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Mr. Stark and The Triptych

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When I sent Ask The Parrot, the previous Parker novel in the series, to Stephen Moore, my west coast agent, he said, “Oh, does that mean it’s going to be a trilogy?” “No, no,” I said, “This is just the next book in the series.” But his question stuck in my mind. Although Ask The Parrot had nothing to do with the book before that, Nobody Runs Forever, except that it starts one second after the previous book ends, and although Ask The Parrot does close out its own story and characters pretty satisfactorily, it was true there were some messy strings hanging out of Nobody Runs Forever and some cash up there in New England that Parker and his associates thought they had a right to. So, thanks to Stephen Moore, Dirty Money started to grow in my mind. Maybe it’s more a triptych than a trilogy, where the side panels reflect on one story and the center panel reflects on something else. At any rate, it closes out the triplet, tercet, triangle, and the job is done. And no, it won’t be a tetralogy.

Donald E. Westlake, blogging about himself.

“For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.”

Max Beckmann, referring to his 1932 triptych, Departure

It’s been about three and a half years since I reviewed The Hunter (with a Starkian brevity I can only glance back upon in wonder now–and I thought I was being so bold and undisciplined, making that review a two-parter).

And here I sit, twenty four reviews later (counting the Grofields), prepared to look at the last three Richard Stark novels we’ll ever have.

Not the best of them, by any means.  Not the worst either (that’s still Flashfire).   But having subjected the saga to such intense scrutiny over that much time, I feel entitled to say that I don’t know of a more riveting, intriguing, or satisfying multi-book journey in all of literature, nor one that closes itself out with such integrity, if not finality.  And if we’re talking about a series based around one character that proceeded over the course of a score or more novels and close to five decades–well, I can’t say I’ve encountered its equal.

The runner up for me would be the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian (I know, two characters, but I think of them as one), which I devoured back in the 90’s.  And they were still coming out at the time, so I kept reading, and came to wish I hadn’t.  After The Commodore, the story was complete, even if Bonaparte was still at large.  The Yellow Admiral was a pleasant enough coda to the dance.  Then the masts toppled.  Would I had not read a word of the remaining two and a half books.  An unpleasant surprise (still better than the movie with Russell Crowe).  O’Brian was having his troubles towards the end, but who isn’t?

Series fiction is harder than most people think.  And more important than most critics will allow.  Oh, they’ll acknowledge there are ‘serious’ writers who have dabbled in it. (Dabbled?  More than half John Updike’s novels are series fiction.)  But there is always the suspicion that by writing one book after another about the same set of well-liked creations, a writer is merely playing to the pit, repeating him or herself, to ever-diminishing effect.

And that’s usually the case, if not right away, then eventually.  Did we need most of the latter run of Sherlock Holmes stories?  Conan Doyle clearly didn’t think so.  (I sometimes think he was getting revenge on the public for rejecting his knightly romances about Sir Nigel and the Hundred Years War.)

Any idea, any character, can be exhausted through repetition for repetition’s sake.  Even Wodehouse, perhaps the ultimate master of series fiction, was flagging at the end.  As was Westlake, just a bit, in his last few Dortmunder novels, which have much of Wodehouse in them.

Stark never did.  Past his prime, perhaps.  His potency?  Not hardly.  Some people say he got a bit softer.  I say he got even starker.   This Triptych begins with Parker strangling a man with his own necktie, at a card game.  Towards the end, he strangles another man with one hand.  But that’s not really what I mean by starker.

There was always a certain romantic element to the series, from the start. Westlake said himself that Stark was a romantic. By which he meant an idealist; Parker representing that perfect Platonic form, that everything else in creation is aspiring to, and never quite attaining.  He’s real, but he’s not real.  He’s a man on the outside, but he’s the furthest possible thing from a man.  He’s a wolf on the inside, but you can’t be a true wolf without others of your kind around you, and he’s alone.  He’s evil, he’s honorable, he’s beyond category.  An insoluble mystery, which is why he belongs in this genre.

And in the earlier run of novels, written mostly for the crime paperback market, Stark indulged our desire for larger than life adventure.  Parker goes to war with organized crime.  Parker steals a forgotten art treasure.  Parker loots an entire town.  Parker sacks an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Parker steals rare coins and finds an even rarer woman into the bargain. Parker steals the payroll from a military base.  Parker steals the box office for a rock concert, and then defends it from a pair of drug-crazed longhairs.  Parker fights an army of mobsters in an amusement park, then comes back later to decimate that mob, decapitate it.

Well, there’s none of that here.  He robs a tiny rural bank and a minor upstate racetrack.  Positively mundane.

And there were the vendettas–the most impractical thing about him, therefore the most romantic.  His need to finish things with those who violated his sense of order, who transgressed against unwritten laws.  Well, there’s none of that here either.  No Mal Resnicks, no George Uhls, no treacherous gang lords (well there’s one, but if he’s plotting a cross, it’s coming later, and there was no later).

There are people he needs to kill, and he does, but it never has that personal feeling to it.  It all makes sense, from his standpoint.  He’s calmed down a lot since the first book.  I guess you could say calmer means softer.  Parker never would.  To him, a well-ordered mind is the deadliest weapon you can wield.

So while I think most of the best writing in the series had already been done years before, in spite of my undying love for the grand gory guns-a-blazing scenarios that have played out in past decades, I can still appreciate what’s being done here–how everything is scaled back, made more real, less fanciful, so that you could almost drive through Northern Massachusetts, or upstate New York, and imagine you see him, at a gas station, or a crossroads.  It’s all taking place at the northeastern tip of America.  Westlake country.  The Stark Lands.

Westlake began this process with Comeback, but there was still much of the old romance there.  There’s none by the end.  Because really, what room is there for romance in this world we live in now?  Because old men see the world differently than young men.  And Westlake was old now.  So was Stark.  But he’s aging better, because what he has to do is simpler.

Westlake was the more sophisticated writer (so there were more things that could go wrong).  The farceur, the satirist, the social commentator.  Indignant and irreverent at the same time.  Dry, whimsical, witty, compassionate, urbane.  Stark just had to be dry.  Until things got wet.

The saga had begun without any plan for it to be one.  The Hunter was supposed to be a one shot, that ended with the random death of its random anti-hero protagonist.  And just as randomly, Bucklin Moon, who I will always believe saw in Parker’s story some funhouse mirror image of his own, demanded a rewrite.  Parker would live. Parker would win.  Parker would go on being Parker.  (And Moon ended up retiring to the Florida Keys, where Parker was thinking about going at the end of the book.)

So Westlake followed up with a book that followed right on the heels of the previous one, but somehow skirted away from that storyline.  Parker is hiding behind a new face, planning an unrelated job, and it goes off pretty well, with a few complications, but the way it ends, he’s realizing he’s going to have to confront unfinished business from the earlier book.  So that’s what he does in the third book.

And whether Westlake knew it or not, that was the first Starkian Triptych.  And it just went on from there, until there were twenty-eight novels, about Parker and his thespian sideman, Grofield.  Three more than he wrote about Dortmunder, Tobin, Holt, and Joslyn, combined.  Not that numbers tell the whole story, by any means.

Westlake probably never got over this quirk of fate, that gave him his second (and more lucrative) steady contract with a publisher, got him out of having to write crap he didn’t believe in.  Now he was writing crap he did believe in–makes a difference.

Now having strong relationships with two first-rate editors, Lee Wright at Random House and Moon at Pocket, he could perfect his craft,  really figure out what this writing gig was about, while supporting his family.  Breathing space. Parker got him out of a tight spot, and he never forgot it.  He’d sell the novels to Hollywood (or Paris), but never the character.  Parker would remain Parker, and his cinematic counterparts, well or poorly executed by committee, would be something else, something less.

He had his little ambiguities about the devil he was dealing with.  Mr. Westlake had a criminal mind, but not the heart to go with it.  He wasn’t sure this was what he was supposed to be writing, and I doubt any writer worth reading is ever sure about that.  He abandoned the Stark voice, then learned it had abandoned him.  It only came back to him once he’d reached a certain age, and Parker longer represented the romantic in him, but the realist.  Which, at a certain age, means the same thing as fatalist.

And this sense of fatalism permeates the second unplanned Triptych, beginning with the title of the first panel, which had an ending so stark as to make readers who’d been there from the beginning ask if the man with the getaway face had made his last getaway.

He hadn’t, but that brings us to the second and major panel, which takes Parker out of the underworld he normally inhabits, into our world–and guess what?  It’s not that different.  He just sits there most of the time, watching us go through our paces, fine civilized people that we are.  And wonders what the fuss is all about.  Some people didn’t get it.  Thought it was too quiet, too uneventful, too rustic.  Some people never do get the point of anything. You know what Max Beckmann would say about that?

At some point, he must have realized he was unconsciously echoing the first Triptych (the word, incidentally, occurred quite independently to me, before I ever read that quote I put up top).  It was time to get back to the first story, finish it out.  But to leave some things unfinished, in case he had a little more room to run afterwards.  As matters worked out, he didn’t.  Mexico beckoned in the distance.  Oh well.  You know what they say.

Autumn is here.  Winter is coming.  I had to get that in there somehow.

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

Mr. Westlake and the Fender-Bonder

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Dear Jeff,

In LIVE AND LET DIE, I am the passenger in the red car in the stunt driving sequence on the FDR Drive in New York.  When I saw the movie, back then, I was astonished at how much that black silhouette (moi) inside that car was being thrown around.  At the time, it had just seemed like a little sideswipe, not such a much at all.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to Goldeneye producer Jeff Kleeman, in 1995.

Well, it’s taking me a bit longer than I thought to write my review of Forever And a Death, but I kind of thought it might take me longer than I thought, which sheds perhaps an unfortunate light on my  mental processes, but there you are.  Maybe tomorrow (assuming tomorrow doesn’t die).

In the nonce, I found something interesting to share with you all, that I considered just mentioning briefly in the review (in a prologue that’s already getting very long), but I think it’s worth highlighting, because it’s such an odd quirky little story, based on an unpredictable series of coincidences. A very Westlake story, when you get right down to it.

The story goes like this: long before he was ever approached to write a story for a Bond film (the story that eventually became Forever And a Death), Westlake was in a Bond film, namely Live And Let Die.  This happened in 1972, when he was at the very peak of his powers as a writer, and amazing novels bearing his various professional names were getting rolled out in the bookstores five to seven times a year.

He told Jeff Kleeman this story, when approached about writing the follow-up to Goldeneye, and Kleeman kept the letter, the relevant section of which you can see above.  You can read more in Kleeman’s (superb) afterward to the novel I’m supposed to be reviewing now.

No, he’s not in the cast, don’t bother looking on IMDb.  He was, in a sense, an unpaid extra. To even call it a cameo would be gilding the lily–it’s unclear whether the director, Guy Hamilton, had the slightest inkling who this bespectacled fellow in the back seat of a red Chevy was, or if he’d have cared.

But he was in the back seat, I’m pretty sure, though he didn’t specify–the guy at the wheel would have been a pro, the guy on the passenger side up front has very long hair, and can be pretty clearly seen–not a ‘black silhouette.’  I don’t know that there’s any technical wizardry that could produce a recognizable image of Mr. Westlake in that car.  (Hell, I didn’t even make the screen capture up top, found it on a discussion forum where they talk endlessly about cars used in movies. Obsessives can be very useful, I find.  I trust I’ve been useful at times myself.)

Last night, having borrowed the ‘James Bond Ultimate Edition 2-Disc DVD Set’ (2006) from the library I work at,  I watched the scene in question with the commentary enabled–first from the director, then Roger Moore.  (Moore wrote a book about his experiences making Live And Let Die, not evailable, paperback copies are now prohibitively expensive, and it’s not that important, is it?)

Moore wasn’t much help, though drily entertaining as always (much more fun when he’s not being Bond, you ask me), but Guy Hamilton filled in some useful details that provided a clue as to why Westlake would be in that car at all.

Hamilton enjoyed filming that scene very much, one of his favorites I think.  That section of the FDR Drive was closed off to traffic for the shoot, inconveniencing many a Sunday motorists out for a day’s pleasure, we can be sure.  Hamilton was well and truly chuffed at how eagerly the local authorities facilitated all this hugger mugger, awfully decent of them, really.  (Other local authorities were less helpful, but we’ll get to that.)

It’s the scene in which Bond, having been picked up at the airport by some unfortunate fellow named Charlie at the behest of Felix Leiter, survives an attempt on his life by one of Kananga’s henchmen, Whisper.  Poor Charlie gets a dart in his brain, which not only kills but paralyzes him, so that he’s just sitting there gripping the wheel, dead eyes staring vacantly ahead, which to be sure is a commonly seen expression on the faces of Gotham motorists.

Bond, realizing his chauffeur is now deceased, and therefore not fully competent to handle New York City traffic (though I’ve seen worse),  has to be a literal backseat driver, and can I just ask, if the goal was covert assassination, why didn’t Whisper dart him instead?  People who are not indestructible globetrotting secret agents survive horrific car crashes every day.  This is perhaps a topic best reserved for Bond-blogs, of which there is no present shortage.

You can watch the entire sequence on Youtube–the part with the red car getting jostled comes a bit over two minutes in–

So what Hamilton reveals in his DVD commentary is that they were filming this scene very near the Manhattan offices of United Artists, which provided distribution for all the Eon-produced Bond films prior to Octopussy (MGM having absorbed UA by that time).

Some studio ‘brass’ as he refers to them had wanted to come by and watch the scene being shot.  He told them they weren’t going to see anything much as distant bystanders, and they’d get a much better view from inside one of the cars being used in the scene. But he was grinning inwardly as he told them that.  He names no names, and a good bet he had a pretty vague grasp of who any of them were.

He probably just got a call from some high muckety-muck at Eon (the people actually signing his checks, remember), saying there were these dashed Yanks who’d like to take a look around, try to humor them, there’s a good chap.  No director in the history of cinema has ever taken kindly to such requests.

So he put them in the car that was going to get bumped up into the highway divider.  Not a terribly difficult or hazardous stunt (though I just bet you they didn’t have Moore in the other car doing the bumping when they filmed it).  But Hamilton figured it would seem like a fifty car pile-up to them.  As he relates, with great satisfaction, they got out of the car white as a sheet, looking as if they had momentarily concluded their last day on earth had dawned.

Westlake’s account of how scary it was differs quite a lot, and he was one of the people in the car, wasn’t he?  But then again, he was Donald E. Westlake, wasn’t he?  And he’d done a stint in the Air Force, meaning that he’d experienced far worse jostling, thousands of feet in the air, over water.  Maybe the others (there are perhaps three passengers in all, other than the stunt driver, hard to tell)  experienced it differently than he did.  Or maybe Hamilton didn’t want to admit his practical joke had been thoroughly enjoyed by its victims.  Or maybe Westlake was retroactively editing his own reaction.  We shall never know.

But that’s not really the question here.  My question was more along these lines: Westlake wasn’t any kind of studio brass.  He had no connection with this movie, in any capacity whatsoever.  Hamilton doesn’t even seem to have known who he was.  What the fuck was he doing there?

And I figured out the answer, or so I think.  Strange as it may seem, there were a few other United Artists releases in 1973, besides Live And Let Die, and one of them was this.

cops_and_robbers_7

(The more interesting movie of the two, but try telling that to the public.)

One of the few instances of Westlake writing a script based on his own (very) original story that actually got made into a decent enough movie, which he subsequently expanded into a much better novel which I’ve already reviewed.  It was released in theaters about a month before Live And Let Die.  Meaning it would almost certainly have been in production around the same time.

There’s little production info out there about Cops And Robbers, but there’s plenty about every Bond film ever lensed.  The exterior scenes featuring Bond in New York were mainly filmed in December of 1972, according to Wikipedia.  The Hot Rock, based on one of Westlake’s most successful novels, had been released in January of that year–not a hit, but still a big movie with Robert Redford as the star.  So while he was hardly a name to conjure with in Hollywood, he would have been somebody the suits were keeping tabs on, in case he could be useful in future.  And therefore, somebody who’d be taking a fair few meetings, doing the odd few lunches.

He was probably taking a meeting there that day (it was a Sunday, so fewer people around the office), maybe with one of the execs who wanted to go check out the Bond shoot nearby.  Not much of a stretch to figure somebody asked him if he wanted to come with.  Can you imagine him responding “Nah, thanks, I’m going to go get some lunch, maybe hit a museum”?  Me neither.  Mr. Westlake liked to watch professionals of any kind at work.  Research.

At a different point in his correspondence with Kleeman, Westlake tells a story that Moore corroborates on his commentary track–a black stunt driver from Pennsylvania, who didn’t know the rules of the road in New York very well, had to go off and get gas, prior to shooting the scene.  He was dressed as a pimp, in a car customized as a pimpmobile.  He made a right turn on red, on a Sunday, in the Wall Street district, with no traffic, and he got pulled over (as a banker in a Beemer probably wouldn’t have been).

He had no registration for the car, because why would he?  His wallet was in his other set of clothes.  He tried to explain to the officer he was working on a James Bond movie.  Would you have believed him?  He got bailed out very late in the day, after it was too late to reshoot the scene.  And all this tells us is that 1)Westlake really was there that day, and 2)Some things never change.

One more thing of interest (out of many) from Kleeman’s afterward–Westlake told him he had not seen all of the then-sixteen previous Bond films.  He was anything but a diehard fan of that franchise (probably not of the Diehard franchise either).  It was just a casual interest, which is all it is for most people.  Kleeman had sent him video copies of three Bond movies (I’d guess Goldeneye was one of them?), and he asked for one more.  He wanted to see Live and Let Die again, “because I’m in it.”  It was 1995, you could get that movie anywhere there was electricity.  He probably didn’t have a single Bond video in the house.   (Well, neither do I, but I work for a library.)

In the same letter to Kleeman that I quote up top, he wrote “A continuing motif, I see, is birth through water; I have no problem with that.”   Meaning he could work with that.  And he did.  But not, ultimately, in a Bond film. And the one being reborn through water would not be Bond.

Okay, fine, I’ll get back to work.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake, Donald Westlake screenplays, Uncategorized

Review: What’s So Funny?, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Criminal lawyers, yes.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolated Porn:

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

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

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

Brady reared back. “Already? No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The purloined letter,” the chipper one said.

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

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

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

So what, Brady asked, are you talking about?

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

“Crap,” Johnny announced.

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

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

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

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

Gold. Jewels. Any chess set.

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

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

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

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

But would you believe in–

The Wicked Witch of the East Side:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your memoir is fascinating, Mrs. W.”

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

“Yes, ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I remember that.”

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

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

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

“Gold Castle, you mean.”

“Exactly.”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching The Detectives:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parkeur Brothers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

“Who’s out there?”

Nobody nobody nobody.

“Is somebody out there?”

Absolutely not.

“I’m calling the cops!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What basement door?”

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

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

“What else could I do?”

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

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

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

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

“It was easier for me.”

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

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

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

“Stuff they’re gonna miss?”

“Come on, Andy.”

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

“Their extra garage door opener.”

Kelp reared back. “Their what?”

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

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

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

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

En Poe-sant:

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

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

Kelp said, “I like checkers.”

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Backflash

1024px-rhinecliff_train_station_platform

Amtrak was new but the station at Rhinecliff was old, one end of it no longer in use, rusted remains of steel walkways and stairs looming upward against the sky like the ruins of an earlier civilization, which is what they were.  At the still-working end of the platform, a long metal staircase climbed to a high enclosed structure that led above the tracks over to the old station building.  The land here was steep, coming up from the river, leveling for the tracks, then continuing sharply upward.

A dozen people got off the train with Parker, and another two or three got on.  He came down to the concrete last, the only passenger without luggage, and stood on the platform while the rest of them trudged up the stairs and the train jerked forward behind him.  In his dark windbreaker and black chinos and heavy black shoes, he looked like some sort of skilled workman, freelancing, brought in by a contractor to do one specific job.  Which he was.

Encouraged by his at last being able to write in the Stark voice again, Westlake wasted no time in writing another Parker novel, which was published just about exactly a year after Comeback.  Westlake hit upon an odd little gimmick for the first five of the Final Eight–each title was composed of one two-syllable compound word, and each one after Comeback began with the second syllable of the previous title.  He sometimes had to strain a bit to justify the title in terms of the plot, but on the plus side, you always know which book comes next.  Or–do you?

Here’s the thing–I’m finding myself increasingly convinced that in chronological terms, Backflash comes before Comeback.  No question Comeback was completed first, since Westlake started working on it in 1988.  Fact is, dating either book would be enough to give even the redoubtable D. Kingsley Hahn conniption fits.  Not because there’s no evidence of when they take place, but rather because there’s a superfluity of conflicting evidence.

Comeback would seem to be taking place in the late 80’s, right after a series of prominent televangelists got themselves into trouble with their shameless shenanigans.  That tracks with when Westlake first conceived it.  But he conceived Backflash in the mid/late 90’s, and its premise certainly tracks with that as well.

Backflash is taking place in a sort of parallel universe version of New York State, where Riverboat Casino Gambling was 1)a political inevitability and 2)involved the floating Monte Carlos actually going out on river jaunts, instead of just sitting at the dock, accumulating cash from the pockets of people with too much spare time and not enough sense.  Where’s the romance in that, pray tell?  A much less interesting challenge for Parker.

Westlake would have read articles like this 1994 op-ed, from a proponent of riverboat gambling in New York, and it would have gotten his mind moving.  But in fact, there was massive political opposition to this from the get-go, and to this day, the Empire State has no such nautical gaming houses, though gaming it has, in abundance.

Westlake lived to see Yonkers Raceway, just over the Bronx Border, turn into Empire City Casino. (I gambled there myself once, but strictly on the ponies, and I won!–all of five bucks.  How was I to know I was betting on the favorite, he just looked really good in the warm-up lap.  Okay, I suppose there probably were ways I could have checked that.)  There’s casino gambling at the Saratoga racetrack as well, the reasoning being that this way you get the tax revenue from gambling and you keep the racing industry afloat.

One reason given in the book for the eagerness to institute riverboat gambling on the Hudson is the success of Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut.  That actually started on the Pequot reservation as a bingo hall in 1986, and it’s a long complicated litigious story you can read about elsewhere, but nobody in Albany was paying that much attention until about a decade or so later, by which time Foxwoods was the east coast gambling addict’s Disneyland.  Most of New York’s casinos today are likewise on land controlled by local tribes, something Westlake would touch upon in the next Dortmunder novel.

So that should, by all logic, make a shambles of my theory that Backflash came first.  Except for several things I will now annoyingly bring up, since I never admit I’m wrong if I can possibly help it.

See, if we can say that this is a parallel timeline, where the success of a land-based casino somehow means New York had to have water-based casinos (when in fact they decided to go the same way as Connecticut, give the Indians a break for once, and the ponies too, for that matter), then we can just as easily say that Foxwoods graduated from bingo parlor to full-fledged casino in a much shorter span of time, perhaps started up at a much earlier date, and faced fewer legal challenges.  Maybe it’s actually  the early/mid 80’s when all this is happening.  But can I point to any other evidence this is the case? In fact I can, and the corpus is most delectable indeed.

This book marks the return of the poetically named Noelle Kay Braselle, the hippie chick heister from Plunder Squad (who turns out to hail from a much older and more pragmatic subcultural milieu than Haight-Ashbury).  After Noelle and her boyfriend are apprehended in that book, we see the other members of the string watching a news story about the arrests, which mentions that she’s 21 years old.  That information comes from the police, who have been checking her vital statistics.  No reason to doubt it.

But in this book, while her exact age is never disclosed, we have it from multiple POV’s that she looks just around 30, give or take.  Could be a bit older, or a bit younger, but essentially ten years have elapsed for Ms. Braselle since last we saw her in Plunder Squad, and she was arrested in June of 1971, according to D. Kingley Hahn’s persuasive arguments.

And furthermore, if this book is happening in the late 90’s, say 1997, the year before its publication, Amtrak is over a quarter century old (having been founded the same year Noelle got busted), and hardly qualifies as ‘new.’  Please note the opening line of that quote up top.  The description of the station tracks nicely with how it would have looked in the early/mid 80’s, but that decaying ironwork Stark refers to would have been removed by the late 90’s–see any sign of it in that photo I nabbed from the Wikipedia article for the Rhinecliff Station?

So what do we have here?  Intentionally mixed signals.  Westlake wants us to not quite be sure when this is all happening–time is well and truly out of joint.  He’s not writing a period piece, because he doesn’t do that, and certainly not when he’s in Stark mode.  But he’s not writing 100% in the present, because it doesn’t suit his purposes here.  He wants this to be the past and the present, simultaneously. In these Stark novels he wrote in the 90’s, time is a river that flows both ways–like the Mahicantuck,  AKA the Hudson.  These people are out of an earlier time, and they bring some of its archaisms with them–and they drag us back with them, and the story takes place in some historical nether-realm

The stories of both Comeback and Backflash were inspired by events that occurred around the time they were written.  But neither is strictly rooted in those times (or shows any evidence of the advanced communications technology increasingly prevalent in those times, which would be pretty damned relevant to the stories being told, particularly in the latter instance).

And none of this proves Backflash happened before Comeback, but I still think it did. Partly because it helps fill in that yawning vacuum between Butcher’s Moon and the new books. Partly because of the sums of money involved here, and inflation.  Partly because it has all these familiar faces from the books of the 60’s and 70’s, and sure, maybe they all came through that time warp I was theorizing about the other day, along with Parker.  And maybe they haven’t aged normally because that’s a convention of series fiction, and I’m just obsessing over minutiae, as is my wont.

But then again, maybe the reason we never see them again in the six subsequent novels (when we see the Mackeys over and over) is that they’re still back in the past–in the 80’s (or in prison, or retired, or dead).  Parker never seems to think about any of them again afterwards other than Noelle (in Firebreak).  If he had all these ultracompetent fully reliable pros to call upon, would he really be working with the guys we see him with over the remaining six novels?

Backflash to me is a transitional story, between the old and new eras of Parker–but since it was written after Comeback, and since Westlake would be almost constitutionally incapable of referring to anything he ever wrote as a prequel, it can only be one on a conjectural, damn near subtextual level.

Although, it suddenly occurs to me–Backflash?  Transpose the two syllables in that compound word, and what do you get?  In The Hunter, Parker scornfully remarks  “I hope you people have fun with your words.”  Nobody ever had more fun with them than Donald E. Westlake.  And perversely, when we miss the joke, he may sometimes enjoy it all the more.

Anyway, it’s something we can have fun arguing about in the comments section.  After I do a bit of synopsizing.  If you were betting this would be a multi-part review, you were definitely on the money.  Hands off the table, ladies and gentleman, around and around she goes….

We come in, once more, at the tail-end of a job that has gone less than smoothly for Parker.  He and a few fellow pros have just pulled a job reminiscent of the one he pulled with Mal Resnick in The Hunter.  Some rogue soldiers were selling stolen high-tech weaponry to the highest bidder, in this case terrorists.  Parker’s string wants the weapons to sell and the cash to spend.  They got all of the first, and some of the second, but they weren’t the only ones who knew about the exchange, and the cops who busted up the party are disinclined to view Parker’s little company of freebooters as a freelance counter-terrorism squad.

As Parker flees the scene with a guy named Marshall Howell, who brought him into this operation, their car goes off the road, and rolls down a hill.  Parker is mainly undamaged, but Howell is busted up pretty bad, and trapped in the car.  The pursuing lawmen opted to pursue the truck with the military hardware for now, but somebody will be checking up on them soon.  Parker has to go, and he dislikes loose ends.  Does Howell need to die?

Howell knows he’s going to jail, and he assures Parker he’d never talk to the law.  Parker is conflicted–a fellow professional has certain rights when you’re on a job with him.  All of which come second to Parker’s right to avoid capture or death himself.  Howell talks to him just the right way, joking, congenial, quietly tough.  It’s a close call, but don’t make murder the answer to everything.  He tells Howell he’ll see him in twenty years.  Howell says he’ll be rested.  Parker gets away with 140k.  His remaining partners can sell the weapons for their share.

And that really should be it for a while, since Parker doesn’t like to work too often, and that’s more than enough cash to tide him and Claire over awhile.  He gets back to the house in New Jersey, and Claire, who is happy to see him and the money.  The paper says Howell died from his injuries–Parker knows he wasn’t that badly hurt.  He wouldn’t have died unless somebody leaned on him hard to identify his associates, and obviously he didn’t talk, since the cops haven’t come knocking.  Chalk one up for honor among thieves.  And knowing she came that close to losing her man puts Claire as much in the mood as Parker always is after a job is done.  All brushes with death do for Parker is make him wax existential.

Claire pointed at the newspaper.  “That could have been you.”

“It always could,” he said.  “So far, it isn’t.  I go away, and I come back.”

She looked at him.  “Every time?”

“Except the last time,” he said.

She put her arms around him, touched her lips to the spot where the pulse beat in his throat.  “Later,” she said, “let’s have a fire.”

So afterwards, he goes to stash the money in several empty vacation homes nearby, and comes back to find that somebody claiming to be Howell left a message for him.  The area code is for Albany.  Since he’s pretty sure that’s not where people go when they die, he’s not surprised to find himself talking to someone else–someone who has information about him he doesn’t like just anyone to have.  Somebody named Cathman, who wants to meet with him–he was going to work with Howell on something, and now that Howell is permanently unavailable, he needs somebody in the same line of work.

So they need at the Amtrak station in Rhinecliff.  Parker is once again weighing the option of discretionary murder, but as we’ve seen before (The Jugger, for example), he doesn’t like to close a case that way when he doesn’t have all the information.  How much does this guy know, and what is he really after?  You don’t want to pull the trigger before you know all the potential consequences.  So he’ll talk to the guy.

His name is Hilliard Cathman.  Short, fat, balding. Spent most of his life as a consultant for the state government, now semi-retired, doing freelance consulting.  And increasingly ignored, on a subject he has very strong feelings about, namely state-sanctioned gambling.  Parker is pretty much indifferent to the social effects of gambling, generally agrees people would be better off without it, but since when do people only like what’s good for them?

“My question was, do you gamble?”

“No.”

“May I ask why not?”

What did this have to do with anything?  But Parker had learned, over the years, that when somebody wants to tell you his story, you have to let him tell it his own way.  Try to push him along, speed it up, you’ll just confuse him and slow him down.

So the question is, why not gamble?  Parker’d never thought about it, he just knew it was pointless and uninteresting.  He said, “Turn myself over to random events?  Why?  The point is to try to control events, and they’ll still get away from you anyway.  Why make things worse?  Jump out a window, see if a mattress truck goes by.  Why?  Only if the room’s on fire.”

Cathman loves this answer, though subsequent events will reveal he’s gambling with much higher stakes than any state-sanctioned casino would allow.

(Sidebar: Regarding Parker’s avowed dislike for gambling, I am tempted to bring up his frequent visits to a casino in San Juan with Claire in The Green Eagle Score, and before that with Crystal in The Handle, though to be sure the latter was strictly to case the joint, and the former just because it got Claire in that mood he likes so much.  But he is in fact playing cards for money with some fellow heisters in Nobody Runs Forever.  I suppose you could say that was just to be social.  Westlake famously loved that kind of socializing, and at least in a private game you only have to beat your fellow players.)

So the upshot is that Cathman wants to be the finger on a riverboat casino heist.  Albany has okayed a four month trial run, with one boat–formerly the Spirit of Biloxi, now the Spirit of the Hudson.  They didn’t have to change the name much.  They can easily change it back again, if things don’t work out, but Cathman is sure the boat will bring in a lot of money–enough to make it worth Parker’s while. He’s in a position to give Parker all kinds of useful information about that boat.  He says he only wants ten percent of the take.

Ten percent is about what the finger would normally get (if he gets anything), but Parker feels like that’s not nearly enough money to make a guy turn his back on everything he ever was.  He smells something rotten in the air, but he doesn’t know what it is.  As we’ve seen before, when Parker is confused like this, he is compelled to seek answers.

He doesn’t need to work now, and the easiest thing to do would be to just get rid of somebody who already knows too much about him (that he knows the phone number of the house in New Jersey is itself enough reason to kill him).  But first he needs to understand Cathman, his plan, his motives, before he can know what to do about him.  And it is a potentially good score.  He asks Claire if she’ll do some background research on Cathman, which she agrees to happily (she was worried for a moment she’d be dragged into a hit).  And there’s guys he can call, so he calls them.  Might as well get things lined up.

They’re good guys.  Mike Carlow and Dan Wycza.  They meet up with Parker in Denver.  Seems like Parker hasn’t seen either of them since they took out the Tyler mob in Butcher’s Moon  (they definitely haven’t seen each other since then).  Wycza says it’s been a long time when he meets Carlow (care to specify how long, Dan?). Mike totaled another race car, needs a stake to build a new one.  The hulking muscular Dan just wants to take a break from his pro-wrestling career, stop pretending to get beat up by bleached blondes with big hair and capes (yeah, definitely the Ric Flair era, but that doesn’t narrow things down much, does it?).  Dan himself is a blonde, but given his size, I doubt anyone ever brings that nitpick up with him.

Dan is excited at the possibility of robbing the erstwhile Spirit of Biloxi–he lost some money on that tub.  He says he automatically cased it when he was there, just a professional habit.  Security’s fairly tight, lots of guards, metal detector, bag searches.  The three of them bat around ideas on how to take it, and keep running into roadblocks. For example, how do you get the guns aboard?  How do you get the cash off?  How do you get yourself off?  Parker still doesn’t like boats much–to him, a boat is a prison cell in the middle of the water, where you can be seen for miles.

Parker finally hits on an idea that would involve Lou Sternberg, who we met in Plunder Squad.  He’s just the right type to play a surly anti-gambling state politician.  Parker and Dan can play his bodyguards.  The show is shaping up nicely (No way Grofield wouldn’t be in on this if he were available, so something definitely happened there).  Just have to round out the cast a little.  Maybe an ingenue?

And a river rat.  Parker needs somebody who knows the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie, the route the boat takes every night.  Somebody with his own boat, who isn’t too picky about the jobs he takes.  He gets pointed to an ex-con named Hanzen, in his sixties, a born loser, rueful but resigned with regards to his lot in life (too bad for him this isn’t a Dortmunder novel).

He lives in a town that suits him to a T, and as Parker looks around for him, we get a bit of Stark history.  To some extent, all of New York State is Westlake country, and under any name, he’s never on surer footing when he’s describing it to us, in all its many-splendored grandeur, if you want to call it that.

He was in Hudson today, a town along the river of the same name, another twenty miles north and upstream from Rhinecliff, where he’d met Cathman at the railroad station.  The town stretched up a long gradual slope from the river, with long parallel streets lined like stripes up the hill.  At the bottom was a slum where there used to be a port, back in the nineteenth century, when the whalers came this far up the Hudson with their catch to the plants beside the river where the whale oil and blubber and other sellable materials were carved and boiled and beaten out of the cadavers, to be shipped to the rest of America along the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes and the midwest rivers.

The whalers and the whale industry and the commercial uses of the waterways were long gone, but the town was still here.  It had become poor, and still was.  At one point, early in the twentieth century, it was for a while the whorehouse capital of the northeast, and less poor, until a killjoy state government stepped in to make it virtuous and poor again.  Now it was a drug distribution hub, out of New York City via road or railroad, and for the legitimate world it was an antiques center.

(And perhaps Westlake lived long enough to see the beginning of the next chapter, when Hudson was revitalized by an influx of gay people who discovered it while looking for antiques.  I doubt he’d have been surprised, since we’re told in Backflash that “Being poor for so long, Hudson hadn’t seen much modernization, and so, without trying, had become quaint.”  In 2005, Hudson’s more affluent new residents (of all sexualities) successfully opposed the building of a cement factory there that would have employed a lot of poor people.  Still a fairly large prison facility there, though.  And so the long historical parade of ironies continues in Hudson, except on Gay Pride Day, when there’s a much more enjoyable parade.)

Parker finds Hanzen outside a bar called the Lido, the one paragraph description of which makes me wonder yet again why the hell Westlake never won a Pulitzer (read it yourself, if I put all the good stuff in here, the review would be longer than the book and the estate would be on me like a ton of bricks).   Oh right, it’s crime fiction, I forgot. Not to be taken seriously.  Not like an 80’s novel about the Depression set in Albany (not exclusively Westlake country), mainly centered around a guilty good-natured alcoholic bum on the skids (isn’t that David Goodis country?) with a terse compound word title, that does in fact have a lot of crime and violence in it, and maybe I’ll never understand the rules of the Pulitzer game, but Westlake would be glad they gave an Irishman a break.

To me, this section of the book is more about setting the scene than the action, so let me sum the action up briefly–Hanzen takes Parker to his boat, shows him around the river, they talk in guarded terms about the job. Hanzen says he’d be happy to come pick them up after they do whatever they might be doing there which is absolutely none of his business, but he’s not doing any James Bond rescues, let’s understand that right now.  Parker says he never expects any James Bond rescues, which is kind of funny given what happened the last time he robbed a casino, but never mind.  Hanzen is revealed to be a part-time pot-farmer, growing his product in bags of peat moss cunningly concealed at the river’s edge, and only accessible by boat.  He is also revealed to have some rather disreputable associates who ride Harleys,  cultivate beards and beerguts.  They give Parker the fisheye, and Parker has to tell one of them to move his bike if he doesn’t want to get run over. He moves his bike.

I don’t know this particular stretch of the river terribly well, but I know the Hudson intimately (swimming in something certainly qualifies as intimacy), and love her immoderately, but not blindly.  Pete Seeger wasn’t kidding when he called her a dirty stream.  I walk along certain desolate sections of her with my dog sometimes, stretches of urban shoreline still waiting for the Parks Department to ‘improve’ them, and you just never know what’s going to crop up.  Jury-rigged docks nailed together out of found wood, the corpse of a ten foot sturgeon killed by a boat propeller, flotsam and jetsam from passing ships, all manner of wildlife (not all of it human), and while I personally have never found a dead body, I know people who have.  It’s not uncommon.  At all.  (Oh, and a humpback whale swam under the George Washington Bridge the other day, but I missed it.)

Claire’s research has resolved one mystery about Cathman–his roots are in New England, and a lot of his ancestors were ministers and such.  The old Puritan strain.  That’s why he’s got a bee in  his bonnet about gambling.  There are a lot of very good logical arguments he can employ against it, but Parker knows when it comes to people, emotions are what motivate, not logic.  Emotions and money, and money is winning out where the gambling issue is concerned.  Not enough people in New York with uptight clergymen in their family trees.

Cathman’s consulting business is a polite pretense at continued relevance; he’s getting very little work–just paying his loyal longtime secretary and renting his nicely appointed office with a view of the capital building probably eats up all he makes and more.  Another relic of the past, hanging on for dear life in a tenuous present (you do meet a lot of them in Richard Stark novels).

Stark knows what Cathman’s office looks like because Parker goes there, uninvited, and Cathman isn’t happy about this, but when you entice a wolf with fresh meat, don’t be surprised when he shows up at your door.  Parker wants to goad Cathman, test him, see if he can get at the truth about his motives–but he also needs some information–wants to get the name of a New York politician, not too well-known, who is short, stout, and surly.  Somebody who answers to the same general description as Lou Sternberg.  Cathman has a brief attack of conscience here–he doesn’t want anyone hurt (and yet he is instigating an armed robbery of a crowded pleasure boat).  But he coughs up the name.  Morton Kotkind, an assemblyman from Brooklyn.

Parker meets up with Wycza and Carlow again, this time at a restaurant just above Yonkers, with a nice view of the New Jersey Palisades.  He’s using the Edward Lynch name again.  We don’t find out what names Dan and Mike are using, but under any name, they’re up for a good score.  Lou Sternberg is in, that makes four.  Parker says they need a fifth–a woman.  First time in the series he’s set out to recruit a female heister, but this isn’t your usual smash and grab operation.  They need somebody to play a specific role.  She has to be pretty, appealing, but also she has to be of slight build–somebody who can do Mimi from La Boheme to perfection.  Somebody who looks frail–but isn’t.

It’s actually Mike who brings up Noelle Braselle–he worked a job once with her and her old boyfriend, Tommy Carpenter.  Parker didn’t think of her because he thought she was still working with Tommy, and that would make it a six-way split–hey, things are getting liberated here! Brenda Mackey didn’t get her own share of the take in the last book, and she worked harder than anyone.  Well, I guess that’s because she wasn’t actually there for the heist, just before and after, or maybe there’s some heister rule that married couples are a package deal, but free love is more expensive.  Maybe we don’t need to talk about whether armed robbery is an equal opportunity employer.  (The next cabinet sure won’t be.)

Mike knows something Parker doesn’t–Noelle and Tommy split up.  After they got picked up by the state troopers in Plunder Squad, Tommy got seriously spooked, gave up the racket for good, split to the Caribbean–scared straight.  This actually tracks pretty well with what we saw of Tommy in that book–Tommy mocked those two troopers they had to put on ice during the job, and one of them quietly promised him that they’d have him singing a different tune when they got him, and they did.  He had lots of nerve, but the thing about people with nerve is that they’re nervous.  Once they break, they stay broken.  He never wants to see another State Trooper again in his life.

Noelle has something better than nerve–she’s got class.  Dan isn’t sure if he knows her, and Mike says if he’d ever once met her, he’d remember.  Parker remembers her very well–the one that didn’t crack when the law got her–very sexy, very good at role-playing, very cool under pressure–she’d be perfect.  They have their ingenue.  The play is cast.  Time to get it on the road, work out the kinks (such a pity Grofield wasn’t in on this one).

The job is real to him now–he has the scent of the prey in his nostrils.  There’s definitely something screwy about Cathman, but he can deal with that when it comes (he’s already pretty much assuming he’ll have to kill the guy).  This isn’t about sizing up a potential threat anymore, and it’s clearly not just about the money, since he’s got plenty for now.  It’s about the hunt.  The one thing Parker can’t live without.  And just to prove that it’s fated to happen, this is the very moment their quarry chooses to make its entrance to the happy hunting ground.

Wycza said, “I smell my money.”

They looked at him, and he was gazing out the window, and when they turned that way the ship was just sliding into view from the left.  On the gleaming blue-gray water, among the few sailboats, against the dark gray drapery of the Palisades, it looked like any small cruise ship, white and sparkly, a big oval wedding cake, except in the wrong setting.  It should be in the Caribbean, with Tommy Carpenter, not steaming up the Hudson River beside gray stone cliffs, north out of New York City.

“I can’t read the name,” Carlow said.  “You suppose they changed it already?  Spirit of the Hudson?”

“They changed that name,” Wycza assured him, “half an hour out of Biloxi.”

Parker looked at the ship, out in the center channel.  A big shiny white empty box, going upriver to be filled with money.  For the first time, he was absolutely sure they were going to do it.  Seeing it out there, big and slow and unaware, he knew it belonged to him.  He could almost walk over to it, on the water.

Well, sure.  All it takes to walk on water is faith.  But just to be on the safe side, they’re going to need that river rat and his boat.  And of course there’s going to be a few unforeseen complications, people butting in where they aren’t wanted, amateurs screwing the pooch, and Parker will have to improvise a blue streak when his perfect plan breaks down.  I mentioned this is a Richard Stark novel, right?

Now all I have to do now is deal with the remaining three parts of the book in Part 2, but it worked okay last time.  I sort of assumed this book was longer than Comeback, but in fact I have Mysterious Press editions of both novels (paperback for Backflash), and both come to exactly 292 pages.  But this one is very different, much more detail packed into every page, because it’s set in a very real world that Westlake knows, and loves, and laments.  All at the same time. Whether that time is the early 80’s or the late 90’s.  Or both.  On the river that flows both ways, all things are possible.

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

Review: Comeback

Mackey leaped down beside him, empty hands closed into fists. “Shoot the cocksucker!  What’s the matter with you?”

“No need,” Parker said.  “And a noise could draw a crowd.”

Furious, Mackey said, “Don’t leave him alive, God damn it.”  He acted as though he wanted to pull the shotgun out of Parker’s hands, and was restraining himself with difficulty.

Liss was out of sight now.  The police had finished clearing out of here a little after ten, and the three in the trailer had gone to sleep around midnight, three hours ago, Liss on the sofa in the office, with the money and the guns.  He could have just taken the money and left, but he hadn’t wanted Parker and Mackey behind him the rest of his life.

Apparently Mackey returned the feeling.  “Parker,” he said, “that was a mistake.  We could have afforded a little noise, not to have  him around any more.”

Parker never saw any point in arguing over past events.  He said, “Can you call Brenda?”

And he’s back, just like that.  With no explanations of where he’s been, what he’s been doing all this time, how much time has actually passed.  Well, that’s typical of him.  He hasn’t changed a bit.

And some would say otherwise, that the Parker we see in the final eight novels is qualitatively different from the Parker of the first sixteen.  Softer, they say.  More human.  Well, we humans say all kinds of silly things, playing our games with words, with time.  We’re all obsessed with what used to be, and comparing it to what we have now.  But he’s not one of us, and he doesn’t care what we’re obsessed with.  All he cares about is what he can take from us.  To Parker, something that happened a few seconds ago might as well have happened in the early Cambrian.  While his present is taking place somewhere in the late Pleistocene.  And there is no future, at all, at all.

So no, I don’t think Parker got any softer in the later books.  I think he adapted to a changing environment, certainly.  I agree there are some problems with these books, overall.  Welcome though they are, fascinating though they are, deliciously entertaining though they are, I think they are not quite as good as the ones that came before them.  There are several reasons for this, but most important among them is the fact that you can stretch even the most glorious of anachronisms too far.

Parker was a glorious anachronism from the very start.  Westlake based him to a great extent on figures like John Dillinger–figures from the 1930’s.  Dillinger went down bloody in 1934, almost exactly a year after Westlake was born–maybe seven years after Parker was born, going by references to his age in the books.  For all we know, Westlake fondly imagined Dillinger was Parker’s father, the result of a one-night-stand.  I wouldn’t even want to guess who he imagined the mother was.

But my point would be that even by 1962, the year he walked over the George Washington Bridge to kill Mal Resnick and get his money back from The Outfit, Parker was a relic of a bygone era, and recognized as such by many he came into contact with.  It’s a bit like how later in life, P.G. Wodehouse would hear people saying Bertie and Jeeves were relics of the 1920’s, and he’d say no, they were really more out of the Edwardian era he’d grown up in–by the time they first appeared, they already seemed very dated and twee and out of step with the times, which was part of the joke.  Anachronisms from the very start.  Everything old is new again.

So the challenge for Richard Stark, now that he’s sprung once more full blown from the head of Donald Westlake, is how to make this particular anachronism jibe with the last few years of the 20th century, and the first few of the 21st.  And that’s an interesting problem, on so many levels–you can imagine the creative juices flowing in response to it.  Does Parker make sense anymore?  Does he have a place in this world of digital cash, instantaneous information sharing, phones you carry around in your pocket (more and more of which have cameras in them)?   How far can Parker adapt to all this?  How far does he need to?

Used to be you could walk into a government office without any ID at all, and walk out with a Social Security Card.  Parker gets a driver’s license in the first novel by filling out the form that doubles as the license itself, and then drawing the official stamp onto it with a pen.  A crude forgery–that works fine, as long as nobody looks too closely.  And so few people ever do.

Sure, people can still fake all kinds of things now, steal other people’s identities with a few mouse clicks, but that takes the kind of technical know-how someone like Parker could never master, because his mind doesn’t work like that.  He can’t follow us into the digital world, and he doesn’t want to.  But that world is going to impact him, whether he likes it or not.  He is going to need people who understand how that world works, sometimes.  Whether he likes them or not. And they better hope he does.

Or else they are going to find out in turn that the old wolf knows some really old tricks that will work in any time, any place.  Parker is strictly analog, and the analog world is still the only world that really exists, you know.  The only world that ever will exist, unless you want to get all spiritual and stuff.  That’s the world you’re born into, and it’s the world you’ll die in.  No matter how many lies you tell, no matter how many false identities you fabricate, or steal.  Nobody can ever steal Parker’s identity.  Because only he knows who and what he really is.  We can’t follow him all the way into his world, either.

So that’s the point of the Final Eight–the way they show Parker adapting to the Information Age, but of course he’s been adapting to change ever since we met him.  It’s just harder to write the stories now.  Less room to maneuver.  And there was a certain energy to the 1960’s (and the decades before it)–a mingling of old and new styles, clashes between old and new ways of thinking–you can feel it in just about any form of personal expression in that period.  Obviously we still have those clashes now, but not nearly so clear-cut.  The lines of scrimmage have gotten hopelessly confused.

Westlake can do a lot as a writer, but he can’t keep that old feeling alive once it’s gone.  Him or anybody else working in genre.  Crime fiction is not as good as it used to be.  Fiction is not as good as it used to be. Not saying that to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to rant about how everything sucks now.  Just stating a fact.  Parker hasn’t gotten softer–we have.

But having said all this, I must confess, this first book of the renewed series could almost have taken place in the 60’s, with just a few minor tweaks.  There’s very little sense of social and technological change, other than the problem that recurs throughout all the books–where can you find sufficiently large quantities of insufficiently well-guarded untraceable cash? The target in this case is a revival meeting, convened by a smooth-talking preacher with about as much religious sincerity as a used car salesman–how Elmer Gantry can you get?  Not everything changes, even when you want it to.

And this retro feeling of Comeback probably stems from the fact that Westlake seems to have conceived the book around 1988, right after he finished working on the film adaptation of The Grifters–itself a very anachronistic story, based on Jim Thompson’s experiences in the Depression, moved to the early 60’s (for the novel), then moved again (for the film) to the late 80’s.   A story about how people never change, when you get right down to it.

And there were some scandals in the late 80’s and on into the 90’s, involving famous televangelists, who often held rallies at stadiums (more in the third world than in the U.S., but they did build those mega-churches here eventually), and raised a lot of money, and then spent much of it on cool stuff for themselves, and Westlake saw where Parker might find some ready cash, come up with a working plan.  Now he just had to come up with the inevitable complications to sour that plan.

But by the time he’d finished it, almost ten years had passed.  If he’d finished it just a few years later, he’d have had to write it very differently.  Nobody has a cellphone in this book.  Not even a pager.  Much of the book takes place late at night, in a mid-sized city, a twilight world, full of shadows.  The shadows persist even in full daylight.  One thing that never changes is how long it takes me to get to the synopsis when I’m doing Stark.  Okay, here we go.  Been a while.

This book is not only a comeback, but a throwback, though not completely so.  Butcher’s Moon had abandoned the four part structure that was Stark’s trademark; where the chapter count keeps resetting, and each part has a specific job to do.  The first two parts from Parker’s POV, setting up the central complication of the plot, the conflict to be resolved–then Part 3 moves around, each chapter from a different character’s perspective–and then back to Parker for Part 4 and the wrap-up.

And the point is, to show us Parker’s very clear and focused mind, and contrast it with the frequently more muddied self-deceiving perspectives of the people he’s working with or against.  Comparative psychology.  It still bugs me so many people read these books and don’t see that.  I’ve seen the term ‘psychology free’ used to describe the Parker novels–in more than one language.  Perception free, is what I’d call those readers.  Oh, that was mean.

It’s like that here, except the Part 3 stuff happens in Part 2, and not all of those (mainly very short) chapters stay in the head of just one character, as with the earlier books.  It’s still about comparative psychology, but the lines aren’t drawn so clearly–Westlake playing around with the form again, seeing how far he could stretch it.  Not too far.  But making Part 2 the Part 3 works, since so many of the main characters aren’t in Parker’s string, and we need to meet them a bit sooner this time.

Comeback is a throwback in one other notable way–starting with The Rare Coin Score, all the way back in 1967, Westlake had stopped opening the books with the now-legendary “When such and such happened, Parker did something” motif.  That was the first one he did for Gold Medal, and I couldn’t say offhand if there was a particular reason for him not kicking off the books that way anymore.  Maybe it was his idea, maybe an editor’s suggestion, and he just kept doing it that way once the series moved to Random House.  But now he’s deliberately going back, bringing Parker into the present–and the classic opening of the early Pocket paperbacks returns with him.

When the angel  opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.  A hymn filtered discordantly through the rough walls; thousands of voices, raggedly together.  The angel said, “I’m not so sure about this…”

Parker is.  This is a heist, and it’s too late to cancel it on account of cold feet, or pinions, or whatever.  It’s a stadium heist–shades of The Seventh–it also has some marked parallels with the heist in Deadly Edge.  In both those books the heist happens early in the story, doesn’t take up much time, and it’s really all about the aftermath.  But this isn’t a sports event or a rock concert–it’s a very different blend of music and theater and rooting for the old home team–a sort of revival tent meeting writ large, anchored by a charismatic TV preacher, as had become commonplace by the 1980’s.

And what makes it a ripe target for armed robbers, as was the case with the heists in those earlier books is that it’s all cash–no credit cards.   People pay cash to get in, they can give still more once they’re inside if the spirit moves them, and since they’ll be seen giving it by a huge stadium crowd, as well as in a filmed version of the event to be shown on TV later, it most certainly will move many of them.  (Guess their bibles omitted Matthew 6:3–printer’s error?)

(This book is not an expose on the revival racket–that’s just background color– but Westlake was certainly drawing on his research for Baby Would I Lie? here, among other things.  Evangelical preachers have a lot in common with hillbilly balladeers–you know who Jimmy Swaggart is related to, right?  And he’s still reminding his more cosmopolitan readers that there’s an America out there in the hinterlands they might want to pay a bit more attention to.)

The angel’s name is Tom Carmody, his wings are part of a costume, and the way this all came about, we’re told via flashback, is that he works for the ministry of Rev. William Archibald, and he was a true believer in the good Reverend , until he got close enough to the top of the organization to know Archibald was a thieving whoring sumbitch who just happened to have a talent for projecting fake sincerity, and turned it towards preaching the gospel (yes, retrospectively, we may say he set his sights too low).  Elmer Gantry with a TV show.  Parker seems familiar with the type, since he says he thought they were all in jail by now.

One of the things the Archibald ministry does is work with released convicts, and this is how Tom met George Liss, a different flavor of sumbitch, the kind Parker sometimes works with, though never preferentially.  Tom knew what George did for a living, and he started pitching the idea of stealing the proceeds from one of his stadium events, and then Tom could use his share to do real good, instead of just watching Archibald spend it on fancy limos, plush hotel rooms, and big-breasted women.

So Tom is the finger on the job, their man on the inside, and like most amateurs who get into the heavy, he’s a problem.  But not nearly as big a problem as George Liss, and Parker has a bad feeling about this guy, who he’s never worked with before, though they’ve known each other slightly for some time.  He’s skeptical about a stadium heist, says it’ll be just a lot of credit card receipts.

“Not this one,” Liss said, and the left side of his face smiled more broadly.  A sharpened spoon handle had laid open the right side, in a prison in Wyoming, eleven years ago.  A plastic surgeon had made the scars disappear, but nothing could make that side of his face move again, ever.  Around civilians, Liss usually tried to keep himself turned partially away, showing only the profile that worked, but among fellow mechanics he didn’t worry about it.  With the slight slurring that made his words always sound just a little odd, he said “This one is all cash.  Paid at the door.”

For reasons that probably have a lot to do with the IRS, the people who come to these stadium events Archibald holds each have to donate twenty bucks in cash at the door–a ‘love offering’–and they are encouraged, as already mentioned, to give more once they’re inside.  The gate, Brenda Mackey observes, almost sensuously, will be around 400k.  But with the additional love offerings, it could be close to a million (as matters arrange themselves, all they get is the gate–still a nice haul).

The Mackeys, Ed and Brenda, are back in this one, and if all you’d read of this series is the Final Eight, you’d think they played a much bigger role in the First Sixteen.  Ed Mackey, of course, had been seemingly killed at the end of Deadly Edge, and the return of him and Brenda in Butcher’s Moon was never explained in that book.  And here we are, twenty-three years later, and it’s still not explained.  Going to have to wait another five years for that explanation, though if you’re paying attention, you can figure it out from what happens in this book.

With the exception of the book after this one, we really don’t see any of Parker’s more trusted confederates from the First Sixteen in the Final Eight, and the most important ones don’t appear at all.  No Handy McKay, no Alan Grofield, no Stan Devers.  Maybe dead, maybe retired, maybe imprisoned, maybe they missed the time warp and are still back in the early 70’s, but whatever the reason, they did not make the cut.  In other words, Westlake has decided to weed out the fellow heisters Parker had the closest thing to an actual friendship with.  Well, the closest thing to a more than purely professional relationship, put it that way.

So to me, this indicates we’re actually seeing a colder, less accessible, less human Parker in these new books, not a ‘softer’ one.  A Parker who cares about himself, and Claire (rarely seen until the very end), and that’s it.  He sticks his neck out for no one.  We can talk more about this when reviewing upcoming books, but some of Stark’s romanticism has worn a bit thin around the edges since we last saw him.  The novel after this has a bit of an old home week feeling, but after that, when some pro from Parker’s past shows up, it’s generally bad news for whoever that is.  Should have stayed back in the past.  No room at all for sentiment anymore in the Stark Lands, not that there was much to start with.

George Liss is to some extent a reworking of characters like George Uhl–half a pro; dangerous, effective, but always looking for a chance to take it all for himself and kill his partners so they don’t come looking for him afterwards.  A mad wolf. His physical description is quite similar to Uhl’s, (Uhl–Tall and very thin, with receding black hair”  Liss–“a tall, narrow, black-haired man with a long chin”).

I am now realizing that he also closely resembles Parker’s most trusted–and dangerous–associate of all.  “He was long and thin and made of gristle, and his stiff dark hair was gray over the ears.”  Handy McKay.  With half his face frozen.  And no loyalty, to anyone.  And all three men sound rather similar to Westlake himself as a younger man. And to John Dortmunder, of course.  I don’t know what any of this means either.  Back to the synopsis.

In spite of Tom’s jitters, in spite of him having told his girlfriend about the heist, in spite of them only getting about half of what they were hoping, the job is a success.  Almost 400k, split three ways.  Using the old trick of laying low close to the scene of the crime, all three men are holed up in a construction trailer they placed right outside the stadium some weeks before, padlocked and seemingly abandoned.  They just have to wait for the cops to finish checking to see if any of the attendants have the cash, and leave–then stow the cash at a pre-arranged spot, and wait for the roadblocks to be lifted.  It’s that simple, but Parker has learned from hard experience to assume it will never be that simple.

Parker wakes up to find Liss pointing a shotgun at him–which fails to go off. Because Parker unloaded the shotguns when nobody was looking.  Liss makes a run for it, without the cash.  Parker has reloaded the shotgun, is watching him run through the empty parking lot, has a clear shot at his retreating form–and he doesn’t take it.

Ed is disgusted with him.  Parker’s rationale–that gunfire might attract attention, bring the cops back, when they don’t have a car available to them–is that really a sufficient rationale for letting George scarper, when clearly he’s going to go on thinking of that money as his, and will regroup to come after it again?  They’ll have to get rid of the shotguns (too hard to conceal), and they have no other weapons.

We’ve seen this kind of identity puzzle before in these books.  Parker doesn’t always kill when you’d expect him to.  But this is a particularly egregious act of ‘mercy.’  George Liss was working with Parker.  He tried to kill Parker and take Parker’s share of the loot.  That’s a clear and unambiguous death sentence in the world of Richard Stark.  Stark will look into Parker’s mind, just a short time later, and see Parker thinking that he needs to see George Liss dead.  Liss knows very well that Parker will be on his trail the rest of his life, if he doesn’t get Parker first.

So why not take a shot at Liss when he’s unarmed and fleeing?  Granted, a shotgun isn’t the best distance weapon, but even a non-fatal hit would stop him long enough to finish the job.  Liss himself can’t understand why Parker doesn’t shoot–we’re left in no doubt he’d have pulled the trigger with no hesitation, if he were in Parker’s position.  So would Ed Mackey.  So would most guys in their profession.  Shoot first, ask questions later.

So apart from the undeniable fact that the story hangs on George Liss escaping the consequences of his betrayal for the time being–why didn’t Parker pull that trigger?  Because in that moment, the trigger inside his head was only half-pulled.  It was all too sudden.  He hadn’t processed it yet.  Parker only kills when he has to.  Liss is no longer an immediate threat.  Gunfire might attract attention.  Parker’s killing instinct hasn’t been engaged.  If Liss came back a short time later, saying it was all just a big misunderstanding, Parker would cut him down without hesitation.

But this momentary hesitation, mere seconds after George’s failed doublecross, is perfectly in character for him.  He needs to consider what happened, and why, before he takes on another deadly vendetta.  The trigger in his head has to be completely pulled.  Several times we’ve seen him shoot at a fleeing enemy, but these were guys he’d already decided needed to die, whether they ran or not.  It’s not mercy. It’s just how his mind works.

It won’t take him long at all to come to the same conclusion about George Liss, but we can sympathize with Mackey’s frustration–sometimes Parker’s weird instincts can be a liability.  Sometimes it’s better to act quickly–and sometimes it isn’t.  Parker’s strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.  So are Mackey’s–he would never have thought to unload the shotguns.   And Liss never thought to check the gun before he fired it.  Over the long run, it’s better to think before you shoot.

But whether Parker was right or not, they still have to proceed with the plan–when Brenda shows up with their ride, they take their leave–blowing the trailer (and the shotguns) to bits as they go, to remove any forensic evidence that might trace back to them.  The police are drawn to that noise, for sure, but too late.

One final complication–three guys came up to the trailer while they waited, checking it out, then leaving.  They don’t look like law.  Parker thinks to himself they’re dogs who have lost the scent.  As we learn later on, they never really had it to start with.

So they have the cash, they have a car, but they also have a problem–the entire town is in lock-down mode.  Most honest people are in bed.  All the outgoing roads will be watched.  They can’t go back to their motel, because Liss might be there waiting for them.  They can’t check into a new motel in the middle of the night without looking suspicious.  Parker says they need an all-night gas station. Tank is full.  Brenda’s possibly the best getaway driver Parker’s ever worked with, and that’s saying something.

Ed is puzzled.  Brenda figures it out immediately.  Earlier in the book, we hear Parker thinking that he knows why Ed always brings his woman on jobs with him, something Parker never does.  Brenda is the brains of that two-person outfit.  And the single best thing about this book, which I’ll be talking more about next time.

But in the meantime, in-between time, they find that all night gas station (Brenda the Brain spotted it earlier, made a mental note).  It’s by the interstate, so Ed and Parker get out of the car and scope things out–the exits have squad cars parked by them, waiting, but the cops can’t see the station from where they are.  Just before that, Parker thought he saw something, far behind them, in the rear-view mirror, but he wasn’t sure.  Too dark.

Brenda goes in alone, playing the helpless girl with car trouble, and then Parker and Mackey come in, and all of a sudden the kid manning the station realizes they’re taking it over for the night–he’s locked up in a windowless room, with a magazine–and no bathroom.  (Better off than that kid in The Score, a book that resembles this one in many respects–except this kid hadn’t just left his girlfriend’s warm bed, and he’s going to end up with more than just a bad head cold).

The station wagon with the money they park on the hydraulic lift in the garage. Camoflauged.  The station is shut down–with any luck, nobody will wonder why until they’re gone.  In the morning, they can seek alternate lodgings, alternate transportation, wait for the right moment to shake the dust of this town from their feet.  Parker is going to need to find George Liss at some point, but the getaway is still at the top of the agenda.

Ed and Brenda sleep in the car, while Parker naps a little on a chair in the office.   He wakes up right around dawn–there’s a police car outside.  Just one cop. Uniform doesn’t fit him right.  It’s Liss.  He sees Parker.  He unbuckles his gun holster.  Parker is unarmed, unless you count a wrench.  End of Part One.

And end of this Part One as well.  Short book, I can do the rest next time. Actually, the first edition is almost 300 pages, but the print is large, and the pages small–Mysterious Press decided to try to invoke the dimensions of the old paperback originals here, except you’d still need a pretty big pocket to fit this book in.

The cover art for the Final Eight is mainly nowhere near the standard of the First Sixteen, though some of the foreign editions were pretty good, and there is one outstanding exception with regards to the first U.S. editions.  I’ve always been a bit iffy about the concept of Parker as an angel with a shotgun–carried over from the first US edition to the University of Chicago reprint (except now he’s got an assault rifle, which makes no sense at all).  Carmody’s the one with the wings–first fake ones, then the metaphorical kind–or metaphysical.

I like the UK edition with the stadium.  Brief and to the point.  Like Richard Stark.  And so very unlike your average long-winded skirt-chasing televangelist. Well. Glass houses. We all have ’em.  And we’ll be seeing a fair few of them.  Next time.  Bring stones.

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

Review: Baby, Would I Lie?

 

 

Branson-MO-strip

It’s too blatant to be a put on, Sara thought.  With that voice, that honky tonk music thudding along in the background, it’s supposed to be taken seriously. Do the fans take it seriously?  What do they think it’s about?  Is this irony, or is it real?  Does Ray Jones know?

I know you’ve heard I did some time in Yuma jail,
And when I left, some girl got stuck to pay my bail;
But with you, babe, I know I’m never gonna fail.
Baby,
Baby,
Baby, would I lie?

“My God,” Sara said, and the sign by the road said Branson in seven miles.

This is the second and final Sara Joslyn novel, marking the end of Westlake’s shortest and last known attempt to create a series character, although I have some doubts as to whether he was actually trying to do that here.  Trust Me On This had been one of his most successful novels of the 1980’s, critically acclaimed, strong sales, lots of foreign editions, audiobook.    That had come out around six years before this one,  and the two standalone novels he’d done since had certainly been much less successful and acclaimed, and good luck trying to make a series out of either of them.

If he’d originally intended for that 1987 novel about a sleazy supermarket tabloid to form the foundation of a franchise, he’d have probably have gotten around to the next one a lot sooner.  And he wouldn’t have rescued the two main protagonists of that book, Sara and her sardonic swain, Jack Ingersoll, from the clutches of The Weekly Galaxy, basically resolving all their major character conflicts, and giving them a happy (if morally equivocal) ending.

So my own feeling is that Westlake needed a solid win that didn’t involve Dortmunder, and had, furthermore, an idea in his head for a story from a branch of the mystery genre that he’d never really done before.   But certainly one he was well familiar with.  Aren’t we all?  I’m speaking of what is sometimes called the Courtroom Drama, though Wikipedia prefers a different term.  Perry Mason country.  Much of the ethos of that mystery-solving, evidence-tampering, dubiously ethical defense attorney pervades this book.

Your typical Westlake protagonist is rarely if ever seen in court–it’s not a milieu he’s likely to feel at ease in.  Westlake never had a lawyer as the hero in one of his books, let alone a judge, though highly capable and professional attorneys often appeared as supporting characters.  There’s two of them in this book, in fact.  But it’s not a book about lawyers.   It’s a book about reporters (same ones we met in the last book), and it’s also a book about a famous country-western singer, and there sure as hell had never been a Westlake protagonist of that profession before, nor would there ever be again.

Back at the start of the decade, Westlake had written the book for a stage musical, Murder at the Vanities, which was never produced.  He had not written the song lyrics, but one might theorize the experience got him curious about what it would be like to try.  In a novel, he wouldn’t be expected to come up with the accompanying tunes, and he could use the lyrics to convey things about the character who had written them, as well as the regional subculture the songs had been written to appeal to.  One of his primary influences, P.G. Wodehouse, had in fact written the lyrics for a whole lot of popular songs.

Wodehouse had also sometimes written stories with spirited and intrepid female protagonists–a habit he probably picked up from his work for the stage.  The Adventures of Sally is one of his efforts in that vein, it was quite popular at the time, and is not today remembered as one of his classics (which to be fair, would be true of most of his prose efforts from that period).

I made a good faith attempt to read it before giving up, and my impression was that Wodehouse likes his spunky heroine too much to make fun of her, which is deadly to comedy.  That he could write devastatingly funny female supporting characters of all ages and backgrounds is attested to by many subsequent novels and stories.  He’s pulling his farcical punches with Sally.   He’s made her too perfect.  Yes, this is foreshadowing.

At some point, for unknown reasons, Westlake got interested in the country music scene just then starting to blossom in Branson, Missouri.  (That he spent some time there scoping out the scene is attested to by the dedication to some friends resident in Branson, whose social lives he does not wish to ruin by naming them in print).

Branson’s not so much a poor man’s Nashville as a southern-fried Vegas, only without the casinos (they have them now in abundance, I believe).  By the early 90’s, many established talents (primarily but by no means entirely country-western singers) who were getting a bit long in the tooth, and tired of the road, were setting up shop there, opening theaters and doing daily shows.  Instead of them going to the fans, the fans could come to them, which they did, in vast teeming multitudes.  And still do.

Westlake had spent a lot of time over the past two decades analyzing the strange foreign cultures of other lands–but as a New Yorker, of course, there could be no culture more foreign to him than that of rural southern America.  These people, as he saw it, were being roundly ignored by the urban opinion makers, and yet here they were anyway, paying taxes and voting in national elections and everything.  And what movie stars are to most of us, country stars were (and are) to them. Sacred Monsters.

Yeah, he’s revisiting a lot of the ideas from that savagely cynical satire here.  But you ask me, this is the most cynical book he ever wrote by a considerable margin.  It’s a glass of sweet tea with an acid chaser.   You may never quite get the taste of Bac-O Bits out of your mouth after reading it.

A famous country singer suspected of murder is nothing new–Columbo had done that years before, with none other than The Man in Black himself (who happily never had to stoop to playing daily matinees in Branson, though he’s probably been impersonated there as often as Elvis) as a rather less sophisticated foil for Peter Falk than was the norm on that show.

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But of course, as with any Columbo, that story begins by showing us not only who did it, but how and why and everything.  Westlake is playing a variation on the usual mystery game here.  It’s not a whodunnit, or even a howdunnit.  It’s a whodint.   And having said that, maybe it’s time the opening act winds down, and the headliner gets on stage, before the audience starts tearing up the seats.

Having kicked off the proceedings with a selection from Sonnet 110, and William Watson’s tersely titled To, we rejoin the beauteous Sara, working a solo gig now, driving into Branson from the airport in a rented car, there to cover the Ray Jones murder trial for Trend (The Magazine For The Way We Live Right Now, in case you’d forgotten).  She’s listening to one of his songs on the radio, and elsewhere so is Ray Jones himself, but he tells somebody to turn it off, because he’s heard it already.

The murder victim was Belle Hardwick, an employee at Ray Jones’ Country Theater, who was found beaten and raped and strangled and drowned in a nearby lake, with various circumstantial evidence tying the murder to her employer.  Ray Jones being a celebrity, what would normally be a minor local trial has blossomed into a major national story.

(Do I need to mention that this entire book was written and handed in to the publisher before Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found murdered in June of the year it saw print?  I suppose I just did, and this is a very different story in a very different setting, but there’s one moment where Ray actually says “If I did it,” and of course the ghostwritten book of that title was well over a decade away, so–spooky).

Chapter 2 is all Ray (as are many others, he’s at least as much the protagonist here as Sara), and he’s remarkably calm under the circumstances, still doing shows at his theater, talking to his first-rate criminal attorney (increasingly vexed and perplexed by his client’s behavior), musing over the irony that basically everybody in his life is saying that he should keep his songs playing on the radio during the trial, but all for entirely different reasons.

The reason that particularly irks him is that presented by Leon “The Prick” Caccatorro (Ray’s nickname for him, and highly evocative it is), an IRS agent tasked with squeezing every last possible dime of revenue out of Ray, who made some ill-advised financial decisions some time back, and has been paying through the nose for it ever since.  Leon wants Ray’s songs to stay on the radio during the trial so Uncle Sam can keep siphoning away at Ray’s royalty checks.

(Sidebar: Just how bad were Westlake’s own problems with the dreaded Taxman?  Years before, he’d dedicated an entire novel to ‘the guys and gals at the IRS,’ hinting that he’d written it just to pay a tax penalty, but was the matter that simply resolved?  Let’s just say that there’s a level of empathy here with the sadly necessary duties of your average ‘revenooer’ that in Mr. Westlake’s body of work as a whole is normally reserved for brutal corrupt policemen, unethical psychiatrists, and the very very wealthy).

One charge aimed at this novel by some critics (overall, the book got great reviews, but the NY Times sneered once more at the efforts of Gotham’s native son to do anything other than funny heist books set in New York) is that it becomes clear, very early on, that Ray probably did not kill Belle Hardwick (or this other associate of his who turns up dead just before the trial begins, whose demise the authorities want to pin on Ray as well, just for lagniappe).

As was usually the case with a Westlake mystery, the identity of The Real Killer is not remotely the point.  The real mystery is why Ray seems to want people to think maybe he did murder Belle, why he’s repeatedly sabotaging his own cripplingly expensive and beautifully orchestrated defense, to the disgust and dismay of two savvy superior shysters busting their legal asses to save his, and if you’re paying close attention, the answer isn’t that hard to figure out.  But that’s not really the point of of the exercise.

The point is figuring out who Ray Jones really is, what’s going on under that folksy facade he’s created to fool the world, and Sara Joslyn (who already figured out who she was in the last book, and we learn nothing new about her in this one) is there merely as our entry point to that identity puzzle, along with the hillbilly Wonderland that is Branson; Alice through the looking glass, and Ray’s the Cheshire Cat, grinning to himself, and fading out of sight every time you take a close look.

So I liked this book better the second time through, probably because I wasn’t saddled with a lot of false expectations of what it would be about, but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to do a real synopsis.  There’s not a whole lot of story here.  It’s all about sly trenchant observations of the passing scene, and a handful of quirky complex characters, and I don’t need to synopsize much to talk about that.  I don’t need a Part 2, either.

Anyway, I could only find two covers worth highlighting–first time I ever didn’t have the first edition cover up top in a review, because it’s pretty lame–the audiobook used the first edition artist’s complete drawing, while the Mysterious Press cover weirdly focuses in on the guitar in that drawing, which isn’t germane to anything, since the only time Ray ever tells the truth is when he’s playing that guitar.  The Rivages/Noir edition predictably went with Cherchez La Femme, not that I’m complaining. The mere fact there was an audiobook makes me think this probably sold pretty well (though probably less than Trust Me On This).  But what’s actually on sale here?

The main story, at least on the surface of things, is Sara Joslyn managing to embed herself into the Ray Jones defense, sitting in on his trial, going to see his show, intrigued by his talent and the redneck subculture that spawned it–and it’s clear from the outset that she’s been given a ringside seat (it’s actually The Elvis Seat, explanation further down) to observe the goings-on, because Ray wants her there.  He believes he can make use of her, and it’s not entirely clear how, but he’s got a plan, and he’s sticking to it, come hell or high water.

She’s so enraptured by this cultural experience that she sends a somewhat starry-eyed preliminary story back to New York, which arouses the concern of her editor/lover, who heads down to Branson to make sure she hasn’t gone totally native (and to give her a fond hello in the process).  She’s fine with him being after her body, but he better not be telling her how to do her job.  She hasn’t forgotten who she is, and she believes she’s found a great angle for the story, as indeed she has.

Jack’s got his own agenda, which is to do that dreaded Galaxy-type expose on the Galaxy itself–his own personal Moby Dick.  He’s never forgiven that pernicious publication for making a whore out of him all those years, and the fact that Bruno (‘Massa’) DeMassi is no longer among the living (we’re told his loyal staff laughed itself to tears for hours after the news broke) makes no never mind to him.

And of course, Generoso Pope Jr., Massa’s prototype, founder of the National Enquirer and Weekly World News, had expired in 1988, so this is art imitating death.  “Massa in de cold cold ground,” their old friend and colleague Binx Radwell observes solemnly.  But the Weekly Galaxy is very much alive, now controlled by what seems to be an even more diabolical consortium of financial interests (strike off one head, and many grow in its place), so Jack can only say “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale.” Words to that effect.

So there’s Sara doing her story, Jack doing his, and in the odd moments in-between, they talk a little about their relationship, but there’s really not much of a story there at all.   Sara wants Jack to tell her what’s wrong with her, that she’s with a guy who is clearly never going to recover from the emotional traumas he underwent before she ever met him, to which Jack responds “After a close look at the X rays and the test results, I’m afraid I have to tell you the reason you’re staying with me is because you love me. Sorry.”  Sara says she was afraid it was something like that, and that’s really all there is to the Jack/Sara thing in this book, because that story got told in its entirety in the last book.  And this is why a sequel to His Gal Friday would have been a really bad idea, folks.

A much more interesting story is told about Jack’s perennially jealous friend, and Sara’s hopelessly lustful admirer, Binx Radwell, who was rather a pitiable figure in the last book, and begins as one here, but he doesn’t end that way.  One of the most interesting identity puzzles in the book is Mr. Binx, who decides he’s had enough of being a henpecked husband to his spiteful spouse Marcy, and consequently a fearful wage slave of the Galaxy, burning through each huge paycheck as soon as he cashes it, and knowing each paycheck could be the last.

His identity crisis comes to a head when he makes a desperate and doomed attempt to seduce Sara while they’re having dinner, and the seduction turns into a confessional (as they so often do), and this is the single best passage in the book, by far.  Painfully funny, painfully true.  And really, who but a man who had to get married three times to get it right could have written this?  Well, maybe a woman who went through the same damn thing from the other side, but only a man would write it quite this way.

“The thing is, we were too young when we got married, we didn’t know our own minds, we didn’t know who we were.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I think it’s just as tough on her as it is on me, and she’s stuck just the same way I am. And now with the kids, you know, and that drives us even further apart.  We were just kids ourselves, somebody should have told us, ‘Don’t do it!  Find out who you are first, don’t tie yourself down before you even tested those wings.” I’m not blaming Marcie, I know it’s hell on her, too, and she’s got the kids more than I do.  We came together and we thought it was love, you know, love for the ages, but what did we know?  It was just sex, that’s all.  We were just kids, and sex was like a new lollipop, you know, in those days we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and then the kids started coming.  I’m not blaming Marcie, we made all the decisions together, but we were wrong. What did we know? Nothing.  We were in college, and her folks were all over her to marry me, and my folks were just as bad.  I’m not blaming them, it was our own decision, but we weren’t ready to make a decision, neither of us.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I’m as responsible as she is.  More.  It was up to me to be the mature one, and I just wasn’t.   And then the Galaxy job came along, and the money looked so good, and we just spent it, we just bought stuff, and everything you buy it winds up you still owe on it, we’ve got all these mortgages, and paying off the cars, paying off the furniture, paying off the swimming pool, paying off all this stuff.  I’m not blaming Marcie, I wanted that stuff as much as she did, or almost as much.  But it means we’re stuck again, all over again.  The kids, and all the debts, and when I was fired for a while we really fell behind, taking out loans and I don’t know when we’re gonna get caught up.  I’m not blaming Marcie, it’s the whole lifestyle, you get it, you spend it, you know how it is at the Galaxy, the money isn’t real, so you spend it as soon as it comes in, and then you’re behind the eight ball, and you don’t know what the hell you’re gonna do.  You’re stuck, that’s all.  You and Jack were right to get out, you really were, but I’m stuck in it.  I got Marcie, and the kids, and the house, and the cars, and the pool, and all this stuff, but I can’t make a move.  I wanted life, you know?  And I got the Sargasso Sea.  I’m not blaming Marcie, but if only I could get away from her at some point, find somebody that understands me, has confidence in me, faith in me, I know I could turn my life around, get out from under all this shit.  And I have to tell you, I’m not blaming Marcie, but she’s no help at all, she doesn’t try to save any money, give me any encouragement, act like she’s gonna stand by me, you should have heard her when I was fired for a while, no support, nothing. And sex. On a good day our sex is down to something that looks like an illustration in a plumbing manual, but when I was fired for a while it was hopeless, she had Krazy Glue in there, I swear I couldn’t–”

“Maybe,” Sara interjected, “you shouldn’t tell me about your sex life.”

But he does anyway.  And of course he does not get Sara into bed, but on the plus side, he doesn’t have to spring for a therapist, and I assume they can both charge dinner to their expense accounts.

A bit earlier in the book, he and Jack have a talk, and Binx both admires and resents Jack, and Jack both pities and despises Binx, and one is reminded of what Parker said in The Rare Coin Score–“You know how you make pity?   One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt.”   But Binx is no Billy Lebatard–he’s got a score of his own in the works, and when Jack tells him he has to accept that Marcie is his wife, and the Galaxy is his job, and then he’ll be happy, Binx responds, with quiet desperation, “no, I won’t, Jack.  No.  I won’t.”

He can’t be happy with this identity, so he’s going to find a new one.  No matter what it takes.  No matter who it hurts.  Much as he’s not a great artist, or any kind of artist, he can understand as well as anyone that Somerset Maugham’s Charles Strickland meant precisely what he said–“When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”

So using a vast dossier he’s compiled of the ‘journalistic’ misdeeds of many a Galaxy employee (Jack included) Binx sort of half bribes/half blackmails Jack into getting him a job doing a story on the new Post-Soviet Eastern Europe for Trend.  He doesn’t want a lot of money (he knows now what a trap that can be), and he’s got the journalistic creds (which in themselves were never enough for him to get a job anywhere but the Galaxy, after he’d worked at the Galaxy).   He’ll leverage his credentials to get a job there with some other media outfit, and he’ll find his own Sara to ‘mentor’ (maybe Czech, maybe Polish, Hungarian girls are lovely), and when Jack asks him what about Marcie and the kids, he says “Who?”

And angry as he is about the blackmail, Jack is still perversely proud of him, and probably Sara is as well.  You see what I mean about this being a really cynical book.   And you could argue that Binx is more the hero of this book than either Jack or Sara.  But still not as much as Ray Jones.

Ray was born dirt poor in a little town in Georgia, by the name of Troutman (I checked–it really exists, not too far from a town called Benevolence–sometimes I think people give Faulkner too much credit; he didn’t have to stretch things all that much, writing about the south).  He gives a sort of humble/proud version of his upbringing to the press, but he’s under no delusions in the privacy of his calculating mind–he was the runt of a very large litter, and nobody gave two shits about him.  But he made a loyal (if rather dull-witted) friend there, Cal Denny, who he’s kept around ever since, and who will do pretty much anything Ray asks of him.  A more pliable less calculating version of Buddy Pal from Sacred Monster.   But Ray Jones’s best friend has always been Ray Jones.

Born hungry, Ray was hungry his entire life,  but he’d never let the hunger show.  He was hungry for food, for love, for success, for ease, for safety, for money, for women.  He was born hungry for everything.  Fortunately, he’d also been born smart.

Indirection.  Guile. Use your brains.  Use the other guy’s strength.  Get what you want without anybody noticing you wanted it, or they’ll take it away from you.

And he was also born with a lot of genuine musical talent, which he developed with damned little help from anyone in his formative years, because he knew he needed something to make people pay attention to him.  If he’d been born somewhere else, into a different subculture, maybe he’d have become a writer of crime fiction.

Westlake the jazz buff is anything but unappreciative of country-western music, and the people who make their living playing it.  He makes it very clear how much he admires them, and that fascination with their world, and their professionalism, enlivens this book.  But he rather thinks many of its fans are not fully aware of just how good these troubled troubadours of theirs really are–because for them it’s less about the music these people make than it is about living through them.

Country-music fans don’t envy or begrudge the material success of the performers, and that’s because they don’t see country stars as being brilliant or innovative or otherwise exceptional people (which they are), but firmly believe the Willie Nelsons and Roy Clarks are shitkickers just like themselves, who happened to hit it lucky, and more power to them.  It means anybody could hit it lucky, including their own poor sorry selves, so these people, most of whom could lean down and rest their Coke cans on the poverty line, took vicarious pleasure in the overt manifestations of their heroes’ lush rewards.

If you get nothing else out of this book, you get a sense of how good a lyricist Donald Westlake might have been if he’d gone down a different road.  Though for the life of me, I can’t imagine him in a cowboy hat.  He wants us to respect what Ray Jones has accomplished, and at the same time, to understand that there’s always this dishonesty in what he writes, since he’s writing for people who want to be told, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are the only people in the world who matter.

New York sure is a great big city
Blow it up, blow it up;
Los Angeles is kinda pretty,
Blow it up, blow it up.

Oh, I don’t go to Washington D.C.,
Those marble halls are not the place for me;
They tell me San Francisco’s kinda gay,
I’m telling you that I will stay away.

Chicago is a toddlin’ town,
Knock it down, knock it down;
And Boston has got great renown,
Knock it down, knock it down.

Oh the country is the only place to be,
A silo’s the tallest thing I want to see;
I’m a country boy, my heart is in the land,
I’m a country boy, I think this country’s grand.

Jack is in ‘The Elvis Seat’ (a seat they save at Ray’s theater for an Elvis impersonator who is part of the show) when Ray sings this, and he tells Sara he took it kind of personal.  Sara tells him it’s about the tribal unit, defining who’s in and who’s out.  But we the readers have been made to know Ray Jones himself doesn’t really identify with his audience at all–sees them for the hicks and suckers they are, playing their prides and prejudices like a steel guitar, while wanting them to go on loving him, because that’s how he survives.  Except now he has to make them think maybe he’s a murderer.  Knowing full well that in showbiz, those who love you today can rip you to shreds tomorrow.  It’s a calculated risk.  With Sara as his failsafe device.

He’s got two very smart lawyers–his personal attorney (and friend), Jolie Grubbe, who strikes up a tense friendship with Sara (who she’d like to ban from Ray’s bus and the courtroom, for all that she admires Sara’s gumption)–and his brilliant criminal attorney, Warren Thurbridge.   Both are horrified when Ray insists on testifying on his own behalf in court, opening himself up to cross-examination–and Ray insists.  There’s really very little in the way of evidence against him.  All he has to do to get off scot-free is nothing–and that’s the last thing in the world he’s going to do.

And just as he expects (not that he’d admit it), the prosecutor hits him with a song he hasn’t sung in a long time, written after his marriage fell apart–that shows a darker side of Ray than he’s wanted to admit to in a while, along with a streak of misogyny a mile wide.

I’d like to tell you how I feel,
And what I think is my ideal.

Her face is like an angel’s is, but the devil’s in her eyes,
She dances like a panther, with lightning in her thighs.

She’s Ali Baba’s treasure room, all without a lock,
And she turns into a pizza at three o’clock.

There’s more, but you get the gist.  And the kicker is, the murder victim is estimated to have died just around 3:00am in the morning.

Now is this evidence of anything at all (other than a predictable streak of misogyny)?  Of course not.  But when you’re on trial for murder, you are on trial for murder–your public identity, the way people perceive you, is on trial, much more than the facts of the case.   All the more if you’re famous.  The prosecution hasn’t proven beyond any kind of doubt that Ray Jones murdered Belle Hardwick, but Ray has given them the ammunition to make it seem like he’s exactly the kind of man who’d have turned her into a pizza at three o’clock.  And he goes out of his way to make comments about her rather notoriously loose sexual behavior that everybody who knew her would have agreed with while she was alive, but that’s hardly the point now.

I mean, Fatty Arbuckle didn’t rape anybody, he was the same person the day after that wild party where a young girl died as he was the day before, but the same crude anarchic destructive boyish behavior that people had laughed at before in his films looked sinister now, in light of the accusations against him. He was acquitted by his peers, and banished from the movies. And that trial was in L.A.  This one’s in the Show Me state, and people have been shown something they’d forgotten about this guy–that he can be one nasty son of a bitch.

If you’ve come down this far in the review, you obviously don’t care about spoilers, so here’s the answer to this mystery–Ray has proof he didn’t murder Belle–he has proof of who really did it.  But he wants the IRS to think he’s going to be executed for Murder One, so they’ll accept a deal he offered–either they take half of his royalties from what he’s already created, or half of what he’s going to create in future.  And they were going to take the latter, since that’s the more lucrative end over time, but he’s made it seems like his time’s up, so they take the former.  He’s conned his own lawyers, the state of Missouri, and the Federal Government.  And now he just has to con Sara Joslyn.  And that’s where it all falls apart.

Sara’s led right to the videotape that proves somebody else murdered Belle, stashed in Ray’s house.  And she figures out right away–she’s being used–because the tape will have more credibility coming from her.  Ray Jones wasn’t covering up for a friend–he was using a sordid tragedy that destroyed two human lives in order to free himself from the toils of taxation (not to mention costing the taxpayers a fortune in the process).  She grabs the tape out of Cal Denny’s hand, and drives away with it.  And tells no one about it.  Perry Mason would be proud.

But to me, it’s not an entirely satisfying ending.   Sara relents, of course.  She blackmails Ray into giving a lot of money to the local hospital, and he agrees, with grudging admiration.  She wasn’t going to let him go to the gas chamber for something he didn’t do.  But what she’s doing, of course, is anything but ethical. And she gets a nice exclusive for herself into the bargain.   “No losers, Ray,” Sara said, pleased with herself.  And why not?  “Everybody wins.”

Again, we see she’s the hungriest shark in the tank.  In many ways, she never really left the Weekly Galaxy.  She’s just doing the same thing at a more respectable level than before.  And how are we supposed to feel about this? About the same way we felt about the end of the last book–like maybe in this world it really is just about who wins and who loses, and nothing else.  We’ve certainly seen no indication to the contrary in this story.  But the difference is that now we know for sure–even with true love, even with Massa dead, even with the Galaxy perhaps exposed to all the world for exactly what it is–nothing’s changed, and nothing’s going to change.  The acid in that sweet tea has a real kick, don’t it?

The line isn’t between good and evil here, but rather professional and unprofessional.  Ray Jones is a professional at what he does, his lawyers are superbly professional, Sara and Jack and even Binx are all solid pros at what they do, and nobody gives a shit about right and wrong–the only thing that makes the Galaxy reporters different is that they don’t pretend to care–and the lawyers prosecuting Ray are such a bunch of dullards, one of the Aussie Trio poses as a reporter from The Economist, and gets away with it for most of the trial.

There’s a whole subplot in the book about a ‘Shadow Jury’ Ray’s defense hires to try and figure out how best to influence the real one, and this was and still is a real thing, and they’re even premiering a network series about it this fall, and the guy manipulating juries for possibly guilty people is the hero.  And I hope to hell it meets the fate of most network primetime shows in recent years, but who knows?  Who really cares about right and wrong these days?

Donald E. Westlake did.  This I believe.  Much as he’d long written about protagonists whose only morality was professional in nature, there’s quite a difference between an amoral armed robber who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him, and an amoral journalist who thinks of herself as a nice person.  Donald E. Westlake believed there was much more to life than winning. But he was in a dark mood when he wrote this, and he clearly identified a lot with Ray’s cynicism in particular–with a talented songwriter who has to hide his real feelings, because nobody wants anything deep from him, they just want to be flattered and entertained.

Nothing wrong with a dark story, but this is a dark story that is light on the surface, and he doesn’t pull that tricky balancing act off nearly as well with this story as he had with the previous Joslyn book.  Maybe that’s why he never wrote another one.  But I think it’s mainly that like Wodehouse, he couldn’t bring himself to go all out in showing Sara’s own inner darkness.  He liked her too much, she was one of his perky blonde ingenues, and he’s proud of her achievements, but what are they, precisely?   To be played for a patsy, and then to figure it all out in one rather unconvincing flash of insight (and to be sure, Perry Mason did that all the time, so double standard much?).

Now I’m not blaming Sara, she’s an enjoyable character, and she deserved a chance to solve the mystery on her own this time without Jack’s help, and the book is fun to read and all, but it seems like a lot of work for too small a reward, and it might have worked better to just concentrate more on the identity puzzle of Ray Jones.  I’m not blaming her, really, she’s got some great moments in this book, Westlake kind of enjoyed being a girl I think, and endowing his surrogate female self, his blonde bubbly Brenda Starr, with every quality, but maybe just a wee bit of a Mary Sue, not that it’s her fault, I am not blaming Sara, I hope you understand that, because I wouldn’t want to have to repeat it seven or eight times in one run-on paragraph, but while this book is worth reading once, or even twice, it’s not going down as one of his best novels, or even as his best novel about Sara Joslyn, but can we blame her for that?  Of course not.  How dare you even imply that. Shame on you.

There’s a scene in the middle of the book where Sara is telling Jack off for surprising her at her motel in the middle of the night, and all of a sudden she makes a face, because she’s noticed this unpleasant taste in her mouth–she realizes that she’s had to eat at the local restaurants for days now, and they all put Bac-O Bits, artificial bacon, in everything.  The Redneck’s garlic, she calls it. Now that she mentions it, Jack can taste it too.  An aftertaste that is not easily shaken, and while the ins and outs of this book could have easily taken up a much longer review, I hope you understand, I’m ending this one here, because I’m hoping the next book in our queue will help dispel it.

Mind you, there’s plenty of cynicism in that book as well, but there’s much else besides; an entire universe of wry empathetic observational humor, though the center of that universe is rather uniquely challenging to observe.  Westlake went back to his roots in more ways than one with it, and much as the romance in Baby, Would I Lie? is perfunctory and half-hearted at best, it’s at the very center of what can only be called Westlake’s last serious foray into science fiction–and his only true epic in that genre.  An homage to H.G. Wells, but maybe to Ralph Ellison as well.  Because if nobody can see you–who the heck are you?

And I just have to do one little piece before I get to that, to set it up.  And to give me time to finish rereading it.   And to find the antidote to Bac-O Bits.  Blech.

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