Category Archives: John Dortmunder

Review: What’s So Funny?, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Criminal lawyers, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolated Porn:

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

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

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

Brady reared back. “Already? No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.

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

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

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

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

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

“Crap,” Johnny announced.

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

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

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

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

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

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

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

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

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

But would you believe in–

The Wicked Witch of the East Side:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”

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

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I remember that.”

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

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

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

“Gold Castle, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching The Detectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parkeur Brothers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

“Who’s out there?”

Nobody nobody nobody.

“Is somebody out there?”

Absolutely not.

“I’m calling the cops!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What basement door?”

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

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

“What else could I do?”

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

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

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

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

“It was easier for me.”

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

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

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

“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”

“Come on, Andy.”

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

“Their extra garage door opener.”

Kelp reared back. “Their what?”

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

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

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

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

En Poe-sant:

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

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

Kelp said, “I like checkers.”

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Transgressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking The Line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

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

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Querk said, “What is this?”

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

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeez,” Querk said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Watch Your Back!, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Filched from The Official Westlake Blog.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida in August Sucks For Everyone:

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

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

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

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

Rochester-Optical-Peerless

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

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

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

“No,” Dortmunder admitted.

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

“I think I do,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, You Take Manhattan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals:

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

“Sure,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Dortmunder said.

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

“Eye contact.”

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

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

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

“I guess not.”

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

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

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

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

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

Intermezzo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know that much.”

“Ballantine?” hazarded the third regular.

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

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

“No, it’s something foreign.”

“Molson,” tried the first regular.

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

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

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

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

The droopy-nosed guy said, “Heineken?”

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

“No.”

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

“Amstel?”

“No!”

“Dos Equis.”

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

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

“Dortmund!” he suddenly cried.

They all looked at him.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah! That’s his name! Dortmund.”

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Broadsword?:

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

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

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

Only The Young Die Rich:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Judson,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

Judson looked around at them all, tongue-tied.

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

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

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

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

“Two young guys stealing a pig.”

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

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

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

“In my desk in J. C.’s office.”

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

“That seems fair,” Kelp said.

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

“Good idea,” Dortmunder agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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

Review: Watch Your Back!

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

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

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

“Shit,” Tiny commented.

Kelp said, “A nephew.”

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

Tiny rumbled, “There are good nephews?”

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

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

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

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

Okay, it’s like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A little lower down,” suggested a third.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ouch,” said the third regular.

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

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

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

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

2016-06-17

(Ya gotta believe.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp said “Preston cured you?”

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

“I’m ready,” Dortmunder allowed.

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

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

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

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

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

923-fifth-avenue-00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Thieves’ Dozen

 

The fifth and final collection of Donald Westlake’s short fiction published in his lifetime turned out to be the best.  Which is not to say the previous four were lacking in merit.  There were very fine stories in each of them–surrounded by stories that were not so fine.  It was never easy for him to come up with a whole book’s worth that could live up to the standard he’d set in his novels.  This collection marks the only instance where he achieved this.  With a character plucked from a series of often rather broad-ranging novels, and set upon the short and narrow-focused for a change.

Mr. Westlake had his troubles with this form.  Mainly relating to character, which for him was the foundation of everything he aspired to as a writer.  Yes, plot matters, technique matters, style matters, subtext matters–and none of it matters a damn if you can’t create people with their own unique voices and identities.  When he only had a few pages to work with, he was hard-pressed to make that happen.  I suppose all writers have their troubles with this form, and find different ways to deal with them.

In my biased estimation, the greatest short story writer in English was, is, and shall remain that crafty Corkonian, Frank O’Connor (a pseudonym, wouldn’t you know, his birth name was Michael O’Donovan).  He wrote little else in the way of fiction besides short stories.  Quit the novel after two early attempts, and for good reason: he worked best in miniature.  His characters don’t leap out at you, so much as they pull you in; make you laugh with them, scowl at them, grieve for them (read The Impossible Marriage sometime, or any of his stories–you’ll see what I mean).  Having said all he needed to say, even one additional page would be art crime.  No more about it.

O’Connor drew heavily on people he’d met for his models, his countrymen and countrywomen; vivid, flawed, noble, innocent, brave, brilliant, begrudging, stubborn, perverse.  He wrote of his mother (who was all of the above), with love and wonder, that he’d bribed a London hotel chambermaid to bring her meals, and when he came back a short time later, the mammy had gotten that poor Devon girl to cough up her entire life story over tea and scones; enough material for a novel.  She could seemingly get a novel out of anyone she met, and he could only lament that she never wrote any–not her purview–but she passed that gift for gleaning to her shy subtle son, who boiled a novel’s worth of insight into a nutshell of narrative.

Westlake, himself a shy subtle New York Irish boy, likewise endowed with a formidable mother (and a far better father than O’Connor’s scapegrace sire) had a comparable eye for human complexity, but he was less inclined to draw too directly from life, preferring a bit more distance between himself and his subjects; relying more on genre templates as part of that distancing technique (and to make rent, of course).

O’Connor’s autobiographical writings are without superior (I can think of other short story writers I admire who did well in this regard, which may well mean something).  Westlake’s memoirs remain forever unfinished and mostly unpublished.  For all his outward garrulousness, he was a deeply private man, unwilling to make himself too vulnerable to scrutiny–the Stark in him–the less people know about you, the safer you are.

Closest he got to the confessional was when he wrote as Tucker Coe, a persona he rejected, then ritually slaughtered in a mock-interview.  (Didn’t help that his most personal early novel under his own name was rejected, and went unpublished in his lifetime.) Whatever the reasons, he needed more space to create characters who lived and breathed and spoke to him.  To find ways to reveal himself more obliquely to us.

His models would have included Hammett, O. Henry, and others in his chosen field–better teachers would be hard to find.  But when it came to short fiction, he usually fell far short of the standard they’d set (while writing novels that read like short stories, so his apprenticeship was not wasted).

Having tossed off scores of stories for the pulps in the late 50’s and early 60’s (good practice, needed income, unsympathetic editors), his production slacked off a lot when he found his footing as a novelist–by which time he’d created his two signature series characters. Only one of whom was destined to spawn a series of short stories (and one novella) to augment his long form adventures.

Though Richard Stark began his existence as a short story writer, never once that we know of did he assay to write a short story about Parker, Grofield, or any member of his large supporting cast of players.  Hard to believe he didn’t at least consider it.  Did he try, and find the results wanting?  Stark’s great virtue is succinctness–you’d think that would have translated well to the shorter form.  A mystery that seems unlikely to be cleared up.

It was Dortmunder’s lot in life to do the jobs Parker turned down.  In his introduction to this anthology, Westlake recounts once more how in 1967, he was trying to write a more humorous Richard Stark novel, in which Parker would have to steal the same thing over and over again.  As Westlake puts it, Parker thought this was beneath his dignity, though in the novel that did result from that attempt, he was perfectly willing to do subcontracting work for a group of African revolutionaries.

Still seeing merit in the notion of repetitive theft, Westlake conjured John Dortmunder out of a neon beer sign, and although the initial attempt at a novel stalled out, he returned to it a few years later, with great success.  As with Parker, he didn’t write the first novel with the idea of there being more of them, but more happened anyway.  He’d finished Nobody’s Perfect, when a scrap of conversation between Dortmunder and a well-dressed man came to him, the bare bones of an idea he knew wasn’t enough for a novel.  This could be the start of something small.

It worked out to ten Dortmunder shorts written and published over the course of twenty years, mainly in Playboy.  Not a venue you’d think Dortmunder would feel at home in, but it must have paid well.  Some of the latter run of stories Westlake wrote with the notion that he just needed a few more to make a book out of them, reminiscent of the genesis of Levine.  But he wasn’t trying to finish off a character arc (or the character) here, as he was with that collection of police procedurals that don’t amount to much individually, but somehow pack an emotional wallop when read together.

There’s no discernible arc whatsoever to the Dortmunder shorts, or any emotional wallop at all, because it’s not called for.  More like doodling in the margins.  Inspired doodling, because he’d finally found what he’d always been lacking when it came to short stories–readymade voices, people whose quirks he already knew inside out.  With the problem of character out of the way, he could concentrate on plot and motivation.

These stories are all perfectly balanced in a way the novels rarely were.  No need to come up with elaborate heists for Dortmunder to pull (no time to pull them). No need to come up with separate subplots for an ever-expanding cast of regulars, all clamoring for their moments in the sun. Just the right number of moving parts here.

You never get the whole ensemble (except in the last offering here, which isn’t a Dortmunder).  The stories were either about Dortmunder and Kelp, or Dortmunder as a single-o.  The solo stories were some of the best.  Focused.  Precise.  Yet still with the loose-jointed nonchalance that distinguishes the series as a whole.

There are, when you think about it, a host of chapters in the later Dortmunders that stand apart from the main plotline, that could have easily been repurposed as short stories with a cursory rewrite. No doubt some of them began as ideas for short stories that were never written, or some that were.  Dortmunder working a short con as a faux encyclopedia salesman going door to door, in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot, was an idea filched directly from a story Westlake wrote about just such a fly-by-nighter–and the versions with Dortmunder are far superior, because Dortmunder is real in a way few of Westlake’s short-form protagonists ever were.

There’s something about Dortmunder, a laconic understated quality that oddly lends itself to vignettes, anecdotes, tall tales.  He feels like somebody O. Henry could have easily dreamed up, but didn’t (and this is one reason my vote for the best Dortmunder novel might well go to the one that reimagined The Ransom of Red Chief).

One more oddity–Dortmunder usually wins out in these stories.  Not such a sad sack in the shorts.  Not without his share of setbacks, sidetracks, and petty humiliations, to be sure, but I think he’d have gladly given up the arduous and too-often futile two to four hundred page slogs in favor of maybe ten modestly profitable short-term ventures a year–as opposed to ten in a lifetime.  The bottom falling out of the market for short stories was one reason that was never gonna happen.  But as always, he made the most of what came to hand.  Let’s see if we can do the same.

Ask A Silly Question: By all means, let’s.  As we join him, Dortmunder is having a conversation with an elegantly dressed older man, in a splendidly appointed Manhattan townhouse at Park & 65th, and he’s being asked what people of his sort usually drink.

“Bourbon,” Dortmunder said.  “Water.  Coca-Cola.  Orange juice.  Beer.”

“Bourbon,” the elegant man told one of the two plug-uglies who’d brought Dortmunder here.  “And sherry for me.”

“Coffee,” Dortmunder went on.  “Sometimes Gallo Burgundy.  Vodka.  Seven-Up.  Milk.”

“How do you prefer your bourbon?” the elegant man asked.

“With ice and water.  People of my sort also drink Hi-C, Scotch, lemonade, Nyquil–

“Do you drink Perrier?”

“No,” said Dortmunder.

Playboy published this in February of 1981, a bit over a decade after The Hot Rock, and Dortmunder was hardly so famous by then that Westlake could presume universal familiarity with his brainchild’s quirks.  He’s not taking a shortcut here, writing Dortmunder fanfic for a quick buck. He’ll do it right, or not at all.

It’s important for his own working methods that he knows his guy, and he does, but he still has to make sure he’s established that guy in the mind of some some gentleman of leisure who has never even heard of Dortmunder ere now, and is merely taking a quick break from ogling Miss February (Vicky lynn Lasseter, I googled, nice eyes), so he can go on pretending he buys this publication for the articles.  I don’t believe even The O’Connor Don ever established character more efficiently than The Don Westlake does here.

The elegant man married some sweet young thing who turned out more young than sweet.  A nasty divorce followed afoot, with no accompanying prenuptial agreement (elegance not necessarily implying prudent foresight).  As part of her punitive inroads on his worldly goods, she demanded his most prized possession, a Rodin nymph in bronze.  Unwilling to part with one nymph to appease another, he had a copy made, and bribed a court-appointed expert to certify it the original.

All well and good, but now for tax purposes she’s donating it to the Museum of Modern Art, and there’s no bribing them.  The elegant man (let’s just call him Tem, inelegant as that sounds) wants Dortmunder to tell him how to steal the copy back that very night, so  his subterfuge may never be revealed. But the ersatz nymph weighs over five hundred pounds, enough to give Jove himself a hernia.  How can she be carried away undetected?

Various potential schemes are floated by Tem, and shot down contemptuously by his contrarian consultant–Dortmunder is irritated at having been picked up by Tem’s plug-uglies as he was on his way to the O.J. to discuss a potential job with the usual suspects.  Tem wants to pay him a measly grand for his advice. Dortmunder bargains him up to five, but Tem decrees that for so large an honorarium, they’d like the honor of his company during the heist.  Dortmunder phones Kelp at the O.J., explains he’ll be late.  Kelp says no problem, they’re having a nice discussion on religion and politics.

One very satisfying plot twist later (I’m going to try to avoid revealing those when possible, but no promises), Tem is in a most inelegant fix, and the vengeful Dortmunder is planning a raid on his now-unguarded townhouse with the gang from the O.J., which one would hope includes the recently introduced Tiny Bulcher (for heavy lifting), but would you want to discuss religion and politics with him? Be my guest.

A hard one to improve upon.  But Westlake did, several times.  Including the very next time, in a little equestrian yarn by the name of–

Horse Laugh: (Playboy again, June ’86, Rebecca Ferratti, I think we got a motif going here.)  Dortmunder and Kelp are in the process of stealing a thoroughbred champion named Dire Straits who is now gone out to stud in the wide open spaces of western New Jersey (Money for nothing and your chicks for free, hmm, wouldn’t have thought he’d be into that band–probably just for the implicit wordplay).

Dortmunder, we later learn, bet on this very nag at the track on one of the rare days Dire Straits finished out of the money (Want to bet that’s a coincidence?  What odds you give me?).  His weakness for blowing his ill-gotten gains on the ponies should not be confused with any personal feeling for them.  He has no more reason to love these four-legged wallet-emptiers than they him.

Dortmunder looked at the horse.  The horse looked at Dortmunder.  “Ugly goddam thing,” Dortmunder commented, while the horse just rolled his eyes in disbelief.

“Not that one,” the old coot said.  “We’re looking for a black stallion.”

“In the dark,” Dortmunder commented.  “Anyway, all horses look the same to me.”

(Again, character established from the starting gate.  You’ll enjoy these stories more if you’ve read some of the novels, but it’s by no means obligatory.)

The old coot, Hiram Rangle, works for some screwy squire with more horses than sense.  He wants better bloodlines for his broodmares (sans stud fees), so they’ll throw a few winning foals nobody will expect great things from, because they won’t know who really sired them. The real money will be in the large bets he lays on them–you see, it’s only illegal to bet against your own horse, at least in America.  Stealing them is a problem pretty much everywhere.

So Dortmunder and Kelp are doing work for hire again, and Hiram, their employer’s employee, is there because he can identify the goods, then cajole said goods into coming along for the ride.  A recalcitrant hotblood equine being a far trickier proposition than a 500lb Rodin nymph, even if he can move around by himself.  (Well, that’s going to be the problem, you see.)

This one’s special to me because it’s the single most sustained look into animal behavior that Westlake ever attempted.  Westlake featured animals in his work fairly often, but they were rarely central to the narrative–a dangerous dog, a hovering hawk, a prattling parrot (we’ll get to him)–sometimes POV characters, but briefly.  More often mere plot devices.  But there’s always this underlying consciousness that they are, in fact, conscious, volitive beings with their own agendas–and that they, unlike we, know what they want.

I’ve read that Westlake once had a cat named James Blue, who provided him with one of his pseudonyms (the kind he wrote pseudo-porn under), and nary a reference to cats can I recall from his oeuvre (too close to home?).  All I can divine from his fiction, vis a vis our fellow vertebrates, is that he was interested in them, and perhaps sometimes afraid of them.  And it’s this tension between fear and fascination that tends to inform his writing about them. Leading to many an absurd situation

Walking through his first barn, Dortmunder learned several facts about horses: (1) They smell. (2) They breathe, more than anything he’d ever met in his life before. (3) They don’t sleep, not even at night. (4) They don’t even sit down. (5) They are very curious about people who happen to go by. And (6) they have extremely long necks.  When horses in stalls on both sides of Dortmunder stretched out their heads toward him at the same time, wrinkling their black lips to show their big square tombstone teeth, snuffling and whuffling with those shotgun-barrel noses, sighting at him down those long faces, he realized that the aisle wasn’t that wide after all.

“Jeepers,” Kelp said, a thing he didn’t say often.

(Okay, how is a devoutly urban thief who probably never even finished high school supposed to know horses usually sleep standing up?  I assume Westlake knew this, but the thing about autodidacts is that they always know more and less than you assume.  We’ll be talking about that when we get to the parrot.)

So they find Dire Straits, and Hiram sweet talks him (which includes doling out sweets in the form of sugar cubes), and they get him outside, and it all goes to hell, really fast.  A complication they hadn’t counted upon.  See, the staff at this place don’t know the thieves are there, but the horses do, and they’ve heard via the equine grapevine that there’s sugar cubes in the offing. Giddyap.

Further complication–coming into the place, Dortmunder and Kelp dislodged the rails of a fence bordering the road, then put them back up without the nails to hold them in place, to facilitate their exit with the loot.  The excited horses have now pushed their way through the fence like a herd of TV zombies, making their way to the fatal complication–an orchard full of green apples, right across the road.

“Like shit through a goose” doesn’t half say it. Geese have nothing on horses.  The stable environs are now fully Augean. The staff are now wide awake, and running around, slipping and sliding in the love offerings of man’s noblest companion, futilely trying to persuade the horses that they’re domesticated animals who only do what they’re told.  Oh yeah?  We’re gonna have a midnight snack, two-legs.  How ya like them apples?

The police are arriving to restore order and will inevitably realize who was responsible for the chaos.  Hiram, who like any horsey person, dreamed in his lost youth of riding some Farleyesque black stallion on a desert isle, leaps aboard Dire Straits, and makes a mad gallop to freedom.  It does not go well.  Dortmunder and Kelp decline the role of Tonto, and through a typical ruse, manage to commandeer a truck to get them the hell out of there.

I will spoil this ending, but only because it’s spoiler-proof.  It turns out Dire Straits took a shine to one or both of them, followed them away from the madding crowd, and they could steal him easy, take him home, and–what then? What could they possibly do with him? Hiram’s boss will be joining him in the hoosegow, shortly.

Kelp isn’t Dortmunder.  He’s never been a horse person, he’s mainly thinking about the million dollars this horse is worth (that they could never in a million years get), but there’s something plaintive in the “Can I keep him?” discussion that finishes out the tale. (As a girl, my significant other begged her father for a horse like she was Richard III.  They lived in a Manhattan apartment.  “Where would we keep it?”  “On the roof!”  She settled for a puppy, who grew to the size of a small horse.)

We don’t just keep animals we don’t eat because they’re useful to us (and so often, you know, they are impediments to our daily enterprise).  They charm us, and this one’s starting to charm Kelp.  Dortmunder, being something of an animal himself, is deaf to this Siren’s song, and drags Kelp away.

But not even the wildest of horses ever dragged anyone away from–

Too Many Crooks: (The usual, August ’89, Gianna Amore, lives up to the name.)  Probably the most famous short story Westlake ever wrote (it’s this or Nackles, and this is a much better story than Nackles).  Won him his second Edgar, on his way to the coveted trifecta (superfecta, if you count the Grandmaster thing).  The story that gave us the perhaps over-used John Diddums gag.  (It’s Welsh.  You knew that).

This is the one that people who don’t know spit about Dortmunder sometimes still know.  “Oh right, he’s robbing a bank, and then he finds out somebody is already robbing it.  Funny!”  You wouldn’t think so if it happened to you.  What’s funny to me is this friend of mine who admits to having read no other Westlake than this, and I just now realize I never inquired where she read it.  Not in this book. She’d have remembered Horse Laugh.  Probably anthologized elsewhere.  I’m sure that’s it.

Westlake used to say Parker was about romantic crime, and Dortmunder was about the mundane reality, and that’s a crock.  Real bank robbers shoot people.  Dortmunder hardly ever points a gun at anybody.  Suppose it went off or something?  The rules are, Parker never shoots anybody who doesn’t deserve it, and Dortmunder never shoots.  So towards the end of avoiding messy gunplay, he and Kelp are tunneling into a bank vault–in the daytime.  During banking hours.  Sure, why not?  I know this sounds critical, but here’s the thing–when you read the story, you 110% believe it.  Fiction isn’t about realism.  Westlake knows this.  Many others seem confused on that point.

In the meantime, a gang of more Starkian heisters have taken the traditional approach, with guns and masks and everything, but being in Dortmunder’s universe they screwed it up royally, and the place is surrounded, come out with your hands up, you know the drill, but they figure they can just take everyone hostage and get out that way.

There’s so many people in that vault when Dortmunder and Kelp break through the wall, that the other gang doesn’t even realize Dortmunder isn’t one of the hostages, and the real hostages think he and Kelp are cops coming in the back way to rescue them.  Kelp beats a hasty retreat through the tunnel, the hostages follow his lead, thereby rescuing themselves, and Dortmunder ends up being the only hostage, having been randomly picked to go outside and relay the demands of the nervous felons with machine guns to the equally nervous cops with sniper rifles.  (Randomly?  Ya think?  Maybe if this is the only Dortmunder story you ever read).

His situation is further complicated by the fact that his story began about two hours after this other, less whimsical, story, and he’s a bit slow catching up.  And one of the guys with the machine guns is a mite oversensitive.  Well, if you’ve got a machine gun, and you’re the emotional type, you tend to use it.  That’s kind of the chief argument against machine guns.

“We’re gonna give the our demands,” the robber said.  “Through you.”

“That’s fine,” Dortmunder said.  “That’s great.  Only, you know, how come you don’t do it on the phone?  I mean, the way it’s normally–”

The red-eyed robber, heedless of exposure to the sharpshooters across the street, shouldered furiously past the comparatively calm robber, who tried to restrain him as he yelled at Dortmunder, “You’re rubbing it in, are ya?  OK, I made a mistake!  I got excited and I shot up the switchboard!  You want me to get excited again?”

“No, no!” Dortmunder cried, trying to hold his hands straight up in the air and defensively in front of his body at the same time.  “I forgot!  I just forgot!”

He forgot.  As if anyone could ever forget. A vital clue, that the detective in this story, namely the red-eyed robber, seizes upon later to unravel the locked-room mystery of where this Diddums jerk came from.  Much good that does anyone, but the formal demands of the genre have been met.  A few pages later, the more informal demands of a Dortmunder story are met, to even Dortmunder’s satisfaction.

I’m not sure I consider this the very best story in the book (tough call), but rest assured it’s the best story about concurrent bank robberies anyone’s ever going to write.  They did later make a movie with that very premise, incidentally.  Flypaper.  No awards.  No nominations.  No audience.  9% ‘Fresh’ with top critics (the one good review is from the Times, and it’s not that good).  I think Dortmunder’s niche is secure for the forseeable future.

What’s not so secure is the future of live theater in the hinterlands, which brings us to–

A Midsummer Daydream:  (Ditto, May of ’90, Tina Bockrath.)  Due to a little professional misunderstanding, Dortmunder and Kelp head about 80 miles upstate to stay with Kelp’s cousin, Jesse Bohker (no relation to Tina, I’d assume) until things cool off back home.

Cousin Bohker has a farm.  Ee ey ee ey oh.  And on that farm he’s got a summer theater where they do Shakespeare for the multitudes, during the afternoon, so as not to conflict with cable TV.  Ee ey ee ey oy fucking vey.  I mean, there’s a guy walking around in a donkey’s head.  There’s fairies prancing all over the place, and not the fun urban variety. Dortmunder says enough with the iambic pentameter already, and goes outside.

And when it turns out the box office proceeds–two thousand, seven hundred twenty-four dollars, not a bad score–got lifted while Dortmunder was standing outside the converted barn with no alibi.   Cousin Bokher has an ultimatum–ee ey ee ey dough.  Or he calls in the state troopers.

The point of this exercise is to put Dortmunder in the position of having to play detective.  He needs to finger the real culprit, to avoid having some upstate Dogberry take a good look at him and Kelp, and finding out there’s much ado about everything where these guys are concerned.  But also–he’s innocent.  Innocent, I tells ya!

The experience of being unjustly accused was so  novel and bewildering to Dortmunder that he was almost drunk from it.  He had so little experience of innocence.  How does an innocent person act, react, respond to the base accusation?  He could barely stand up, he was concentrating so hard on this sudden in-rush of guiltlessness.  His knees were wobbling.  He stared at Andy Kelp and couldn’t think of one solitary thing to say.

(Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into comes to mind, but that’s probably copyrighted.  Great thing about The Bard is you never have to inquire about copyright.  There are inquiries being made about the latest Shakespeare in the Park production, but those are of a different order.  Once more into the breach of etiquette!)

What makes this such a neat little mystery is that the way Dortmunder solves it makes perfect sense for the person he is, and the experiences he’s had.  Westlake liked turning his thieves into detectives (though he never made an entire franchise out of it, the way Lawrence Block did).  Should go without saying, Dortmunder never cared about whodunnit.  He only wanted to prove he didn’t, and then get payback for the cousin assuming he did.  His sense of aggrieved innocence certainly gets an overdue workout here.   Speaking of which–

The Dortmunder Workout:  (New York Times Magazine, 1990, no centerfold, killjoys.)  The shortest story on offer here.  A mere vignette.  Dortmunder walks into the O.J. Bar and Grill.  Apparently just to have a bourbon and catch up with Rollo the bartender, but the regulars have things to discuss, relating to physical fitness and related issues.

The first regular said, “I don’t get what you mean by this food groups.”

“Well,” the second regular told him, “your principal food groups are meat, vegetables, dessert and beer.”

“Oh,” the first regular said.  “In that case, I’m OK.”

Yeah, you’ve heard it before.  Worth hearing again, but not much point parsing it.  Onwards to–

Party Animal: (Back to the motif. January ’93, Echo Leto Johnson.  No that’s her name, honest. I think all these girls somehow escaped from paperback sleaze novels of the 60’s. Hard to be sure, those books are so badly lit.)

As has happened in past, we join Dortmunder on a fire escape at night, cops swooping in from above like flatfooted owls, cops waiting expectantly below, like crocodiles with badges.  The window he’s currently crouching by is cracked open.  There’s a party going on inside. A Christmas party, since that’s the time of year.  He’s going to try and crash it.  Not his usual scene, but hum a few bars and maybe he can avoid going behind them.

It’s cold outside, so the bedroom he’s entering is the traditional repository for coats (nobody in Manhattan has that much spare closet space).  Underneath the pile of coats on the bed, a couple is trying, and failing, to join the party equivalent of the mile high club.  Dortmunder stows his gear, hides his loot, joins the fray.  As he thought, most people there don’t know most other people there.  He can blend into this crowd.  Yet he would fain be gone through yon waiting portal.  But hark, the doorbell rings–tis the coppers, seeking their rightful prey.  He’ll stay a week or two–he’ll stay the winter through–yet I am telling you…..

Who’s the person  you notice least at a catered party?  The lowly server, handing out food.  Which makes no sense at all, that’s the one who can actually do something for you, but there you are.  There’s a little Trump in all of us.  I must get mine surgically removed at some point.

But returning to the point at hand, Dortmunder sees the harried caterer, a not-bad blonde, wearing a perpetual angry frown, precipitated in this case by the fact that the guy supposed to be helping her out here with these party animals never showed.  Dortmunder, good Samaritan that he is, volunteers to fill the gap, pass out the canapes, while she assembles them in the kitchen.  She’s suspicious, but in no position to look a gift server in the mouth.  (As the narrator reminds us, we don’t say ‘servant’ in America, because we’re all equal here, sheahright).

So as he makes the rounds, tray in  hand, little snatches of conversation come to us….

There’s only twenty guys gonna be let in on this thing.  We have seven already, and once we have all the seed money….”

“She came to the co-op board in a false beard and claimed she was a proctologist.  Well, naturally….”

“So then I said you can have this job, and he said OK, and I said you can’t treat people like that, and he said OK, and I said that’s it, I quit, and he said OK, and I said you’re gonna have to get along without me from here on in, buster, and he said OK…so I guess I’m not over there anymore.”

“And then these guys in a rowboat–no, wait, I forgot.  First they blew up the bridge, see, and then they stole the rowboat.”

“Merry Christmas, you Jew bastard, I haven’t seen you since Ramadan.”

“And he said, ‘Madam, you’re naked,’ and I said, ‘These happen to be gloves, if you don’t mind,’ and that shut him up.”

A bit on the mundane side for such a gathering.  You who don’t hail from New York perhaps think I’m kidding.  You who do know I’m understating.  So is Westlake.  Dortmunder also hears the couple from the bedroom earlier, Larry and Sheila, and notes that Larry is basically blowing Sheila off because the coat coitus got canceled.

The caterer has noted the presence of fuzz, and is now giving Dortmunder funny looks–but saying nothing.  Just handing him more snacks for the revelers.  Dortmunder’s protective coloration is still holding up–he tests it by going up to the loitering lawmen and lawwomen, and asking if they want something.  They tell him to mind his own business.  Well, technically, that’s what got him in trouble.

The party is winding down.  The police have left the apartment, but not the chase.  They’re waiting outside.  They will search each departing guest.  Even if Dortmunder abandons his takings of the evening, his fake ID won’t hold up to close scrutiny (another thing that can happen at parties, though usually of a different age set).  Dortmunder has a fix–plant some of the jewelry he stole on one of those departing guests.  He’s kind of pleased it turns out to be Larry.  So are we all, really.

And the irate caterer, it turns out, has developed a little thing for Dortmunder.  She tells him he should know she’s married.  He tells her he is too, kind of.  Ships passing out hor d’oeuvres in the night.  As a token of what they have shared in this brief encounter, and also to say thanks for not blowing the whistle on him, he slips a gold brooch in the shape of a feather into her hair bun.  And then he’s off, free as a bird.  Larry can’t say the same, but they’ll figure out he didn’t do it, once he stops incriminating himself with his personality.  To all a good night.

A different kind of social gathering awaits Dortmunder in a less substantial tale with an interesting genesis to it, namely–

Give Till It Hurts:  This was first published in pamphlet form, by The Mysterious Bookshop, in November 1993, a gift for faithful mail order customers.  (No pin-up girls, perhaps deemed inappropriate for the holiday season, who can say?)  Westlake owed much to that shop’s estimable proprietor, Otto Penzler, but it’s Dortmunder who makes good the debt here–in more ways than one.

Dortmunder is disguised in Middle Eastern garb, having just stolen some rare coins at a hotel convention for collectors (good thing Parker isn’t into plagiarism suits).  Again, he needs to blow the joint before the law finds him, and the regular means of egress will not do.  Finding his way into a supply closet, he ties a bunch of sheets together, and lowers himself out the window in back of the hotel, abutting some smaller structures.  One of which happens to be (ta-dah!) The Mysterious Bookshop, not that he knows what that is, or cares.

So this guy named Otto comes in and sees him, and assumes he’s the ringer ‘Don’ sent in his place.  He jokes that he hopes Diddums (Welsh, remember?) is a better poker player.  That’s what this is.  A friendly poker game in the back room.  Soon other players arrive.  Larry, Justin, Al, Henry.  I know who Larry is, and perhaps someone can fill me in about the others?  I don’t know everything.  But I can easily deduce that all these gentlemen are involved with the mystery genre–also known as crime fiction.  Dortmunder has walked right into the lion’s den, you might say.

So Dortmunder figures he can bide his time until the heat fades, and might as well make a little something extra for the Christmas stocking, right?  He sits down to play, and he cheats a bit. The cops (who I have to say, seem a lot more thorough in Dortmunder’s world than they are here) come knocking, and the other players, being into detectives and all, quickly realize two things–1)Diddums is the thief! and 2)That’s why he’s been winning all our money!

They don’t talk to the law.  Honor among thieves?  Fuck that, they want their money back.  With interest. Dortmunder has to stay for the whole game, lose every hand, and then he will be allowed to leave.  The mills of the mystery gods grind slow…..

The next story is a direct sequel to this, and I believe I will give it short shrift.  It’s got Arnie Albright in it.  No, Arnie, it’s not you, I’m just going long here, and how much am I supposed to write about a story called–

Jumble Sale:  Published in The Armchair Detective [v27 #3, Summer 1994] .  Here’s the cover.  For all I know there’s a centerfold model within, perhaps dressed in nothing but a chalk outline.

armchair_detective_1994sum

(Peter Straub is a mystery writer?  Since when?  I guess since he picked up his phone and said “Sure, I’ll give you an interview.”)

So Dortmunder brings his coins to Arnie Albright, everybody’s favorite least-favorite dealer in stolen goods.  The usual Arnie-shtik is trotted out; old calendars all over the wall, obnoxious personality tics, nose like a tree root, et all.  My own feeling about Arnie is that he takes up a lot of space in the Dortmunders that should have gone to J.C. Taylor, and that you’ve read one chapter with him in it, you know all you ever needed to know about him.  But this story isn’t bad, for all that.

Summing up briefly.  A man and a woman show up to interrupt the transaction.  Arnie forces Dortmunder to pretend he’s a relative.  They say they have a semi parked downstairs on W. 86th, full of stolen flatscreen TV’s.  They keep insisting they’re not a couple.  So obviously they are a couple.  Why would a couple of crooks claim they’re not a couple in the other way?  That’s the mystery.  Solve it yourself, or read the story.  I’m moving on (seriously, Arnie, I like you fine, but I’m over 6,000 words here) to–um–what now?  Oh right!

Now What?:  (December 1999, Brooke Richards, 34”/24”/35”, measurements courtesy of Wikipedia, oh brave new world…) Quite possibly the best story in the book, but again, tough call.  Definitely the longest, all of twenty-three pages.

Dortmunder more or less accidentally stole a bounteously bejeweled brooch, reportedly worth 300k, from a movie star and his intended.  Her name is Felicia, a rather jaundiced reference to a much nicer girl of the same name marrying a much nicer movie star in Trust Me On This.

The actor made a big scene out of it with the press, like they always do, claimed the daring thief broke in and snatched it before their very eyes.  In fact, Felicia, thinking it was some cheesy pin being fobbed off on her, threw it out the window, where Dortmunder just happened to be passing by on one of his beloved fire escapes.

But this is all prologue.  The story is how he tries, and tries, and tries, to fence the brooch, traversing the urban jungle with the goods all the while concealed within a ham sandwich in a brown paper bag.  Knowing as he does, that for reasons perhaps only a tabloid editor could explain, the theft of the brooch is the #1 story in the world that day.  The heat, as they say, is on.

And everywhere, there’s cops.  Keaton never saw more cops.  Not looking for him, specifically.  The entire NYPD is not on 24/7 Dortmunder detail, much as it seems that way at times.  But situation after situation emerges in his quest, in which cops emerge from the woodwork, and he has to restrain the innate impulse to run like a rabbit, stay cool, say thank you very much officer, oh yes that’s my lunch, almost forgot it, must be off now.  He has bad luck, then it’s balanced out by good, then back to the bad again. As the gags build, it’s getting hard to know the difference.  Maybe there isn’t any.

Now there were cops all over the place, just as in the recurrent nightmare Dortmunder had had for years, except none of these came floating down from the sky.

Just wait until they get jetpacks.  So after trying two different fences, in two different boroughs, taking breaks along the way to deal with track fires and terrorists, Dortmunder sadly shrugs his already-shrugged shoulders, and heads for Arnie Albright’s place on 86th.  (See, Arnie, I mentioned you in two different sections!  And you thought I didn’t like you.)

This one ends on a bit of a down-note (and not just because Arnie now has this appalling skin disease), but looks like Dortmunder is still (eventually) getting seven grand for a very long day’s work, which is better than I’ve ever done.  Also, a guy tried to scam him with the old “Is this your wallet” routine?  Dortmunder said yes it is, and walked away with it.  God save the conman, when the mark is Dortmunder.  300 bucks, not bad at all, what are you crying about, John?  You chose to live in New York.  For most of us working stiffs here, this qualifies as a good day.

And what follows qualifies as the very last Dortmunder short ever composed, unless there’s a hidden stash somewhere….

Art And Craft: (August 2000, Summer Altice.  I’d snark the name, but thing is, I’m a sucker for long dark hair.  I suppose I could pretend she’s J.C. Taylor….?)

One of Dortmunder’s old prison buddies pops up, and when is this ever not good news?  That’s right.  Three Finger Gillie, so called because of this thing he did with a trio of digits on his right hand, that you probably would not like if he did it to you.  Neither would Dortmunder, so he hears the guy’s proposition out, at a restaurant.

It’s a doozy.  Three Fingers is a professional artist now.  Learned how to paint in the pen.  Seems to me he’s not the first or last felon to get into the art biz that way.  Hmm, let’s glance at the vital statistics:

Among the nymphs and ferns of Portobello, Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.  A burly man with thick black hair that curled low on his forehead and lapped over his ears and collar, he also featured a single, wide block of black eyebrow like a weight holding his eyes down.  hese eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left in the rain.  The mouth, what there was of it, was thin and straight and without color.

I knew this reminded me of someone.  Not that he’s the inspiration for Three Fingers, unless Westlake had a crystal ball, which I’ve long suspected.  He was an artist too.  Well, so was Albert Nussbaum, after a fashion.  Different stories end differently.

Three Fingers is good with the brushwork, and he likes the art game, wants to stay in it (the old reference to how criminals and artists share the same personality profile).  But he also wants to make a nice living at it, which means good isn’t good enough.  You gotta have a gimmick, like the song lyric says.  His selling point is that he’s a former felon.  That got him in the door, provided useful publicity, and now he’s got a show downtown.  But not enough people are showing at the show, or (more important) buying his stuff.

The problem is that the postmodern art-buying public wants irony with their art.  Okay, fine, there’s some irony in a criminal becoming an artist.  But so old-hat.  Irony deficient.  Now what if other criminals were to break into the gallery and steal his paintings?  Irony within irony!  You see what he’s getting at, Dortmunder?

Dortmunder does, and the offer is generous.  The gallery is insured.  He can make a deal with the insurance company, and keep it all for himself.  Three Fingers just wants the publicity.  Three Fingers is not known for his generosity.  Something smells bad.  Well, he’ll check it out. Westlake lived long enough to see the beginnings of what is now the world’s most insanely crowded and overpriced outdoor mall.  Complete with pop-up stores, and a storied history.  Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

The neighborhood had been full of lofts and warehouses and light manufacturing.  Then commerce left, went over to New Jersey or out to the Island, and the artists moved in, for the large spaces at low rents.  But the artists made it trendy, so the real estate people moved in, changed the name to Soho, which in London does not mean South of Houston Street, and the rents went through the roof.  The artists had to move out, but they left their paintings behind, in the new galleries.  Parts of Soho look pretty much like before, but some of it has been touristed up so much it doesn’t look like New York City at all.  It looks like Charlotte Amalie, on a dimmer.

(It should be mentioned, the starving artists who bought those lofts, and the buildings that came with them, can now afford to paint or sculpt on their own private tropical islands, if they so desire.)

So is there a catch?  Is this a Dortmunder yarn?  A damn good one, and I’ll leave the rest for you to savor.  Just one more in this Thieves’ Dozen, of eleven stories, and never does Westlake explain the joke in the title, though he does say he included this last one to justify it.

Fugue For Felons:   The Dortmunder who never was.  And who never was Dortmunder, but he might well have ended up replacing him on the roster, if certain persons in Hollywood had their way.  Westlake doesn’t provide names or dates, but seems that some suits involved in making one or several Dortmunder films decided they now owned the name Dortmunder. (You know, it’s a mystery why people so good at taking stuff are so bad at making movies about people who take stuff.)

Before the matter was finally cleared up, Westlake was seriously worried he would not be able to write any  more stories about Dortmunder, or the established characters pertaining to that franchise.  I’m going to guess that this was the production team behind The Hot Rock and Bank Shot–remember how the Dortmunder in the latter film, played by George C. Scott, was named Walter Upjohn Ballantine?  Hopefully not, since that film is terrible.  Westlake happened to reference it, and not fondly, in the Dortmunder novel he wrote around the same time he was assembling this anthology.  Perhaps not a coincidence.

(Perhaps also not a coincidence that it was around this time Westlake started saying he wouldn’t let anyone who adapted a Parker novel for the movies name the protagonist Parker, unless they bought the rights to all those novels.  Once bitten….)

My guess about who tried to heist Dortmunder from his creator could be wrong, and I say that because there’s a character who is clearly the alternate universe Tiny Bulcher in this story, by the name of Big Hooper.  Tiny didn’t make his debut until 1977.  Years after The Hot Rock came out, in 1972.  Bank Shot was ’74.  But then again, maybe Big Hooper is the prototype for Tiny–a rough preliminary sketch for the much more interesting man monster we came to know. Rough in more ways than one, and that goes for the rest of this gang of second stringers.  And yet, Westlake has more enthusiasm for Big Hooper than for all the rest combined–why?  Maybe because he’s not a retread, but an original in the making.

Dortmunder in this universe is short, and named John Rumsey, after an exit sign on the Sawmill Parkway.  Kelp looks about the same, and is named Algy (oh very good, Mr. Westlake, keeping the aquatic plant life theme alive).  Stan Murch is Stan Little.  No mention of his mom.  (Little’s Old Lady?  Stan’s Ma’am?  Doesn’t work.)

It’s about the new gang, acting as a bunch of single-o’s, trying to rob a bank somebody else just tried to rob.  Things go wrong.  I suppose that could have been a starting point for Too Many Crooks.  There’s a mean dog in it. And not a single laugh.

This story is by far the weakest thing in this collection.  Entertaining at points, sure.  If you or I had written it, we’d be fairly proud.  I also guess we’d get a lot of rejection notices when it made the rounds.  It’s interesting mainly for what it tells us–which is what I told you at the start of this review.

See, Westlake doesn’t know these people.  He can’t make them too much like the old gang, yet he needs them to be able to replace the old gang in future ventures in the same vein as the Dortmunder novels–which has a certain hobbling effect.

Maybe a truly great writer, like I dunno, E.L. James, can take some characters he or she really likes but doesn’t own the rights to, give them different names, make them not vampires or werewolves (you can’t copyright insipid ingenues on the make, nor would you want to), and a lot of people will read that.  For some reason.  Westlake didn’t bend that way.  Having created Dortmunder & Co. once, he could never do it again.  They are, as the French say, sui generis.

But the bigger problem, the problem he always had with the short form, is that these characters are strangers to him.  Without that deep familiarity to build upon, he’s got to spend too much time filling out these profiles in pillage.  He’s trying to make us believe in them, when he doesn’t believe in them himself.  There isn’t a real story here.  Just a collection of loosely linked incidents, aspiring to storyhood.

I could go over some of the ways in which this felonious fugue works, and the many others in which it does not, but I’m now over 8,000 words.  There’s another Dortmunder looming on the horizon.  Again with the Arnie Albright.  Maybe none of your fellow felons love you, Arnie, but your creator sure does.  You bring J.C. back with you, so I won’t complain.  Too much.

What?  No Playboy centerfold for this one?  Well, it was never published anywhere but here, but I think I can oblige, all the same.  Towards the end of his introduction, Westlake mentions that he worked with Alice K. Turner, Playboy‘s longtime fiction editor, on all seven of the Dortmunder shorts that debuted there.  He says something about how she looked upon both him and Dortmunder “with bemused disbelief followed by stoical acceptance,” but I bet he got that a lot.  He says he also got a lot good input from her, something he always valued in an editor.

Images of her are rare online, but here’s one probably taken around the time she worked with Westlake.

Alice-K-Turner

Not bad.  Not bad at all.  She passed away not long ago, at 75–got a big Times obit.  Let me just read through that–oh WOW!!!!  Look at that résumé!  Hubba Hubba!  Twenty-three skiddoo!  I love my wife, but oh you kid!

(And that, dear readers, is how you finish out a motif.)

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, John Dortmunder

Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(horns come in lower now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Why Me?

May said, “Are you absolutely sure I’m not asleep and dreaming?”  She sat across the kitchen table from him and simply stared and stared.

“Maybe we both are,” Dortmunder said, through a mouthful of Wheaties and beer.  He looked at his left hand.  The red ruby in the green detergent looked like a toad Cardinal in a swamp.

“Let’s try it again,” May said.

Dortmunder lifted his green-oozing hand out of the pot, and while he chewed beer-soggy Wheaties, May twisted and struggled with the ring.  Simple soap hadn’t done it, hot soapy water hadn’t done it–maybe Palmolive Liquid would do it.  “If I can’t get that off,” Dortmunder said, “I’ll never be able to leave the house again.  I’ll be a prisoner in here.”

“Don’t talk about prison,” May said.  Shaking her head, she said, “Let it soak some more.”

Dortmunder looked with loathing at the toad Cardinal in its swamp.  “My greatest triumph,” he said, in disgust.

“Well, in a way it is,” May said.  “If you stop and think about it.  This has got to be just about anybody’s biggest heist ever.  Particularly for one man working alone.”

“I can see me boasting,” Dortmunder said.  “To all those guys getting rousted by the law.”

“Someday you’ll be able to,” she assured him.  “This too will blow over.”

Dortmunder understood that May was trying to make him feel better.  What May didn’t understand was that Dortmunder didn’t want to feel better.  Given the circumstances, any attitude in Dortmunder’s mind other than frustration, helpless rage, and blank despair would be both inappropriate and a sign of mental incompetence.  Dortmunder might be doomed, but he wasn’t crazy.

When Westlake wrote The Hot Rock, he had no idea of writing a long series of books about a hapless band of heisters.  Just like he had no idea of writing another Parker novel after The Hunter.  Just like while he was writing The Fugitive Pigeon, he had no idea of writing a series of funny mysteries featuring various directionless young men dropped unexpectedly into the soup.  You see where this is headed?

As a general rule of thumb, when Westlake actually wrote a book with the expressed intent of making a series out of it, the series ended up not doing so hot (the books might be good, but the sales would be less than stellar).  His greatest successes were almost invariably accidental and serendipitous in nature, precious gems that just dropped into his lap, while projects he may have put far more time and thought into frequently fizzled,  and this may at times have been a source of irritation to him.

Yes, it’s very Dortmunder, isn’t it?

I don’t doubt for a minute that he enjoyed writing the Dortmunder books.   There is a sense of fun about them that can’t be feigned.  The established voices of the characters would have been a joy to return to, and there would have been the further pleasure of adding new characters to the ensemble as time went on.

Still and all, Westlake was the type of writer who reflexively rebelled against the constraints placed on him by critics, by his readers, by publishers who saw him as that comic caper guy.  He had escaped some of those expectations by writing under multiple personas, each with his own unique style and approach, but he’d let that option lapse in the 70’s.   As the 80’s wore on, he might have started doubting the wisdom of that move.  It was getting hard being just Westlake all the time, when people only ever wanted the same kind of book from Westlake, over and over, ad infinitum.

As he started working on the fifth book in the series, therefore, he had to think about how he could keep this franchise interesting to him, keep it from getting stale, because the one thing Donald Westlake never wanted to do under any name was write the same book over and over again.

With Parker, it was easier to change things up (which is one reason there’s so many more Parkers than Dortmunders, in spite of the long break he took from writing the former).  Parker can work in just about any setting, with a wide variety of fellow professionals, large numbers of whom may die in the course of the story.  Westlake never let the supporting cast get too established in that series.  Familiarity was something he tried to avoid when he was writing as Stark.  He never wants us to get too comfortable in that world.

But the challenges of Dortmunder are different–the comedy stems precisely from our extreme familiarity with the characters and their quirks.  And he can’t kill anybody off–not even temporarily, as he did with Dan Wyzca and Ed Mackey.  And Dortmunder hates anything new with a holy passion–if he had his way, he’d never venture outside the five boroughs of New York City for the rest of his life.   Dortmunder likes to keep everything simple.  So how can his creator go about complicating his existence without too obviously going over old terrain, or pulling the character out of his proper setting?

The series began with Dortmunder trying to steal the same priceless African emerald, over and over, and it just kept getting further and further away.   Suppose this time he stole a similarly famous jewel–only without even trying?  Without even knowing he’d done it, until it was too late?   And all the complications ensued from him trying to give it back?

It’s a great idea, and it works–but rereading the book, I did find myself thinking that it might have worked better as a novella, even a short story.  To stretch it out, Westlake has to introduce all kinds of subplots and minor characters–some more successful than others.  There’s this whole bit involving rival groups of foreign agents and terrorists trying to get the ruby, and it’s funny while it lasts, and then it ends up marching off into oblivion, never to be resolved (in a later book in the series, Westlake would do a much better job with this foreign intrigue angle–he still runs into problems when he juggles too many balls at once).

And as I will be forced to point out, the final resolution doesn’t really make sense.   Westlake maybe wrote this one a bit too fast.  It’s his second and final book for Viking, a relationship that presumably went sour with Kahawa, after they stuck him with an editor he didn’t like, and did a crap job with promotion.  He probably owed them this one and dashed it off on his way out the door (I have this feeling that most of his publishers in this time period signed him on in expectations of getting Dortmunder into the bargain).

Sometimes with the Dortmunders, Westlake started out with less of a central idea than he needed, started fleshing it out, and ended up with more peripheral ideas than he could possibly use–this is one of those times.   This gem is flawed, but a gem it remains.  And the Dortmunders are always a percentage game, anyway.    But to demonstrate just how little story there actually is in this very funny book that runs 191 pages in the first edition, I’m going to sum up the entire plot in one paragraph.

Dortmunder breaks into a small jeweler’s shop near JFK airport.  He finds mainly junk, but there’s this big fancy ring with a red jewel he figures is a fake, but he decides to take it anyway.   It’s really a huge magnificent ancient ruby, the Byzantine Fire, which has enormous historical/political/religious significance to Turks, Greeks, and other Mediterranean groups, and was just stolen from the airport by a group of Cypriot Greeks, who are using the jeweler (also Greek) to smuggle it out of the country, before the U.S. government can give it to Turkey.  But by the time Dortmunder finds out what he’s done, there’s this huge dragnet, and a high-powered NYPD inspector is hauling in everybody who ever got so much as a traffic summons for questioning (while engaging in a turf war with two pesky FBI agents), and all these people from Cyprus and Turkey and Eastern Europe and etc. are swarming through the city looking for the sacred ruby (and the blood of whatever infidel dog profaned it), and Dortmunder’s own friends (led by the very frightening Tiny Bulcher), are teaming up to find whoever took the jewel and turn him in (not necessarily in one piece) just to get the heat off them (shades of Fritz Lang’s M).   Dortmunder confides in Kelp, who proves once more to be a true friend (or maybe he’s just nuts), and they go underground (literally), trying to find some way to give the gem back without getting Dortmunder arrested.   Finally, Dortmunder figures out a way to unheist the Byzantine Fire, and get a bit of his own back against some of the people who gave him a hard time, but we never find out what the Turks and Greeks and etc. think about all this, nor does Dortmunder ever so much as see any of them, because that subplot fizzles out.  Oh, and Dortmunder gives May a nice digital watch he stole from the shop, but he has to exchange it for one with the instructions included, because they can’t figure out how to set the time on it.

I didn’t say it would be a short paragraph.

So that’s the book, and much as I love it, it’s another of those Westlake efforts that is mainly the sum of its fascinating parts, rather than a balanced coherent whole.  But much more successful, for all that, than the previous Dortmunder outing, Nobody’s Perfect, partly because it’s set entirely in New York and its immediate surroundings (Dortmunder’s natural habitat), and partly because Westlake is getting better and better at hitting the right notes with his ever-expanding comic orchestra (sort of the prose equivalent of Spike Jones and his City Slickers).

This is the last transitional work in the series.   From this point onwards, Westlake knew what he had here, and what to do with it, and the books would be less eclectic, more consistent.    And maybe now and again he’d try to come up with an epic to end it all, but that never worked out as planned.   Dortmunder had tenure.

One lesson he probably drew from this one, which would have serious implications for those that followed, is that given his growing proclivity for adding all these extra elements to the Dortmunder stories (in a sense using them as a clearing house for ideas he couldn’t come up with a whole book for, or had used already but wanted to revisit), he needed to make the books correspondingly longer.

191 pages would be fine for an elegant little exercise like Bank Shot or Jimmy the Kid.   This one probably seemed simple enough at the outset, but as he kept adding bells and whistles, it got away from him a bit.  So easy to drive from the back seat.   Which is something I’d ask you all to remember as I now once again am moved to analyze various bits and pieces of the story, one at a time, instead of the synopsis-based reviews I more typically produce here.

1)The Early Adopter and the Luddite.

“You got a machine on your phone,” Dortmunder accused him.

“You want an extension for your kitchen?”

“What do you want with a machine on your phone?”

“It’d save you steps.  I could install it myself, you wouldn’t pay any monthly fee.”

“I don’t need an extension,” Dortmunder said firmly, “and you don’t need a machine.”

“It’s very useful,” Kelp said.  “If there’s people I don’t want to talk to, I don’t talk to them.”

“I already do that,” Dortmunder said, and the phone went guk-ick, guk-ick, guk-ick.  “Now what?” Dortmunder said.

“Hold on,” Kelp told him.  “Somebody’s calling me.”

“Somebody’s calling you?  You’re calling me.”  But Dortmunder was speaking into a dead phone.  “Hello?” he said. “Andy?”  Then he shook his head in disgust, hung up, and went back to the kitchen to make another cup of coffee.  The water was just boiling when the phone rang.  He turned off the flame, walked back to the living room, and answered on the fourth ring.  “Yeah,” he said.

“Wha’d you hang up for?”

“I didn’t hang up.  You hung up.”

“I told you hold on.  That was just my call-waiting signal.”

“Don’t tell me about these things.”

The Bell System got broken up in 1982, just about when Westlake was writing this.  We can argue all day long about whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was a huge thing.  All of a sudden, something very simple became very very complicated.  Used to be you got a phone, you paid a bill, and you called people, and either they were home or not home.  If you were out, nobody could reach you.  You just walked around, unplugged.  I can picture some of my younger readers (I must have some) reacting in horror–how did you people live, disconnected from The Matrix?   Freely, friends.   Flying around in perpetual airplane mode.  You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.  Ah, Zion.

Answering machines had been around a while (a running gag on The Rockford Files, that Westlake would have particularly appreciated), but with any tech company anywhere now being able to manufacture and market phones and phone-related gear, there was a massive proliferation of communications paraphernalia, of varying degrees of usefulness, and most of it didn’t last very long, but some of it led to what we have now, which I don’t need to tell you about, because you’re reading a blog (how endearingly old-fashioned of you). And what Westlake does throughout this book is remind us of how that all began in earnest.   Through the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic.

Andy Kelp never met a gizmo he didn’t like.  Or wouldn’t steal.   Some unfortunate wholesaler for all these new phone-related doodads has a warehouse right behind his apartment.  He just breaks through the wall, concealing his means of ingress and egress, and strolls in whenever he feels like it, helping himself to whatever strikes his fancy.  Happy as a clam with a phone extension in his kitchen, his bathroom, his hallway closet–wherever he wants an extension he’s got one.  Sometimes he puts one on the roof of his apartment building. Then forgets to bring it down, and these punk kids make prank calls on it.  Now he wants everybody he knows to have multiple phones.

He brings Dortmunder a phone for his kitchen.  Dortmunder tosses it out the window.  A man after Thoreau’s heart.   As was Donald E. Westlake, a man who went on hammering out novel after novel on a Smith Corona manual typewriter, right into the 21st century, and it got damned hard to find replacement parts after a while.

Throughout the book, Kelp keeps telling Dortmunder about all these neat new things you can do with phones now, and Dortmunder doesn’t want to hear it.  To him, the phone is just a tool, and the simpler the tool, the better it is.  He doesn’t want all these new options complicating his life.   Life is complicated enough already.  Stop gilding the lily, already.

But as it turns out, Kelp’s tech savvy saves Dortmunder’s ass in the end–he’s able to use his know-how to thwart attempts to trace calls Dortmunder makes to the cops, gives Dortmunder an alibi to save him from his angry fellow crooks (Dortmunder was helping him figure out ways to use the new phone tech), risking his own neck in the process.   He proves once again that he is the most devoted friend and ally Dortmunder could ever ask for (and never did).

And like Parker with Handy McKay (in The Outfit), Dortmunder is somewhat nonplussed by this strange altruistic behavior–he doesn’t understand that kind of loyalty (he feels that way about May, but as with Parker and Claire, that’s a separate category).  He just thinks Kelp is crazy (well…….).

Being Dortmunder, not Parker, he’s not so cold about it.  He does appreciate Kelp’s weird devotion to him, impossible as it is for him to comprehend it, or even to fully reciprocate it.  But he still thinks the new phone stuff is stupid. Honestly, most of it was, and most of it still is.  But friendship–real friendship, not the Facebook kind–that’s something the telecoms can never upgrade.   That’s an app that never gets obsolete.  As Damon had Pythias, Dortmunder has Kelp–whether he likes it or not.

2)My Mologna Has a First Name….

Here was Chief Inspector Francis Xavier Mologna (pronounced Maloney), 53 years of age, a God-fearing white male Long Island Irishman, and be damned if the person in all of life whose thought processes most closely matched his own wasn’t some damn 28-year-old smart-aleck faggot nigger called Sergeant Leon Windrift.   (Had Leon been only homosexual, he would have been bounced out of New York’s Finest long ago.  Had he been only black, he’d be a patrolman forever.  Being a faggot and a nigger, he could neither be fired nor kept in some damn precinct, which is why he’d risen so rapidly through the ranks to a sergeancy and a job at Headquarters, where Mologna had first notice him and stolen him for himself.)

“One suggestion,” the FBI man–Zachary–was saying, “has been that a second Greek Cypriot group was responsible for the second purloinment.”

Purloinment?

“The advantage of this theory is that it explains how the second group had so thoroughly infiltrated the first group as to be aware of their intended disposition of the ruby.  There are contending factions, of course, within the umbrella groupage of Greek Cypriot nationalism.”

Groupage?

“A second theory proposed here has been that agents of the Soviet Union, pursuant to the claims earlier put forward by the Russian Orthodox Church in re annexment of the Byzantine Fire, were responsible for the second theft.”

Annexment?

“In support of this theory is the fact that the USSR mission to the United Nations has already denied Russian complicity in the events of last evening. However, a third potentialism would be a transactage by a dissident factor within the Turkish populace.”

Complicacy?

Potentialism?

Transactage?

We will be seeing Inspector Mologna (pronounced Maloney, but WordPress keeps trying to make me spell it Bologna) in the next Dortmunder, and Westlake put a lot of himself into this character, more than he usually did with policemen in his work.  Mologna is a tough, smart, funny, pragmatic, capable, cunning professional lawman and back alley political infighter.  Absolutely nobody’s fool, and he runs rings around the FBI Agents in this book, figuring out right away that the theft of the ruby must have been done by a smalltime heister, who didn’t know what he had until after he had it, while the Feds spin tales of international intrigue.

He’s also a stickler for correct English usage, as was his creator–it’s fine to be idiomatic, to resort to slang, but not to just make up bizarre tortured bits of jargon and pretend they are actually in the dictionary.  Westlake had this same bee in his bonnet in Brothers Keepers, and it’s still buzzing away.

(Westlake would perhaps be conflicted in his reaction to the fact that WordPress kept telling me those words Mologna takes exception to up above don’t exist–on the one hand, it means his side won some key battles on the linguistic front; on the other, it means that there are machines telling us what to type now.  And if you don’t mind, I’m going to call Inspector Mologna Francis or the Inspector from here on in, because it’s getting tiresome having to type his last name twice, sensing my blog’s silent disapproval as I do.)

About that name–best as I can tell, no Irishman ever spelled it like that, nor does it make sense that any Irishman would, given the endless need to correct people as to its proper pronounciation.  Now all kinds of unfortunate things happened on the way through Ellis Island, but I think Westlake is having his little joke here.

And it’s a pointed one–because as smart as the Inspector clearly is, professional as he is, relatively incorruptible as he is (he won’t take bribes from anybody he doesn’t know very well–call it honest graft, as George Washington Plunkitt surely would), he’s still a cop, and Westlake always figures there’s some bologna in all of them.   Or blarney, if you prefer.   He likes the guy well enough, but he likes Dortmunder more.

Francis has the situation with the ruby well sussed out, and his plan–to squeeze the city’s criminal element until the culprit is found–is sound enough, if a mite crude.  He faces down one of the foreign factions after the gem (who figure they can scare and/or bribe him into helping them) with admirable aplomb.  He makes the FBI guys look like chumps, as already mentioned (they are such complete chumps, in fact, one much more than the other, that I’m not inclined to give them their own section here–Westlake really really did not like the FBI, and I think I covered this adequately well in the last review).

He’s even got that rather charmingly au courant relationship with the invaluable Sergeant Windrift (I’m sure Francis never refers to him by the N-word out loud, though probably the Q-word comes up here and there), who is dropping sly double entendres all over the place, and Francis just snorts humorously, and tells him to get back to work.  And yet the Inspector (who could easily have starred in his own series) has egg all over his face at the end of this book, and it’s worth asking why.

See, Dortmunder gets in touch with him, to try and arrange to give the ruby back, and Francis can’t just make a deal with him, even though it’s in everybody’s best interests to do so.  He’s a cop, and cops catch crooks.  He has no sense of honor where someone like Dortmunder is concerned.   He wants the gem and the culprit, all in one neat package.  Another feather in his cap, another flattering headline, another step up the ladder.

So he tries to trip Dortmunder up, trace the call, close the net (he’s a more sophisticated variant on the police chief from Bank Shot).  But he hadn’t reckoned on Kelp, who thwarts the trace through the use of his beloved gizmos. And this so infuriates the Inspector,  unaccustomed as he is to being cheated of his rightful prey, he screams at Dortmunder that he’ll be falling downstairs for a month once he’s caught (cop code for getting beaten up while in custody, and don’t for one minute believe that’s not still a thing)–and hangs up.  Then spends the rest of the book trying to make up for this one inexcusable blunder.

But he’s more than clever and connected enough to work his way out of the corner he’s painted himself into.  Trouble is, he’s enraged Dortmunder, who knows that he never meant to steal this damn ruby, that it’s not his fault, he was just doing what he does for a living, and it’s not fair to make him the scapegoat.

Dortmunder quietly broods on the great wrong done him, and that’s when he’s at his most dangerous.  He comes up with a plan to not only return the ruby where he found it, but to make everyone believe it was there in the safe all along, and the cops just didn’t see it.  And who gets it in the neck over that?  Three guesses (and the other two are the FBI guys).

And my problem with this otherwise brilliant denouement is that the cops have Dortmunder’s address (they come to arrest him at one point, while he’s actually got the ruby ring stuck on  his finger, but he manages to conceal it–the Inspector would have a bloody stroke if he ever found out about that).

Though he’s willing to give Dortmunder a break to save his own skin, Francis Mologna (sorry, WordPress) does not seem to be the type to forgive and forget.   He set up an alibi for Dortmunder, as part of their deal (that Dortmunder honors in his own vindictive way), but he still knows how to find Dortmunder, and Dortmunder is still a practicing thief within his jurisdiction.  So I don’t remember if the next book with the good Inspector in it explains why Dortmunder never fell down any stairs, but it’s a minor flaw in the plot.  The next section contains a somewhat more critical flaw.

3) All Dogs Go to Limbo

Marko grimaced, scrinching up his eyes and baring his upper teeth: “What kind of debased language is that?”

“I am speaking to you in your own miserable tongue.”

“Well, don’t.  It’s painful to my ears.”

“No more than to my mouth.”

Marko shifted to the language he presumed to be native to the invaders: “I know where you’re from.”

Gregor did his own teeth-baring grimace: “What was that, the sound of Venetian blinds falling off a window?”

Speaking Arabic, another of the men at the table said, “Perhaps these are dogs from a different litter.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Marko told him.  “Even we don’t understand it.”

One of the invaders repairing the door said over his shoulder, in rotten German, “There must be a language common to us all.”

This seemed reasonable, to the few who understood it, and when it had been variously translated in several other tongues, it seemed reasonable to the rest as well.  So the negotiation began with a wrangle over which language the negotiation would use, culminating in Gregor finally saying, in English, “Very well. We’ll speak in English.”

Almost everybody on both sides got upset at that.  “What,” cried Marko, “the language of the Imperialists?  Never!”  But he cried this in English.

“We all understand it,” Gregor pointed out.  “No matter how much we may hate it, English is the lingua franca of the world.”

The sections involving the foreign factions trying to regain the ruby (and kill Dortmunder) are fun to read, and make some interesting points, and ultimately they don’t go anywhere.   Westlake got lured into a fascinating tangent, and could not figure out how to sustain it–a perennial weakness of his, that he usually managed to keep under tighter control.

Basically some of these guys are terrorists (the old-fashioned nationalist kind, that Westlake’s Irish forebears knew well), some are secret police, and there’s not much difference between them, particularly since none of them are supposed to be operating on American soil, though The Powers that Be are well aware of them doing so.  FBI Agents Zachary and Freedly go to see a CIA contact, to get the full skinny.

Having bludgeoned the previous conversation to death with practiced civility, Cabot said, “Whichever of our Free World allies turns out to be responsible for this theft, if any, the fact is that just about every group we’ve mentioned, and some we haven’t discussed as yet, has become active since the theft.  So far, we know of the entrance into this country in the last twenty-four hours of a Turkish Secret Police assassination team, a Greek Army counterinsurgency guerrilla squad, members of two separate Cypriot Greek nationalist movements (who may spend all their time here gunning for one another and therefore fail to become a substantive factor from our point of view), two officers of the Bulgarian External Police, a KGB operative with deep connections to the Cypriot Turk nationalist movement, and a Lebanese Christian assassin.  There is also the rumored arrival via Montreal of two members of the Smyrna Schism, religious fanatics who broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the late seventeen hundreds and live in catacombs under Smyrna.  They are rumored to favor the beheading of heretics.  In addition, various embassies in Washington–the Turkish, Greek, Russia, Yugoslav, Lebanese, some others–have requested official briefings on the matter.  And the UN, the British have called for–”

“The British!” Surprise unsealed Zachary’s lips.  “What’ve they got to do with it?”

“The British take a proprietary interest in the entire planet,” Cabot told him. “They think of themselves as our landlords, and they have called for a United Nations fact-finding team to assist the rest of us in our investigations.  They have also volunteered to lead this fact-finding team themselves.”

“Good of them,” Zachary said.

But the main problem right now,” Cabot said, “aside from the loss of the ring itself, of course, is all these foreign gunmen running around New York, hunting the ring and one another.  This theft is enough of an international incident as it is; Washington would be very displeased if New York were turned into another Beirut, with shooting in the streets.”

“New York would be displeased, too,” Freedly said.”

Not so funny anymore, is it?

As seen above, they become so frustrated at their shared lack of success in finding the Byzantine Fire, that they join forces, agreeing only that the ruby must be found, the thief who stole it (after it had already been stolen) must be done away with in some highly unpleasant manner, and then they can go back to shooting at each other and referring to each other as ‘dogs’, which at least shows a common and lamentable cultural disregard for man’s best friend.  And Westlake greatly enjoys the irony that they can only express to each other their shared contempt for the English speaking world by speaking English.

It’s a worthwhile addition to the story, giving us another valuable glimpse into Westlake’s satiric take on politics, but whether Westlake wrote this one too fast, or  was under certain constraints from the publisher with regards to how long the book could be, their subplot basically expires without further explanation or resolution. Once the ruby is recovered, it’s back to the old drawing board for all the dogs (as they will sadly inform each other in English) and they certainly do not have Dortmunder’s name and address (or that would be the end of the series).

Before the subplot expires, though, it links up with a rather more promising one, involving Dortmunder’s own beloved colleagues in crime.

4)Dial “M” for Monster

The back room at the OJ looked like one of those paintings from the Russian Revolution–the storming of the Winter Palace–or, perhaps more appropriately, from the Revolution of the French: a Jacobin trial during the Terror.  The place had never been so crowded, smoky, so hot, so full of strife and contention.  Tiny Bulcher and three assistant judges sat together on one side of the round card table, facing the door, with several other tough guys ranged behind them, on their feet, leaning against the stacked liquor cartons.  A few more savage-looking types lurked to both sides.  A couple of chairs had been left empty near the door, facing Tiny and the rest across the green felt table.  Harsh illumination from the single hanging bare bulb with its tin reflector in the middle of the room washed out all subtlety of color, reducing the scene to the work of a genre painter with a poor palette, or perhaps a German silent film about Chicago gangsters.  Menace and pitiless self-interest glinted on the planes of every face, the slouch of every shoulder, the bend of every knee, the sharpness of every eye, the slant of every smoldering cigarette.  Everybody smoked, everybody breathed, and–because it was hot in here–everybody sweated.  Also, when there was no one being interviewed everybody talked at once, except when Tiny Bulcher wanted to make a general point, at which time he would thump the table with fist and forearm, bellow “Shadap!” and insert a sentence into the resulting silence.

It was, in short, a scene to make even the innocent pause, had there been any innocents around to glom it.  Dortmunder, of the guilty the most singularly guilty, was very lucky he had to cool his heels in the outer brightness of the bar long enough to knock back two double bourbons on the rocks before it became his and Kelp’s turn to enter that back room and face all those cold eyes.

As already mentioned, the police have been rounding up and interrogating everybody who has a record that even faintly suggests they might have robbed that jewelry store the ruby was nabbed from, or might know who did, and since these are criminals, they are often nailed for some other unrelated crime in the process, and at bare minimum are being seriously inconvenienced, and prevented from getting any work done.  They are not happy about this, they are seriously pissed at whatever boob it was took this damn ruby, and none is more pissed than that menacing mass of malignity, Tiny Bulcher.

So a small time swindler and part-time police snitch named Benjy Klopzik, trying to divert suspicion from himself, suggests to Tiny that they, the crooks, should band together and find this menace to their society, since the cops are clearly not up to it.   After due reflection, Tiny decides it’s not such a dumb idea, and a Committee of Public Safety is thereby convened at the OJ, its objective being to grill every crook in the city, using interrogative methods the real police might find–unconventional.

And of course this is a not terribly veiled reference to Fritz Lang’s classic crime film that involved Berlin mobsters trying to find a child murderer to get the heat off them, and I already linked to that movie, but wouldn’t it have been so incredibly cool if Peter Lorre could have played Benjy in the movie?  Which he couldn’t, since Lorre died in 1964, the book came out in 1983, and the (terrible) film version Westlake did some early work on that got totally wiped out by a host of Hollywood hacks (including uber-hack David Koepp, writing under a pseudonym) came out in 1990.

Tiny is in rare form here, Westlake giving him a big build-up, recognizing his long-term potential as a supporting character (that will be fully realized in the next book).  He’s still telling those blood-curdling stories about what happens to anybody who displeases him in some small way, and yet again he never actually hurts anybody–though at one point he’s planning to commit bodily mayhem against a red-headed cop who took him in for questioning–“He was impolite,” Tiny explains.  Best brush up on your Emily Post before meeting Mr. Bulcher in any professional capacity at all, and maybe Amy Vanderbilt too, just to be safe.

Kelp risks more than just his reputation by giving Dortmunder an alibi for the night of the theft, but it’s got a few holes in it, and things are looking bad, when suddenly Benjy turns out to be wired for sound–the cops forced him to put on a wire, to monitor this unusual situation they’ve become aware of.  Dortmunder and Kelp make their getaway, and by the time they see Tiny again, the finger is pointed firmly in Benjy’s direction, and Benjy has been fortuitously relocated and given a new identity by the law.

And that’s about all, except for–

5)Kiss Me, I’m Irish.  No Seriously, I Am.

(no quotes, I’m over my quote quota already)

One of the shortest of the seemingly innumerable subplots in the book centers around Tony Costello, an Irish American TV reporter, who never gets any hot scoops from the Irish cops, because they don’t know Costello is an Irish name–first name Tony, last name ends with a vowel, must be a wop.  They give the breaks to Jock MacKenzie, who is Scottish-American, but they think he’s Irish, and Jock doesn’t disabuse them of this notion.

I wish I could say I didn’t totally buy this.  The Irish are a suspicious race, and I would know.  Brendan Behan, in Borstal Boy, doesn’t believe a guy named Sullivan he meets at the boys prison camp, who says he’s of Gaelic extraction–Behan thinks to himself he never met anybody named Sullivan in Dublin–only Sullivan he ever heard of is that Yank prizefighter.  I’ve encountered the same weird phenomenon in real life.  I’ve also had people tell me–at Irish political rallies and cultural events–that I don’t look Irish at all, even though all my grandparents hailed from there.

I bet Westlake, with his dark hair and upstate accent, went through the same damn thing (though he did look Irish, more and more, as he got older).  Don’t ask me what Irish people are supposed to look like, given Ireland’s millennia-old penchant for getting invaded.  My maternal grandmother was convinced my dad was Italian when my mom brought him home for dinner the first time.  Black Irish, you see.  Tanned like a Spaniard, he was.  He was asked various tactful questions, and then welcomed into the clan he’d been born into.

So Costello gets tapped by Dortmunder as his catspaw in the final move against Mologna, whose name doesn’t look so Irish either, but it’s more of a phonetic deal, I guess.  And at the end, he’s triumphantly finding a way to sneak into his broadcast regarding the recovery of the Byzantine Fire that it now turns out was never stolen to begin with (and honestly, if there’s no intention to commit theft, can you truly say there was any crime at all?) that he himself is Irish and Jock MacKenzie is not.  So Dortmunder has brought a little sunshine to one man’s life, and he’s got May a nice digital watch with a direction manual, and I’m over 6,000 words, and maybe I’d better do the segue now.

Next book is a collection of short stories about a police detective with a good heart, but at the same time, a tragically faulty one.  Westlake’s first series character, in fact (at least in the crime genre).  He’s maybe not quite as interesting as Inspector Mologna, but at least there’s no confusion about how to pronounce his name.  Which is very definitely not Irish, though you might want to kiss him anyway.  If only to say goodbye.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder, Why Me?