.”
“Not one of the better ones,” Dortmunder suggested.
Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”
He would not fail her. She has faith in me as a con artist and a crook, he told himself, and I will not let her down.
Dortmunder said, “You think everything’s okay in life, and then something different happens.”
Kelp gave him a look. “John? On one beer you’re turning philosophical?”
“It’s the environment,” Dortmunder told him.
Okay, it’s like this.
I really wanted to do this review as a one-parter. I remembered the book–nearly every book I’ve reviewed on this blog, I read in its entirety before I created said blog–so there’s a pretty significant gap between readings by now. I remembered enjoying it, like I enjoy all these books, or what am I doing here. I also remembered being a mite underwhelmed. But I forgot most of it, because c’mon, that’s a lot of books. How do you retain all that? You’d need some kind of idiotic memory. That’s what a regular at the O.J. Bar and Grill told me it was called, right before another regular hit him with a beer bottle. Misunderstanding.
Even if I’d remembered it all, line for line, I had a lot less context back then–you learn as you go–so I picked up on things I missed last time, that I will be compelled to share now. Who knows what else I’d find if I reread and reviewed these books all over again from scratch? Maybe somebody better hit me with a beer bottle before that happens. Hey–that was a joke.
So the story is, there’s a lot more story than I remembered, a lot more I want to talk about, and I’ve managed to scrounge up four cover images–all of them lousy– look at the first edition; red/orange letters on a field of taxi-cab yellow, and it’s the pick of the litter. Rivages/Noir somehow got confused (no, you’re supposed to be watching your back, not some android strip-club waitress’s derriere, geez, how French can you get?) The two I’m using next time are even worse.
I did find some images I like, though. Well, I don’t relish those two photos up top, of the shuttered and derelict St. Nick’s Pub, and the now-demolished Lenox Lounge, historic Harlem jazz bars that fell prey to ‘progress.’ But they illustrate the point of this book much better than its own cover art. And what point is that?
On its face, this is yet another story about Dortmunder pulling yet another heist on yet another mendacious moneybags who has it coming, with interest. How many times has that happened now? I make this the sixth notch on Dortmunder’s lock pick (including one short story), and edifying as that may be, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to watching rich bastards squirm like fat gasping orange carps on a hook. Like you needed me to tell you that. (Reel it in careful-like, Bob. Don’t want to lose this one. Or capsize the boat.)
But that is not what this book is about. The moneybags here isn’t the enemy. Mildly diverting at best, pointless padding at worst. A subplot that got out of control.
There’s also an organized crime angle (a first for Dortmunder; one was starting to wonder if maybe his universe was Cosa Nostra free). The Mob is not the real threat, either, and their subplot is something of a backhanded homage to David Chase. I think we can take it as a given that Mr. Westlake watched The Sopranos (being a great admirer of Chase’s work on The Rockford Files), and the storyline involving Tony’s old school chum Davey Scatino clearly caught his attention. As did the colorful but limited vocabulary of the Jersey mobsters on that show.
There’s two final ‘Nephews’ (and a strong textual hint that this is exactly how Westlake thought of them). One is only his own worst enemy. The other is the final addition to the gang and will be seen again in future. I’m on the fence about whether that’s a good thing, and so’s the gang. But he’s definitely not somebody you have to watch your back over.
No, the antagonist in this book is change. Unneeded, unwanted, and let’s face it, unstoppable. A river bursting its banks, oddly selective in what it sweeps away–mainly what you value most. Good change happens because we make it happen, because we’re paying close attention to our surroundings, performing needed adjustments. Bad change happens, too often, because we get careless; don’t see it coming until it’s upon us. By which time it’s usually too late to do anything but bitch and moan and move on. Assuming that’s an option, and we probably shouldn’t assume that.
Is there no champion we may call upon to save us from this entropic dreadnought, this devourer of dreams? Maybe one–if he can be sufficiently motivated to watch our backs for us, since we hoi polloi seem disinclined to do much of anything besides jaw to each other on our virtual barstools.
Change is going to try and take the O.J. Bar and Grill away from John Dortmunder. Change does not know who it’s fucking with.
Westlake begins by reminding us of what could be lost to world culture forever.
When John Dortmunder, a free man, not even on parole, walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue that Friday night in July, just before ten o’clock, the regulars were discussing the afterlife. “What I don’t get,” said one of them, as Dortmunder angled toward where Rollo the bartender was busy with something far over to the right end of the bar, “is all these clouds.”
A second regular put down his foaming beerglass to say, “Clouds? Which clouds are these?”
“That’s what they’re sitting on!” The first regular waved an arm dangerously, but did no damage. “you look at all these pictures, Jesus sitting on a cloud, that other God sitting on a cloud, Mary sitting on a cloud–”
“A little lower down,” suggested a third.
“Well, yeah, but the point is, can’t Heaven come up with furniture?”
Dortmunder takes a break from this divine cabinetry conclave to note that Rollo the bartender is absorbed in making fancy drinks with fruit, arcane liqeurs, and tiny paper parasols–some ladies of a certain age have decamped for refreshment, and are looking around at their surroundings with an anthropologist’s guarded delight. The colloquy at the bar continues apace.
Another regular, meantime, was objecting to the concept of furniture in the beyond, saying, “Whadaya want with furniture? Heaven isn’t Westchester, you know..”
A fifth regular weighed in, saying, “Yeah? What about all those fields of plenty?”
“Land of milk and honey,” added the third regular, as though it were an indictment.
The first regular lifted a skeptical glass and a skeptical brow to say, “Do they give out overshoes?”
The learned debate then verges over into what had just recently become, under unfortunate circumstances, a much-discussed take on the afterlife, The one with the 72 virgins. To which one obvious cavil would be–
“There aren’t seventy-two virgins,” the first regular objected.
“Well no,” the second regular conceded, “not all at one time, but still, what kinda Heaven is this? It would be like being assigned to an all-girls high-school.”
“Ouch,” said the third regular.
“Can you imagine,” the second regular said, “what it sounds like in the cafeteria at lunchtime?”
The fourth regular, the one with something against Westchester, said, “Would you have to learn volleyball?”
Okay, fine, the Algonquin Round Table it’s not, but that lasted a bit over ten years, starting in 1919 then informally concluding in 1932, when Edna Ferber showed up and found a family from Kansas had foreclosed (the Gulch family, one supposes). The O.J. Regulars held court from 1970 to 2009, and that’s just what we know about. We’re going to know a lot more by the time this book is done.
Dortmunder is there for a meet in the back room, and as always, Rollo provides him with a bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (“Our Own Brand”) and two glasses. Some question is raised in this narrative as to whether there is any such establishment, or if the bottling is done in the very bowels of the O.J.–but just FYI, at Amsterdam Ave. and 127th, at this precise moment in history–
(Ya gotta believe.)
Dortmunder is going to meet up with Ralph Winslow, or as Rollo knows him, ‘the rye and water, the one that tinkles his ice cubes all the time.’ He claims not to know any of their names, only their beverage preferences. Well, that would make things challenging for the D.A’s office, should Rollo ever be called upon to testify.
In the back room, Dortmunder finds the surprisingly (and delightedly) early Stan Murch (aka the beer and salt), expounding on how the Williamsburg Bridge is okay to drive on now that construction is finished, and Robert Moses didn’t need to build that mammoth expressway after all, the one he wanted to cut Manhattan in half with ‘like the Great Wall of China.’ He also mentions he’s on his second salt shaker, that’s how early he was this time, because traffic was so good on Canal and the West Side Highway. And yet he’s still on his first beer.
(Sidebar: How many of you reading this have actually tried sprinkling salt in your beer to bring back the head? Reading this at my local last Saturday, I was moved again to reach for the salt shaker behind the bar, and again found the results equivocal. Yes, you get a bit of a head back, with a few sprinkles and a bit of discreet agitation, but not a full head, and it doesn’t last long–well, neither does the beer. Unlike Stan, I’m not driving.
Stan needing more than one shaker’s worth to nurse along a single beer would suggest this method is more conducive to hypertension than anything else. Is kosher salt more efficacious? Sea salt? Do those folk of metaphoric legend, who are ever crying in their beers, know something we don’t? Please report your own findings in the comments section. Where I regret to say there is no beer or salt on offer, but I’m working on it.)
So the meet doesn’t pan out. Ralph maybe had something, but the cops pulled him in for something else, and until that gets resolved, he is incommunicado. He called Stan–has him on speed-dial on his cell. Stan asks if Dortmunder has a cell, so he can add him to his speed-dial. Dortmunder’s response is terse and in the negative. He’s not going to be on anyone’s speed dial. Something tells me he’s yet to fully recover from the untimely demise of the rotary dial.
So that’s Chapter One. The review is just over 2,000 words now. What was I worried about, this’ll be over in no time. Call it setting the scene, and let’s try being a bit more expeditious.
Dortmunder gets a call from Arnie Albright, the world’s least-loved fence of stolen goods. Not unpopular from any moral failing on his part (Dortmunder is not one to cast stones, his own house being glass), but rather from his general manner and physical appearance.
We are perpetually reminded of his non-pulchritudinous aspect (“He told me once, he finds himself so disgusting, he shaves with his back to the mirror.”), while he is being inflicted upon us in book after book, not to mention several short stories. One sometimes notes a barely-suppressed strain of sado-masochism in Mr. Westlake. And just for the record, compared to Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the fence featured in Westlake’s Smoke, who shares many of the same quirks (probably because they were created around the same time), Arnie is Will Freakin’ Rogers.
Arnie’s family members recently did an intervention (referenced in the previous book), sending him to a Club Med, where he was supposed to learn to be a bit more of a person. It kind of worked. Well, he got a tan. He still insists on referring to Dortmunder by his full name all the time. And he still deals in stolen goods. The family didn’t object to that, man’s gotta make a living and all.
So he’s got a proposition he wants Dortmunder to hear, and Dortmunder would rather not, but then again, maybe he could get Kelp to come along, share the burden. Kelp is just then robbing a furrier, bringing the fruits of his labor back to Anne Marie, who proceeds to prance around in a sable jacket and nothing else, so distracting Andy that he agrees over the phone to meet Dortmunder at Arnie’s.
The proposition mingles those two great motivations in human affairs–profit and revenge. Whilst at Club Med, Arnie made the acquaintance of a certain involuntarily expatriate venture capitalist, one Preston Fareweather. Preston is not in exile due to any troubles with the law–well, not criminal law. Civil. If you want to call it that.
He has a lot of very attractive ex-wives, who he married for the sole purpose of bedding then discarding them. They all hate him. More even than they hate each other, and thus they have joined forces, they and their lawyers, in an attempt to attach his worldly goods. Process servers can go many places, but not, it would seem, a Club Med. (Pretty sure they can get into Mar-a-Lago just fine.)
Preston has personality issues that even Arnie finds hard to tolerate, and he’s been tolerating himself since birth. Not so much from his personal appearance as from his believing he and he alone is worthy of any consideration, and other people exist only to be insulted and abused and talked down to. (Is there any Trump in the mix here? No, probably too smart to be Trump-influenced.)
Point is, his contempt for Arnie, the smalltime crook, was not even thinly veiled, even while he entertained himself by hob-nobbing with his social (and no doubt criminal) inferior. Arnie, long inured to people not liking him, was unfamiliar with this specific form of pariah-dom the rich routinely heap upon everybody who isn’t, and thus developed a keen dislike for Preston.
And yet, he kept returning for more daily doses of derision–during which he learned everything he could about Preston’s luxurious duplex penthouse, located on Fifth Avenue and 68th. Full of so many valuable accoutrements. And this is where Dortmunder and Kelp come in. Literally.
Perhaps this schadenfreude shows a lack of gratitude on Arnie’s part, since as he explains, it was meeting Preston Fareweather that finally brought about the most sovereign remedy his own exile was meant to enact. (Translation: He’s a bit less obnoxious now.)
Kelp said “Preston cured you?”
“I watched him,” Arnie said. “I watched the people around him, how they acted, and I suddenly go tit, those are the expressions I used to see on the faces of people looking at me. I was never obnoxious in the same way as Preston, on purpose to hurt and embarrass other people, but it all comes down to the same place. ‘I don’t wanna be Preston Fareweather,’ I told myself, ‘not even by accident,’ so that was it. I called you, John Dortmunder, because here’s my proposition.
“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.
“I’m sure you are. I despise that Preston so much, I put up with so much crap from that guy while I’m casing his apartment long-distance, that my reward is the thought of the expression on his face the next time he walks into his house.”
He’s offering seventy per cent of whatever he gets for whatever Dortmunder gets. Even allowing for some creative accounting on Arnie’s part, it’s a solid proposition. And Arnie, no heistman himself, still has a useful suggestion as to how they might proceed–Mr. Fareweather has his own private parking garage, to billet his own private BMW, and this comes with its own private elevator up to the penthouse. Take the Beemer out, put a truck in, Bob’s your uncle.
So what’s to lose? They walk across Central Park, and there it is, big as life, and surprisingly unglamorous. Well, you’re paying for the view out, I guess. Who cares what the wretches down in the park have to look at?
The building, up ahead, taller than its neighbors, built in the real-estate flush of the 1950s, when details and ornamentation and style and grace were considered old-fashioned and unprofitable, hulked like a stalker over the park, a pale gray stone structure pocked with balconies.
A pretty fair description of the general run of uber-pricey housing there (location, location, location). I’m guessing Preston’s building would be a composite (since non-fictional tycoons do get robbed sometimes, and their lawyers aren’t fictional either), but here’s a pretty fair example of the style. If you want to call it that. (Mr. Westlake’s architectural conservatism can be contagious at times.)
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 shiny new, valuable piece of tin was more than likely to be leashed to a satellite. And there was no known way to jam a satellite.
That’s the problem, Stan thought. The law’s got all the labs.
He barely ditches the goods before the cops show up, drawn by the GPS signal like bees to nectar. They see him walking towards the subway, but he talks himself out of their tentative clutches, and boards the A train. Which we’re told has its northernmost terminus in the Bronx. Which has never been true, unless you consider North Manhattan part of the Bronx.
I can’t explain Westlake making such an egregious Gothamite gaffe. Unless he’s trying once again to avoid incurring the jealousy of the Navajo gods. This is a pretty good rug he’s weaving here, but a long way from perfect, so I don’t know why he’d bother. Explanation, Mr. Westlake? Oh right. Mystify us, why don’t you? Maybe he just forgot.
Next chapter takes us into the inquiring mind of Judson Blint, 19 years of age, just out of high school in Long Island, looking to make his mark (God save him). He has come to scale the Avalon State Bank Tower in search of J.C. Taylor. He’s hoping Mr. Taylor will give him a job with Allied Commissioner’s Courses, Inc.–the location of which is supposed to be a secret, but young Blint has tracked it to this location, using some of the very methods learned from their mail-order detective course.
Scanning the directory at the ground floor, he’s surprised to see just how many different businesses are headquartered in room 712–Intertherapeutic Research Service–Super Star Music Co.–and once he’s up on the seventh floor, he sees it’s also the home of the Maylohda Commercial Attaché. Maylohda. What was that, a country? Who was J.C. Taylor, anyway? He sees the answer before he recognizes it, when he goes in to speak to the receptionist.
Oh. My. God. She was something out of Judson’s dreams, but not the more soothing ones. No, more like the ones inspired by video games. In her thirties, she was a hard-looking brunette with gleaming eyes that caught the light, and a mouth that looked born to say no. Only louder than that.
She yanks him around a bit. You know our Josie (sadly rare as the occasions have been for us to gaze upon her in the last few books). She’s impressed with him, in spite of herself. He’s not a complete rube. He figured some stuff out (if not her correct gender) and he put together a résumé for himself that is pure uncut malarkey–and yet impossible to directly disprove. Kid’s got potential–and turns out she’s ready to ditch her old cons, since the being her own country thing is working out so well for her. Only so many hours in the day to fleece suckers.
Tiny comes in to see his beloved, gives Judson a narrow look. Judson blanches, and you’d be very lucky if that’s all you did. A conversation ensues, and the upshot is that she’ll give Judson a try–he can run the other mail order scams for her–she hates to let them go. It’s the sentimentalist in her. More on Master Blint later.
It’s at this point that Dortmunder returns to the O.J. Bar and Grill, only to discover (see up top) that something terrible has happened since his last visit. Rollo tells him the back room isn’t available. Dortmunder is given to understand it will never be available again. There are two questionably attired gentlemen there, tough-looking, both clearly heeled, in the meaning of that word that has nothing to do with footwear. Kelp saunters in, looks the first goombah over. “What flying saucer did this come out of?”
Rollo, knowing Tiny (or as he knows him, the red wine and vodka) will arrive at any moment, and how he tends to react to anyone with the temerity to try and intimidate him, begs Dortmunder and Kelp to leave, and gives them a complimentary bottle of Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon (they later comment that it does not travel well).
Murch, and Murch’s Mom, and Tiny, all arrive to find John and Andy on the sidewalk, bereft. They decide to meet at Dortmunder’s place, something nobody is happy about, least of all Dortmunder. The situation is explained. Tiny is mildly disappointed to have missed out on the chance to take the two wise guys at the O.J. apart at the garish seams, but it’s not like he owns the joint. They decide Arnie’s proposition has merit, and that John and Andy will look into the matter of the O.J.
When they get there, the situation has only gotten worse. The place is basically a walking corpse. Two different yet identical mob guys are keeping watch. Rollo is still at the bar, and Andy offers to buy Dortmunder a beer. Dortmunder may be more easy-going than Parker, but he has that same innate suspicion of even the most innocuous forms of altruism. Unlike Parker, his Handy McKay didn’t retire to Maine.
Dortmunder looked at him. “What are you up to?”
“What up to? I feel like I wanna buy you a beer. It happens, we have another one, then you buy for me. That’s how it works, John.”
Dortmunder said, “What if we only have the one?”
“My feeling is,” Kelp said, whipping out his wallet and putting cash money on the bar next to the glasses Rollo was putting down in front of them, “some day we’ll be in a bar again.”
Dortmunder could only agree with that. “You’ll keep track, I guess,” he said, as Rollo took Kelp’s money away to his open cash register and rummaged around in there a while.
“No problem,” Kelp assured him, and lifted his glass. “To crime.”
“Without punishment,” Dortmunder amended, and they both drank.
Rollo quietly tells them to watch out–these guys in the bar now are criminals. Dortmunder gently breaks it to him that he and Kelp are criminals. Rollo says yeah, but these other guys are organized. In a Westlake novel, this does not necessarily constitute an advantage, but Rollo’s main concern at this point is that nobody gets hurt.
They don’t like what they find, but they recognize it. More and more of the O.J., including their beloved back room, is taken up with merchandise from various businesses that supply bars. Ordered on the O.J.’s line of credit, invoices signed by a resigned and dismal Rollo. It’s a bust-out. The mob guys are going to keep ordering until the bar’s credit runs dry, then cart the goods away to sell at a (100%) profit. It’s a bit like that thing where the wasp lays its egg in the paralyzed cicada. I believe analogies have also been drawn regarding the financial sector. One might consider expanding that to encompass certain aspects of politics. It’s a rich tapestry.
They meet up with Tiny in a suitably capacious vehicle rented and driven by Judson, and he’s not happy about the O.J., but he figures none of his business, too late to do anything, focus on the heist. Not that they get very specific, with Judson there, but he reads between the lines, wants to help out, necessitating a somewhat nerve-wracking (for Judson) conversation about whether maybe this kid knows too much. The general consensus is he knows nothing (like all kids), but maybe he could learn (like some kids). As for the O.J., Dortmunder finds that he simply can’t let it go.
Chapter 15 somehow fails to open with “When Dortmunder broke into the O.J. Bar and Grill”, sticking with the more traditional opening, but that’s exactly what he’s done, for the purposes of gathering intelligence. He gets down into the basement, via a trap-door behind the bar. He finds records, dating back to founding of the O.J., forty-seven years before, by Otto Medrick and Jerome Hulve, and now we know why it’s called that. It seems to have had multiple prior incarnations. And who could possibly say how many prior Dortmunders?
Now he sees the problem–Otto Medrick bought his partner out thirty-one years ago. He retired to Florida a while back. And he transferred ownership to one Raphael Medrick, Otto’s nephew (always with the nephews). Who seems to have had, as they say, a troubled past, often involving ‘bad companions.’ Bingo. There were mob guys up there talking while he was down there reading, taking expensive liquor for their capo’s daughter’s wedding in New Jersey. Dortmunder helps himself to a stray bottle of Stoli on his way out. But he’s going to give something back for it.
Next thing, Dortmunder is meeting the gang at the appropriately named Twilight Lounge, on Forty-third Street. J.C. suggested it as an alternative to the O.J. It’s pretty clearly not going to work out. I mean, when Stan asks for salt, they give him a bowl of it. But Tiny insists there’s nothing to be done, they should focus on getting theirs. Nobody brings up that this is what Tiny said when those mercs had taken Dortmunder prisoner during the Avalon State Bank Tower heist, before J.C. shamed Tiny and the others into going up to rescue him, and you wouldn’t have brought that up to Tiny’s face either, so shaddap.
However, Tiny still wants to go see this nephew who has forced him to do meets at the Twilight Lounge, and so they head off to a not very nice section of Queens, where it turns out Raphael is completely unaware of anything that’s happening with his uncle’s bar, nor could he care less. He’s making music. Well, he’s taking other people’s music and making it into his own thing, with a lot of electronic equipment. That’s basically how he got in trouble last time, but he figures now everybody’s stealing music and selling it online (right at that moment, he’s creating an unholy amalgram of The Star Spangled Banner and Hey Jude), and at least he’s customizing it first. Westlake’s contempt for ‘sampling’ is palpable here.
So he looks up and there’s all these tough-looking guys standing there, like he’s done something to them. Tiny pings him with his thumb, just to get his attention. His attention gained, Raphael explains that Uncle Otto will get all the money, and it’s fine. He didn’t want to run the bar himself (and clearly he couldn’t run a popsicle stand in a heat wave).
Some lawyer told him nobody would buy the bar because the nabe had changed and it was too ‘down-market’. Which is bullshit, of course–a new owner could easily up-market it, all you need is a place with a liquor license, and frankly, it’s amazing nobody made the offer before then–The O.J. is at 96th and Amsterdam. By the early 21st, that’s the bleating heart of Yuppieville. The O.J. must be the last old school bluecollar joint left in that part of town.
Now we know why it’s still there–the real owner is in Florida, leaving Rollo in charge. The owner on paper is interested in nothing that doesn’t come out of his headphones, and this guy Mikey, that Raphael knows, fed Raphael a line of b.s. to make a nice score. As the now thoroughly depressed Dortmunder gang leaves this archangel of emptiness to his solipsistic universe, he thinks to himself, The O.J. Bar and Grill. Who cared? That was so yesterday, back when people used to leave their houses. Brave New World.
And Dortmunder still can’t give up on the O.J. How come? Yes, it was a nice place to hold meets, and Rollo is a lovely man (not physically, you know what I mean), the regulars are a kick, it’s a shame and all, but why? Why put himself out over a cheesy over-the-hill dive bar, that isn’t even walking distance from his apartment? When he’s got a penthouse full of goodies to steal, and there are Jersey boys with guns who would take offense at any eleventh hour intervention?
Should I do what I do when I review the Parkers, talk about some button in Dortmunder’s head, and once it’s pushed, he has to keep going until he’s achieved his end? No, because Parker wouldn’t care about some bar closing. Parker is big into non-attachment. The mere notion of there being a place you could hang out in and have a good chance of seeing him walk through the door would make him uneasy. Only reason he’s got that house in New Jersey is because of Claire. She’s more like Dortmunder, in this specific instance, than Parker ever could be.
Dortmunder lives in a world of change that he can’t control, and he hates it. So does Parker, but ever the instinctive existentialist, he shrugs and deals. Dortmunder can’t let it go. There’s so few constants in this whirling maelstrom we call a planet, so few things you can rely upon.
For him, there’s May, May’s tuna casserole, Kelp’s weird ideas (whether Dortmunder likes it or not), and New York itself, the only place he ever wants to live, even though he wasn’t born anywhere near it. Within New York (which as the saying goes, will be a nice town when it’s finished), there’s the O.J. Bar and Grill. His proprietary domain. He can’t afford to lose his point of orientation, his haven of respite. Who can? And who doesn’t?
The day my father died, last October, I had made plans to meet up with an old friend for lunch in midtown. I got the word while waiting for the train, and spent the ride soaking it in. I was not going to call off the lunch. I needed it more than ever. All the more because it was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire universe. Repeat. Was.
Nothing like it north of Chinatown, and I’d rate it over any Chinatown place I’ve ever tried. A vast baroque menu Westlake could have written odes to. Cash only, no plastic. No reservations, but you could always get a table after the peak lunch rush. Unpretentious decor, relaxed atmosphere. Always good jazz–real jazz–playing in the background–the owner must have been a fan. No liquor license–meaning you could bring your own beer, wine, whatever the hell else you wanted to drink. They’d put it on ice for you.
I could never describe the nuances of their hot and sour soup, their pork dumplings, their Phoenix Shredded Beef Min-Young–anyone who tells you Cantonese is bland has never really had it. I had it just a few years, after discovering it. If I was in that part of town, I’d find an excuse to eat there. Got so the staff knew me and my peculiarities (who else has German double bock with Chinese food?) That was nice.
But when I got there that day, I found a locked door with a notice on it. The landlord. The rent. Do I have to draw a picture? A thriving business with a devoted clientele has no guarantee of survival in any part of Manhattan. Not anymore. They’d have been better off dealing with the mafia. At least those people appreciate good food.
My friend showed up, and we wound up commiserating about current events over mediocre diner grub. She was sorry to hear about my dad. I was just grateful to have somebody to talk to. You think everything’s okay in life. And then something different happens. Change happens. The wrong kind of change. The change that comes when you don’t watch your back.
Change isn’t evil. That’s not the point here. Change is the source of everything anyone ever loved. Change created the O.J., as Dortmunder learned in that basement. Change created Chinese American cuisine (and Chinese Americans, even better). Change created these books we’re talking about. Change is the reason you look around and see something, instead of nothing. Change is why you’re here to look around. God is change. Octavia Butler wrote two whole novels about that.
And everything has a mortal span, all things must pass, certainly all earthly establishments. You can know all this and still know when something’s being taken away from you before its time. Before something equivalently good is ready to replace it. And if we lose too many things we value, too quickly, lose all our fixed points of reference, our sense of self can start to unravel pretty darn quick.
Okay, call it conservatism. I don’t care. I believe in conserving things that need conserving, and so did Donald E. Westlake, and so did John Dortmunder. Admittedly, I’m not much good at conserving words, when I write these reviews.
So to wrap things up until next week, Dortmunder knows what he’s got to do. And where he’s got to go. And who he’s got to see when he gets there. He’s not happy about it, but being who he is, knowing who he is, he’s got no choice. He asks the gang if any of them want to come with. He gets the answer he expected. If he were Parker, he’d probably make some sort of terse bloody-minded inspirational speech, but even that might not work in this case. You might follow someone to the very gates of hell, but Florida in the summertime? Pass.
Well, if it would have kept Phoenix Garden open, maybe. As for my dad, just as well he didn’t live to see some of the change happening now. Okay, fine, comedy, I know. We’ll get to the lighter side next week, okay? That’s when the all the people who have conspired to upset Dortmunder’s orientation suddenly find occasion to wax philosophic themselves. They should have watched their backs.