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Extemporania: St. Dismas at the 12th Precinct

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Living a Dortmunderian life, I’ve struggled to get back to my Dortmunderian blogging. It’s not that I have nothing to write about, I just struggle for the time and concentration to get the work done. So many distractions from what was once my most pleasurable distraction from the quotidian exigencies of daily existence (I mentioned my life was Dortmunderian, did I not?)

So just to write about something, and remind myself it’s possible–how come none of the Barney Miller fans among my regulars ever brought this up?

It used to be very hard to watch Barney Miller in syndication With the advent of old people cable channels selling dubious life insurance policies, reverse mortgages, and of course pillows made by crazy men, what’s left of us Boomers can revisit all kinds of blurry childhood memories–but because I live in Gotham itself, I can actually watch my favorite sitcom cops on WPIX. (WPIX still exists! I passed their midtown offices just the other day!) The picture quality is a little better, and the commercials a mite less depressing.

For a while there, Herself (also a fan) and myself were binge-watching; lately it’s more hit or miss. But some weeks back, I recorded an ep I had no past recollection of, and at some point I realized I was in the presence of a subtextual Westlake homage.

The Brother is just a run-of-the-mill ep where various oddball personages descend upon the 12th to perplex the good officers with their varied quirks and conundrums, always with Barney in the background, dispensing wry homespun wisdom like a Solomon come to judgment, but without threatening to bisect any babies. (I presume that would be illegal now.)

Only one of the plot threads need concern us–Brother Thomas Kelvin, a stern-faced older man dressed in clerical garb files a missing person report with Wojciehowicz (I shamefully admit I copy/pasted the name from Wikipedia). A novitiate has gone missing from their hotel, just before they were going to catch a train upstate.

The good brother (Not a priest! Don’t call him Father! He hates that!) hails from a monastery in the Adirondacks–the order of St. Dismas. He is not asked to to explain who St. Dismas is, which I suppose is reasonable enough, since it doesn’t in any way impact the case–except wouldn’t Dietrich tell everyone anyway?

You’d expect a brief hagiography lecture from the 12th’s resident know-it-all, but Dietrich is sadly distracted in this episode by learning to his deep distress (I can’t offhand think of an ep where he looked sad for such a protracted period) that he can’t credibly pose as a woman to entrap would-be muggers. Just shortly before this, he was happily asking a befuddled Barney which silk scarf would go better with his new ensemble. Scarlet or wheat?

(And there’s a subplot involving Inspector Luger feeling lonely and bending Barney’s ear about it, but that’s basically every ep, right?)

Turns out, finding himself amidst the infamous fleshpots of Gotham, the young man experienced a sort of secondary vocation, centered around getting laid prior to renouncing worldly pleasures. He had encountered one of the many good-natured and appealingly blowsy young courtesans that one finds in many a Barney Miller episode (and so rarely in real life, which as we all know is greatly overrated).

They were just about to commence with the deflowering when the authorities rudely interrupted. The working girl even imputes she might not have charged for her services, which is really twisting the knife. Wojo, ever sympathetic to the mating urge, slyly arranges for the novitiate to proceed with his initiation, while Brother Kelvin and the others head north. We never learn which vocation won out in the end, but he had a nice vacation either way.

Decent enough outing, for the late run of this show. They had lost a few too many key cast members by this point. (I like Levitt, who doesn’t, but his height insecurity and desire to ditch the uniform for plainclothes were no substitute for Fish’s endless kvetching, or Nick’s horrible coffee.)

Leaving that completely irrelevant fan-bitching aside–what makes me so sure this is a Westlake homage? Good Behavior, which prominently mentions the penitent of the two crucified thieves, was published in 1985. This episode was aired in October of 1979. How do we know Westlake wasn’t homaging Barney? Seems a fair bet he watched when he had the time.

Ah, but that was the second instance of Westlake namechecking the light-fingered saint. The first was in Brothers Keepers, published in 1975, and reviewed by the Times in May of that year. Meaning that the TV scribes had at least three years to get around to it, and get just a teensy bit light-fingered themselves. (Not that the storylines match up terribly well, and if they had, no doubt the legal department would have insisted on a different saint).

And as you all should know, Brothers Keepers involves a young Catholic brother who himself takes a sexy sabbatical with a beautiful young woman, though she’s not a pro, and they’re in Puerto Rico, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as a dispensation. I’ll check with my confessor later.

But more to the point, one of the denizens of the equally fictive Crispinite order in that novel used to be a criminal himself, briefly belonged to an order of felonious monks (Westlake hated giving up that jazz-based pun that was going to be his title, but found he respected his monks too much to make them into crooks, even of the comic variety). They chose St. Dismas as their patron, and according to Brother Silas, this monastery was nothing more than a heinous hideout created by ex-cons to go on being the same irreformable reprobates they were before.

So there is my case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury–but being an honest prosecutor (I’m sure there must be some), I must mention one piece of evidence that might argue for an alternate explanation. There is in fact a Church of St. Dismas in upstate New York, if not a monastery. And if you’d believe it, it’s in none other than the picturesque hamlet of Dannemora. Westlake country par excellence. And the setting of yet another of his Nephew books, that was published in 1974. (But seriously, whoever named that church had a Westlakeian sense of humor, so I think my case still holds water).

One more observation I must relate, though–see, the writers had to find a way to justify the 12th going to look for the missing monk trainee. He hasn’t been gone anywhere near 48 hours. Brother Kelvin, determined to get his inductee back, insists he may have been abducted by deprogrammers, anti-cultists–there were some suspicious characters hanging out in the hotel lobby. Wojo says “But you’re the Catholic Church.” Kelvin says that to some people they’re just the nuts on the hill. The parents may have objected to their son’s vocation. It’s enough to keep the story moving. If you don’t think about it too much–never a good idea, even if you’re watching the best sitcom ever, which Barney Miller very nearly is.

But you know how Westlake was–always scavenging ideas he felt hadn’t been given a good enough shake. Suppose somebody had a sincere vocation, joined a religious order–maybe a convent this time–and suppose her father was a rich bastard who objected to this, had her kidnapped, hired a deprogrammer specializing in cultists to talk her out of it? And as it turns out, the Brothers of St. Dismas, while not committed to a strict vow of silence, minimize vocal communication as much as possible when at the monastery (this perhaps explains why Brother Kelvin never stops gabbing for most of the episode, but has little aptitude for pleasant conversation). Probably they write notes instead.

It’s just a thought. I still have them, sometimes. I have some more, about a mystery writer I just recently discovered, who has openly confessed his debt to Westlake–most specifically, to Richard Stark. He’s published three crime novels thus far. I’ve read them all. Also something with a ridiculous number of swords in it. We won’t dwell on that one much.

There see? I can still write. If you want to call it that. Let me limber up a bit more, and maybe I can get up to speed again. In the meantime, you can easily watch The Brother on Video Dailymotion, if you want to form your own opinion of its provenance. But man, if you thought the old people cable channel ads were depressing………

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First Read: Call Me A Cab

So let’s lay out the ground rules.  The absolute very last ever in all the aeons to come (we really mean it this time!) unpublished Donald E. Westlake novel (until the next one) hasn’t been published yet.  It’s coming out next year. 

I have a copy.  To be specific, I have a stack of loose pages I printed out from a digital copy, and I made my way through them all last Friday.  I have read the entire book.  And this is not a review of it.  The review will come in the weeks and possibly months after the book is available to all.  It will be long, detailed, discursive, and quote-filled.  I mean, by my standards.  But this ain’t that.  I never review a novel before I’ve read it at least twice.  And the second read will be either a real book or an ebook.  

I mean, you want a blurb?  I can do a blurb.  “Boy meets girl, while driving a cab in New York.  Boy drives girl clear across the continental United States, to Los Angeles, while she tries to figure out whether she wants to marry another boy who is a plastic surgeon over there.  Hilarity ensues.”  Also biology, philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, geography, topography, and even some botany–the girl designs public spaces for a living, decides where the trees go and such, is superbly good at it.  And the cabbie is good at his job too, but obviously there is some class inequity there.  

The odd bit of asperity ensues as well, because  (as you expect from the get go) they end up liking each other more than either considers advisable.  But will boy get girl?  Will girl get any boy at all?  Will the plastic surgeon end up being played by Ralph Bellamy?  (A bit long in the tooth for the part when this was written, but there are Ralph Bellamys born into each generation of thespians.) 

The answer to the questions above depends a bit on which draft you get a hold of, because the author spent some time trying to figure out how this roadshow romcom should play out, and as you’ll find out in the afterward, considered more than one possible terminus along the way. It may well be that his lack of satisfaction with any ending he could arrive at was one reason he didn’t try harder to get it published in book form.  Landings are the hardest part of any routine, as Ms. Biles could tell you.  

It was left to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime to meld the disparate versions into a seamless whole, and as you’d expect, he did a fine job of it, and of course we’d still like to read the alternate takes, but that’s going to have to wait until the Library of America edition, which I’m sure will be along any century now. 

I think it would be fair to say the author thought the journey was of more interest than its destination.  And really, aren’t all journeys more interesting than their destinations?  He literally begins the book with a well-chosen quote insisting that is the case.   (This would tie into the philosophy department.) 

We go through life imagining we have all these important decisions to make, looming before us like highway exit ramps, but Life itself–that’s what happens when you’re making other plans, and may throw all of your carefully contrived conclusions into the proverbial cocked hat without so much as a by your leave.   No road maps for Life, no Garmins, no Waze (though plenty of means).  And if you want to enjoy the journey that is Life, you better start figuring out how to enjoy the unexpected curves in the road it’s going to throw at you.  You might also want to pay more attention to your surroundings. 

Now as to that last part–when did Westlake write this?  1977-78, Wikipedia helpfully informs us.  (The editor who recently added this to the bibliography is not identified, and is not me–Dr. Tulonen, I presume?  Or some stalwart at Hard Case?)  But in any event, that is clearly correct.  He couldn’t have done the bulk of the writing after ’78, since it got published in Reader Digested form in Redbook in ’79.  Alimentary, my dear Watson. 

As for our nations’ bicentennial year, we know he was busy around then with his comedic magnum opus.  The one with all the Aztec priests dancing about.  And what was the subject of that book?  New York City and its environs.  The large cast of desperate disparate desperados, thrown together by a shameless plot device, forced by their shared love of hustling to come to terms with the unrivaled complexity of the greater Metropolitan area they live in.  It’s not about who finds the golden statue.  It’s about who finds themselves by discovering the city they live in is a world unto itself, populated with beings of every possible hue and hubris, and therefore a place of unsurpassed richness, if you are a lover of the passing parade, as Westlake was. 

And what is the primary setting of this one?  Middle America.  Anyone who reads snooty Gotham magazines can see this gag coming a continent away.

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(Yes, this is precisely the view from 9th Avenue, and I would know, since I used to live right off  it.  Hell’s Kitchen has some very nice restaurants, in case you’re ever in the nabe.)

Now we must ask–did Westlake know the states lying between 9th Avenue and Wilshire Blvd. (the penultimate destination of his two intrepid travelers) nearly so well as he knew New York City and its environs? Not hardly. He traveled through his own country quite a bit, often on book junkets, and given a chance to focus on this or that part of it, usually did an admirable job summing it up. But we who are his avid readership know that the settings he always did best with were the city he was born in, the burbs around it, and the frostbit upstate realm he was raised in. Westlake Country. And Iowa (where some memorable incidents transpire in this book) sure ain’t that.

So that’s a challenge right there–something new for him to try. Instead of staying in one place, getting the feel of it, and showing us a wide swath of characters rooted in that place, he gives us two people, both New Yorkers, forced to discover America while constantly on the go; liking some parts very much, others not at all, and mainly dumbfounded by the sheer vastness of The Big Empty. As New Yorkers invariably see it. But seeing it from a plane is one thing. Having to navigate it yourself, on the ground–quite another.

So yes, this book is, among other things, his attempt to turn Dancing Aztecs on its head. Instead of one city, a long succession of states, peppered with small towns (and what Non-Gothamites insist on referring to as cities, much to Dortmunder’s disgust). Instead of exploring the oddities of a calamitous cast of clowns, just two–one of whom is the first person narrator, but as I mentioned in the previous piece, not necessarily the hero of the piece. In a sense, he really is a cab–hers–a vehicle for her journey of self-enlightenment and liberation. It’s her journey he’s witnessing for us, her awakening, and I guess if any feminist critics ever notice this book, they might call it Mansplaining–except he also has to explain himself.

Why is somebody as smart as this guy still driving a cab in his early 30’s (that crucial time in the human life cycle when Westlake believed all of us either achieve maturity–or choose not to). What’s his deal? Mainly that he dealt himself out, and she worms some of the reasons for that out of him as they go.

No omniscient narrator here. This truly shameless hack is a reader, a classic example of the Westlakeian autodidact–but an autodidact, by definition, is always learning, never a finished product. And in spite of her having achieved a successful career in landscape design, his peripatetic passenger, who gets to tell us all her story by telling it to him (what else are you going to do traveling thousands of miles in a cab with no radio other than a two-way?), is every bit the autodidact he is, and in her own way, still trying to figure out who she is, under all her acquired expertise and willful wariness of commitment. Work is not all. That was a lesson women as a group mainly learned long after men, having been barred from the joys of careerism for much of history.

(She also has a very interesting story to tell–about a short story she wrote in college. Yes, she’s the author here, if only an amateur. It’s a science fiction story to boot (remember what genre Westlake started out in?) And you might say a bit of a Flitcraft. I’ll explain later, but Hammett aficionados will get my drift.)

So the book is about feminism. It’s about how men (even smart and not terribly chauvinistic men) react to feminism. It’s about how they both react to the country they have lived in all their lives without ever coming to grips with it, and how it reacts to them (what would you think if you saw a canary yellow New York City Checker Cab barreling down the highway in Montana?) It’s about how all Holiday Inn rooms look exactly the same. It’s about identity, like every story Westlake ever wrote. And it’s about 241 pages long. Not counting the afterward.

See, I can’t even keep a blurb short. This is probably why no one ever asks me to write one.

So what’s that cover image up top? Some forgotten Italian translation of this book that nobody ever heard about? No, it’s some forgotten Italian translation of an earlier taxi dance Westlake penned, namely Somebody Owes Me Money. One of his Nephew books, and one might argue this is another, but somehow I don’t think so. The Nephews are, in the main, criminal farce. There’s no crime in Call Me A Cab (unless you count speeding, and everybody does that on the highway). While there is much comedy within, it’s not played in the key of farce. Trust me, I have an ear.

This is not, as I see it, a Nephew book. But it is, like some other books in the canon, a sort of backhanded reaction to that informal series of piquant picaresques, where a first person narrator, just around 30, comes to some conclusions about the road he’s on, and makes a change–often partly in response to meeting a really interesting woman, who may be in the same process of self discovery as well. However, it’s always more about the Boy than the Girl in the Nephews. In this case, it’s really The Woman, who has found her life’s calling, trying to catch up with the other part of life–finding a partner. Or, perhaps, deciding she doesn’t need one.

Westlake wrote that comic mystery as his last book for Random House under his own name, back in the late 60’s. Going by the lack of American reprints before Hard Case brought it back, it was not a success (though it was published in a magazine, hmmm). Now, in the late 70’s, he seems to want to rewrite it as The Great American Travel Novel. (Well, every Yank scribbler tries for that once in a career. Ask Philip Roth. Yeah, I know he’s dead. Anyway, that was baseball.) See, whatever he really wanted to write about, he had to write about crime, because that was his genre. There had to be some kind of mystery to solve, because ditto. A McGuffin, if you will, to distract from the genuine subject, while illumining it at the same time. He’s decided to dispense with that element this time. See how it goes. It goes a bit more slowly, but it does arguably cover some ground a straight-up crime novel couldn’t. Even a funny one. Feeling as I do that a really good crime novel is often better than most ‘serious’ literature at examining the human condition, I still thought the trip was worthwhile. Your mileage may differ.

When Westlake felt like he hadn’t quite hit the bullseye with a concept, he tended to keep going back to it, trying to make it work. The big problem with the earlier taxi saga is that it hits a traffic jam in the middle–the hero gets his hair parted by a bullet, and has to convalesce a spell, while all the dramatis personae troop into the bedroom where he is failing to have sex with the blonde casino dealer who drives like she’s rehearsing for Le Mans. The Girl in this book we’re supposed to be looking at now has brown hair, a very respectable career, and isn’t a reckless driver–she basically doesn’t drive at all, since that’s what the narrator is for. And somehow it seems wrong to refer to her as ‘The Girl.’ But maturation, as we should all know by now, is a lifelong project, or ought to be.

One more observation–the other book he did around this time was Enough, just recently republished by Hard Case as Double Feature. The two stories in that mini-anthology are very sharp and cynical. And the women don’t come off well at all, not that the men are treated with kid gloves. Both are decidedly caustic on the man/woman thing. But Westlake himself was not.

And he might have wanted to write this as a corrective–while unhappy love affairs make for better stories (like unhappy families), there is yet another challenge a writer who still ardently believes in the potential of love might embrace–an unromantic romance, where two people of opposing gender who have no intention of getting together, and may well decide not to, still come away from their brief encounter better than before. Where trapped in a cab for around a week, they discover that men and women really do have things to teach each other, and it’s about time, wouldn’t you say? Before it’s too late and all? The best way to see your worst flaws is in somebody else’s eyes. I’ll show you yours if you show me mine.

And that’s all I’ve got for now. Five bucks on the meter (it’s the late 70’s). Tips accepted gratefully.

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Redbook, Bluebook, Oldbook, Newbook?

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So the mind having boggled a while, here’s what I know:

Donald Westlake published a novella entitled Call Me A Cab in Redbook, which is not particularly known for crime fiction, comic or otherwise. Which makes a certain measure of sense, since all indicators are this book isn’t crime fiction, has a female protagonist, and is in essence a romantic comedy with an adventure angle to it, or misadventure, if you prefer.

This was the June 1979 issue, seen above, also featuring a Sally Field interview where she apparently talked about her burgeoning romance with Burt, and why she didn’t play aviatrix nuns anymore. Unless there are Westlake collectors far more obsessive than me, which is doubtful, my guess is that other piece is why I can’t order a used copy online. I don’t like you, Sally. I really don’t like you. (Oh, of course I’m kidding, loved you in Lincoln.)

Based on the minimal data available, that may be a truncated version of a novel he wrote but couldn’t find a publisher for. Or the novel we’re going to be reading in the near future (I don’t know how near, naturally, because nobody tells me anything) is an expansion of the novella, because he got good feedback from the Redbook readership. (Not like any lit critics would have opined.) Or he may have begun it as a film treatment/script that never became a film, and that was an old story for him by then. One thing I can say for sure is that the estimable Sweet Freedom blog got the issue and cover wrong. Like I’m in any position to judge, since I didn’t even know this story existed.

Westlake didn’t write a lot of books with female protagonists for most of his career, though during his several sordid seasons in the seamy steamy cellars of Sleaze, he wrote quite a few, and I know of one that featured a peripatetic heroine on a road trip with a clueless male hitchhiker she eventually falls for, but I would not call that romantic comedy, since Westlake had to write a moderately explicit sex scene between her and some random dude (and one dudette) into every other chapter, and only the final one was with the hitchhiker (and much less raunchy), because that’s the form. You keep fucking away until you find The One, or you end up back with the guy you started with. Or you die some horrible death, but this one wasn’t written in the Pseudo-Dreiserian/Flaubertian vein. (And it’s not misogynist at all, believe it or not. It’s looking at the problem of sex from a female POV, and that POV is absolutely scathing about the masculine attitude towards coitus.)

Westlake wrote rather well for women, and rather empathically. He went out of his way to see things from a woman’s POV, even when it was just a supporting character, so this was nothing new for him. It was just harder for him to write the kind of story people wanted from him if the protagonist was female (and, of course, cute). The engine gears would keep turning energetically, but they weren’t hooked up to the wheels of the getaway car. He knew what to say, not how to say it.

He did better writing about female criminals, because a crook’s a crook, right? The reason crime fiction was so right for him was that he needed a genre where nothing was off the table. Where “do what thou wilt’ was literally the whole of the law. Then he could just let his girls have fun, same as the boys.

But he always wanted to expand the list of options open to him as a writer. Almost exactly ten years after the Redbook novella, he had one major success in this arena–Trust Me On This. Where a pretty blonde journalist working for a supermarket scandal sheet discovers both the best and worst of herself while doing so, and her co-protagonist discovers to his horror that he’s in love with her, and it sort of works out, but there’s this delicious air of moral ambiguity about the entire exercise, to the point where you literally don’t know who or what to root for, so you just root for the book to never end.

Is this as good as that? I’m thinking if it was, would have gotten published before now, but the proof is in the reading.

So Mr. Ardai–any news?

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Okay. You’re a Cab.

Trent has the scoop. On an unpublished Westlake novel. That is going to be published.

When my mind is done boggling, I’ll try to get some deets.

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Review: Dead Girl Blues

Cautiously, tentatively. I’d ask one woman out to dinner, take another to the movies. I took pains to appear at ease on such occasions, and to a certain extent I was, but a part of my mind was always busy taking my emotional temperature. Did I like this woman? Did I find her attractive? Was conversation with her difficult or easy? Interesting or tedious? Did I want to see her again?

More to the point, did I want to fuck her? Did I want to kill her first and then fuck her?

Sometimes I asked myself what the hell I thought I was doing. My life in Lima was pleasant enough. I was making decent money, and my prospects were good. I had a growing circle of acquaintances with whom I could contrive to spend as much or as little time as I wanted.

I wouldn’t say that I had any friends. But then I had never had a friend, and how could I be expected to make one now?

I’d seen this bit of doggerel in a souvenir shop, burned into a wooden plaque:

A friend is not a fellow who is taken in by sham
A friend is one who knows our faults and doesn’t give a damn

So there you have it. My acquaintances could only be fellows taken in by sham, as I did not dare to let anyone know who I really was. Because they’d certainly give a damn. How could they not?

Lawrence Block.  Was ever a scribe less aptly named?  (At least his first name isn’t Ryder.)  82 years old, still churning out fiction (and nonfiction) at a staggering rate.  Self-publishing quite a bit now (works better when you’re a name), but also gets the odd gig with Hard Case Crime.  Like his buddy Don, he has no concept of retirement.

Back in 2016, I reviewed his novella Resume Speed, which you see up top.  Liked it very much indeed.  I still consider it some of the best work he’s ever done (not that I’ve read all the work he’s done–few could say they had).  A spare penetrating look into one chapter in the life of a drifter. A talented likable man with a troubled past he can’t come to terms with–even the third person narrator seems unsure exactly what happened to make his protagonist move from one small town to another, settling down for a spell, then abruptly pulling up stakes, leaving thriving businesses and broken hearts behind.  We never even learn his original name.

The clues are few and contradictory.  Did he murder someone?  Is someone trying to murder him?  Is he genuinely in trouble, or is that just an excuse to keep moving?  I wouldn’t expect a sequel to clear that up.  Some stories you only ruin by finishing them.

But this is, you might say, a companion piece to the earlier story, which in turn hearks back to work like the Keller series, where the hitman hero yearns to settle down in some small community, never does.  It also bears some points in common with Random Walk, another recent self-published novel of his I tried to read, gave up on.  When I like Block, I like him very much indeed.  When I don’t, he’s got plenty of other readers to keep him company.  This current book I like pretty well, but let’s get the ground rules clear.

I normally do very thorough plot synopses on this blog.  Reviews meant for people who have already read the work in question, which has in the main been available for decades.  But when I’m reviewing a newly published work, I feel a bit more reticence is called for.  I also use a lot less quotes.  I’ll mainly stick to that here, but I can’t explain what I like or dislike about this one without at least half-revealing some plot twists, so bear that in mind.

So to cut to the chase, if you’re reading this review to decide whether this novel is worth the ten bucks it costs to download–it is, and then some.  If you like Block, and if you like stories that get into the minds of killers–for example, a story about a man who without malice aforethought murdered and raped a young woman–in that order–and tells us in some detail how that came to happen, and what happened afterwards.  Not everything that happened, because this is another story you might ruin by finishing.

This is a story about a drifter with an unequivocally murderous past, who finally stops drifting, puts down permanent roots, meets a woman, starts a family–and then has to learn to deal with the consequences of those choices.  He is, in fact, a sympathetic character.  He is the highly rational first-person narrator of his own story, and we see everything through his eyes, are forced to understand his point of view, have to make up our own minds how we feel about it.

And you might argue this forms a genre of its own in crime fiction.  “I murdered someone, this is how it felt, this is how I reacted, and [usually] this is how I got caught and punished.”  The earliest classic example might be Poe’s The Telltale Heart, (he published The Black Cat the same year) but even he probably didn’t invent it.  And Poe wrote about killers who were clearly incapable of telling reality from fantasy.  Madmen, not sociopaths.

Skipping over a century ahead, we come to Jim Thompson–who Block wrote critically about in several articles I mentioned here some time back.  Thompson almost specialized in first-person narrators who were killers, and they never get away with it, but neither can we really get away from them, so haunting are their twisted insights.  Even after death, they may still be telling someone (we never know who, or what) of their crimes–the Exit Interview in Hell, I like to call it.

The novel you see up top is perhaps his most notorious effort in this vein.  But not even Lou Ford has sexual congress with a victim after beating him/her to death–and his psychopathy is explained by his having been sexually abused by his father’s housekeeper (and mistress) as a child.

The narrator of Block’s novel can’t give us any explanation of what he did–his childhood was almost offensively normal.  Though his parents neglected him a bit, due to his being one of ten children–there were no deep emotional bonds formed, leading to an outwardly affable man who has a hard time feeling anything towards other people, besides idle curiosity, and residual wariness.

He commited that murder, and that posthumous rape, because it seemed like the only thing to do when a random bar hook-up went wrong, and he never stopped thinking about it afterwards, because it felt so unexpectedly right.  He spends a lot of time getting to know the killer inside him, running little thought experiments, trying various scenarios out in his mind, even scoping out potential victims, but never following through, because he knows he was lucky not to get caught the first time, is afraid to push his luck.  He tells us he’s a sociopath, but he’s an exceptionally self-analytical one.  Is this a good thing?  For him, yes.  For the story?  I’m a bit less sure.  But fiction is the ultimate thought experiment, no?

Mr. Block is well aware of his many outstanding debts to past writers in this highly jugular vein–and pays one off by having his protagonist (whose real name we do learn), settle down under the assumed name of John James Thompson. Methinks he was more impressed than he let on in those critical essays–part of that perhaps came from feeling that the critics had overrated Thompson after his death, while underrating others, himself included.  (But Mr. Block, you can’t very well expect to be posthumously lionized before your posterior is down in the humous, can you now?  First things first.)

It should go without saying that he was also influenced by his lifelong friend, Donald E. Westlake–who rarely wrote first-person narratives about murderers (never about rapists).  Westlake admired Thompson very much, but had reservations about The Killer Inside Me–I think because he felt that even for Thompson, it was going too far.  Making an outlaw hero out of a misogynist monster–who the unfortunate women in his life can’t help but keep crawling back to.  (Westlake perhaps sometimes worried he was doing that with Parker, at least in The Hunter, but of course it was Stark telling the story, not Parker himself–there’s that bit of narrative distance.  Parker would never think of confessing his crimes to anyone, even in Hell’s antechamber, and wolves don’t go to Hell.)

So while there are many models he might have drawn upon, from the work of others, and from his own past efforts, it’s that last book up top that gives us the biggest hint to the puzzle of what he’s attempting here.  He’s trying a variation on The Ax.  The basic narrative form is almost identical, in that ‘Thompson’ is telling us his story in fits and starts, and when he begins, he still doesn’t know where he’s going with it.  (The difference is, we’re told he’s typing this into his computer–and wondering as he does it if he will eventually have to destroy the hard drive to make sure nobody but him ever reads what he’s writing–there’s a bit of Adios Scheherazade here as well, a neglected Westlake masterpiece that Block has made his admiration for known).

But he’s trying to rationalize the process of becoming that Westlake depicted so effectively in that novel.  His family man (whose livelihood is never at serious risk) is going to find a way to keep the killer inside him under wraps, and he’s going to find a way to honestly share who he is with his family, as Burke DeVore never did.  A major part of this story is him deciding what secrets need to be shared with those he somehow has come to love, in order to be kept secret from the world at large.

And (spoiler alert) they not only forgive him, the adoptive son whose actions inadvertently led to a legitimate fear of ‘Thompson’ being brought to justice at last apologizes profusely to him.  And his wife, once he clues her in, goes on wanting to have sex with him in the manner to which they have become accustomed–with her lying limp as a corpse, satisfying his necrophiliac fetish–she prefers it that way.

Yeah.

Reading a recent Matt Scudder short Block self-published recently, I was struck by the way Scudder really didn’t feel like Scudder anymore.  Now I haven’t read most of those novels, just the first few.  I know the character got past his guilt, his alcohol addiction, and I’m happy he and his hooker galpal Elaine eventually became a contented married couple.

But see, my feeling is that Westlake was right to stop writing the oddly similar (and earlier) Mitch Tobin novels after Tobin finally got over his guilt issues, because those issues were what made the books worth reading.  There is no story without them.  Just a franchise, which isn’t the same thing.  Block disagreed, and kept right on turning out Scudders, sometimes as prequels (a form Westlake clearly didn’t care for and neither do I).

While every fictional protagonist is probably, to some extent, a mask his or her creator hides behind, that mask still matters, and a writer is ill advised to ever let it slip too much.  My sense was that in this story, the writer had completely given up on pretending Matt Scudder was anybody other than Lawrence Block.  Even basically the same age as Lawrence Block, leading a very similar Gothamite lifestyle, and enjoying many of the same sexual fantasies as Mr. Block.  (Which I can’t say I ever noted in the earlier books.)

So when the story ended with the pretty young blonde girl Elaine knows from a sort of Twelve Step group for reformed/reforming working girls,  who the aging Scudder just rescued from a creepy stalker, happily volunteers to join him and the missus in a three-way, just to express her gratitude (isn’t she supposed to be reforming?), and they all adjourn to the bedroom–let’s just say I wasn’t shocked. Or turned on.  I mean, I’m all for people doing whatever they like so long as nobody gets hurt and no horses are frightened, but–ew.

So I’m a square, like Huey Lewis, without the sunglasses.  My hang-ups notwithstanding, it struck me more as wish fulfillment than a legit Scudder story–like everything was just an elaborate build-up to the threesome, which Scudder spends some time dreaming about during the course of the story.  And then his dream comes true.

And since the women are fine with it–well, in a Block story, they always are.  Just like it wasn’t statutory rape for the hero of Block’s much earlier Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (whose name, you should know, is Larry) to enjoy frequent coitus with no fewer than five beautiful Catholic school girls under the age of 17 (one of them is 15), because it was all their idea.  (I will not for one moment pretend that didn’t turn me on.  I am, after all, only human.)

In a work of fiction, there is no problem with consent, unless the author puts it in there.  So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that at some point in the course of this new novel, Mr. Thompson’s long-ago victim (who gave consent while drunk, then withdrew it, then got murdered and raped) appears to him in a vision and says she forgives him.  To his credit, it never occurs to him to present this as a legal defense if the law ever catches up to him via DNA evidence he left inside her all those years ago.

It’s an effectively written book.  It has some interesting points to make, and it does quietly keep the reader in suspense, because it is, let’s face it, not your typical story told from the perspective of a psychopathic killer.  I appreciate moral ambiguity in fiction, and especially crime fiction.  But this isn’t all that ambiguous.  We’re clearly supposed to say “This is a good guy, he made a mistake, he worked on his issues, he’s got a nice business, a nice family, the girl forgave him from the spirit realm or the fifth dimension or whatever”–and reading it, I have to admit, I didn’t want him to get caught and sent off to the pokey.

Block does a rather superlative job making us fear the machinations of the law, the wheels grinding fine, the obsession with cold cases, unsolved mysteries, and the everpresent threat of DNA evidence, freeing some, imprisoning others.   But like Westlake, he’s also skeptical of how good the cops really are.

He makes a very persuasive argument towards the end.  You see, Thompson really has kept his nose clean all this time, suppressed his murderous impulses–though he was frequently on the edge of giving in to them, and even considered wiping out his family because he couldn’t bear the thought of them ever finding out who he really was.  He wanted to spare them that pain.

But he never gave in to any of these violent impulses.  Never broke any laws. Never got so much as a speeding ticket.  Never reached out to his birth family, either.  So even though the law knows now it was him, or rather the him that used to be, they have no way of figuring out where or who he is now.  And in an echo from the Parker novels, the simulations of how he’d look in the present day just don’t match up to reality all that well.

Investigators looking into that old case would ultimately conclude that the scumbag who did this must have died years ago.  He would have killed again with the same MO, he would have gotten into trouble with the law, he would have contacted members of his birth family for help, he would have tripped up somehow.  Because they always do.  Do they?  I have no idea.  They found the Green River Killer.  Zodiac might still be out there.  Or not.  Pretty sure Jack the Ripper is gone, though Robert Bloch (no relation to Lawrence) might dissent.

But I’m damn sure none of them turned into decent family men who owned their actions, confided in their loved ones, became armchair philosophers of psychopathy, and had spirit visions of their victims forgiving them–and that’s what happens with Block’s non-serial killer.  Is this a believable conclusion?  You tell me.  It’s an interesting story, I’ll tell you that.

I think the point is, we all have problems, things we’ve done in our past, or wanted to do, that we’re unhappy about, and we should deal with that baggage, be as open about it as possible without scaring everyone away.  You need to know yourself in your entirety, not just the good stuff.  That’s a moral both Jim Thompson and Donald E. Westlake would heartily endorse (I couldn’t say about Poe).

But if Westlake didn’t like The Killer Inside Me (which is a bloody good book) I find it hard to believe he would have liked this one.  He knew his friend’s faults very well, I believe, and didn’t give a damn.  I know I still like Resume Speed very much.   And many other books and stories by Lawrence Block.  I’m not sorry I read this one.  I won’t be reading it again.

Nor will I tell you which idea I have toyed with for a story indirectly showed up in it.  Which worried me a bit.  Great minds…..?

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Existential Query: Will There Ever Be Another Donald Westlake?

Another post I recently read, written by a literary agent, gave an exhaustive list of all the things authors should not do in the opening lines of their novel.

No fighting, breathing heavily, or running. No dialogue. No dead bodies. No rhetorical questions. No waking up. No vague philosophical statements. No false beginnings. No flashbacks. No prologues.

Don’t even think about anything that could be construed as filler actions or idleness, such as sighing, grinning, or pursing one’s lips. Action that involves fighting or running is a no-no because we don’t yet know or care about the character. But well, apparently we aren’t allowed to actually say anything that would reveal information about the character through dialogue or philosophical inquiry because that’s a “tension killer”.

Advice for novice writers treats readers as though they are inept children with the attention spans of goldfish.  The same agent posted a tweet by another agent who apparently felt the need publicize how a single opening sentence had motivated her to request an entire manuscript. The statement was followed by #querytip, but I personally find it embarrassing that this is the level of flippancy we’ve come to. When a gutted reader commented on the post, asking for examples of what writers were permitted to do, the agent responded with a circuitous rant that amounted to the assertion that the more experienced a writer became, the better their first line would be by default.

Oh, good.

From The Absurdity of Publishing, by Zandra J.  (published online, naturally)

“WELL, PRINCE, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Antichrist (upon my word, I believe he is), I don’t know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I’m scaring you, sit down and talk to me.”

From War and Peace, by Leo Somebodyorother.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Some hack devoting 206,052 words to dudes hunting a whale (animal rights activists will freak).

The Hunter (December 1962): “When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.”

The Man With the Getaway Face (March 1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.”

The Outfit (September 1963): “When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.”

The Mourner (December 1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.”

The Score (July 1964): “When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call.”

The Jugger (July 1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.”

The Handle (February 1966): “When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.”

The Seventh (March 1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.”

The Rare Coin Score (1967): “Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.”

The Green Eagle Score (1967): “Parker looked in at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits.”

The Black Ice Score (1968): “Parker walked into his hotel room, and there was a guy in there going through his suitcase laid out on his bed.”

The Sour Lemon Score (1969): “Parker put the revolver away and looked out the windshield.”

Deadly Edge (1971): “Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse.”

Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.”

Plunder Squad (1972): “Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.”

Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.”

Comeback (1997): “When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.”

Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.”

Flashfire (2000): “When the dashboard clock read 2:40, Parker drove out of the drugstore parking lot and across the sunlit road to the convenience store/gas station.”

Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

Breakout (2002) : “When the alarm went off, Parker and Armiston were far to the rear of the warehouse, Armiston with the clipboard, checking off the boxes they’d want.”

Nobody Runs Forever (2004): “When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said, ‘Deal me out a hand,’ and got to his feet.”

Ask the Parrot (2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”

Dirty Money (2008): “When the silver Toyota Avalon bumped down the dirt road out of the woods and across the railroad tracks, Parker put the Infiniti into low and stepped out onto the gravel.”

Need you ask?

A while back, I somehow I got a trial subscription to this thing called Medium Daily Digest.  Showed up in my inbox every morning like clockwork, for months.  A potpourri of online articles, on topics ranging from How I Ended Up Running An Outlaw Biker Gang to The Misogyny and Authoritarianism of Paw Patrol.  Sometimes the articles are good.  I mean, they’re not trying to sell me Viagra or anything.  The trial subscription ran out, and now they want money.  To read blog articles.  I think they’re missing the point.

So while the trial subscription was active, this article about publishing was highlighted.  They helpfully inform you it takes eight minutes to read.  More like five for me, but see, I know some of this shit already.  I worked in publishing, briefly.  A Likely Story, you say?  Precisely so.

One of Westlake’s best comic novels, if not the best.  Out of print for God only knows how long, still waiting for the ebook (and waiting, and waiting).  Westlake only got it published, after multiple rejections, because Otto Penzler was wooing him for The Mysterious Press.  Otto started a separate imprint for non-mystery books by mystery authors, just to show his quarry he was serious. It’s not often the 80’s makes me feel nostalgic (and the novel itself is anything but), but that’s a story you don’t hear much in the publishing biz now.  Not likely at all anymore.

The novel is written in the first person, and is a satire of the publishing industry, among other things.  Early on, there’s a snatch of dialogue where Tom says to a colleague, as they compile a list of things never-to-do in their line,  “Never write a novel in the first person.” 

There were always rules, they’ve always changed, and they were always broken.  That’s what they’re there for.  If everybody stays within the lines, the lines won’t be worth perusing.  Doesn’t mean you pay no attention to the laws laid down by The Powers That Be, just that you need to make your own as you go.  By-laws, if you will.  Written by you.  If you’re a writer, and if you’re not, what’s the point?   (Being a blogger, I don’t need one.)

In a later and bloodier novel, The Hook, Westlake repurposed the premise of Strangers on a Train for the publishing biz.  A modestly successful novelist who can’t get published anymore because the bookstore chain computers say  he’s a bad risk, agrees to whack a badly blocked bestselling author’s litigious estranged wife in exchange for getting to publish his own novel under the latter’s name, in exchange for half the advance, that would otherwise go to the ex.

And the joke is, they’re both in the same boat–the moral conundrum isn’t the murder, it’s that each is selling out his professional pride, rather than lose his profession entirely.  Even though both have published many novels (one of them under multiple names, to try and do an end run around those computers), and one is rich and famous, there’s still a certain fragility to any novelist’s position (Stephen King doesn’t count, since he only writes novels as a sideline now).

A writer of any gender is at bottom a salesman, and there’s no rock bottom to the life.  Except everybody dast blame them.  Who ever blames publishers when they don’t like the latest novels?  But it is in fact publishers who decide not only which books get in print, but which manuscripts get submitted in the first place, since the more you strike out, the worse your chances get and the harder it is to get an agent to return your calls.  You learn to write to the market, or the market writes you off.  There are a great variety of markets one can write for, and the greatest of names are painfully aware of their own, whatever they may be.

Even an established author like Westlake knew better than to go off-reservation too often, which is why there are 24 Parker novels, and 14 Dortmunders.  The former series happened because of Bucklin Moon, whose own fiction career had been torpedoed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and had been reduced to wading through the slush pile at Pocket Books.

When he found The Hunter in there, it excited him, and he wanted more.  So he told Westlake to rewrite the ending (where Parker gets killed off),  give them several novels a year about this low-life, and the rest is bloody bullet-riddled history.  This, mind you, after Gold Medal and Dell had passed on the book.  If Moon hadn’t seen it, neither might any of us.  Unsung heroes doesn’t half-say it, when you’re talking editors.  The good ones, anyway.

Westlake’s reinvention of himself as a comic author, which ultimately led him to Dortmunder, likewise came about as an act of rebellion, Westlake’s this time.  He started writing a mystery/adventure, and it kept coming out funny, so he went with that, against his agent’s remonstrances that there was no market for funny mysteries anymore.

The Fugitive Pigeon became his biggest seller to date.  That couldn’t have happened if he didn’t have a book a year contract at Random House, and this was the book for that year, written to what was considered a more female audience of genteel mystery lovers (while the more hard-boiled paperbacks were for the boys).

His editor there was Lee Wright, a woman of remarkable literary gifts, who Westlake considered the best he ever worked with (with Moon orbiting close behind).  How did Westlake land that coveted contract, when all he’d done prior to this was short stories for the pulps and a long list of sleaze paperbacks no respectable publisher would touch?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  And so would I, but the publishing industry has yet to bring forth a Westlake biography to provide us with such details.  Many others were granted equal or greater opportunities, and are now entirely out of print.   And others got rich enough to buy their own islands.  (And may also be out of print–which would you choose?)

Some authors of note spend their whole careers with one publisher.  Others, like Westlake, are far more peripatetic.  Partly because of their inner natures, and partly because book sales, while healthy enough, are not so brisk as to make it a priority to hang into them (“Bye Don, thanks for all the Dortmunders.”)  So it is helpful that there be lots of outlets for talent, instead of just a few multi-media titans, with all their various imprints.  That way, you can shop around.

And of course, in this brave new world we live in, there’s self-publishing.  Something Westlake treated as the joke it usually is, in God Save The Mark, where Fred Fitch (the other one) has to fend off the advances of a neighbor who has a massive manuscript relating to his speculative scenario about Caesar having WWI biplanes during his campaign in Gaul.  (Which he won pretty convincingly without, right?  I mean, why not Hannibal?  Or Spartacus, like in that SNL skit with Kirk Douglas?)  He wants Fred to spend his newfound inheritance to print up innumerable copies of the book, and it’s a sign that Fred is beginning to put pigeon-dom behind him when he demurs.

Westlake’s comic  novels are littered with grifters who promise literary fame and fortune to those who will pay them their hard-earned dollars–just another con, and Westlake worked with Scott Meredith, literary grifter supreme,  who ironically did give a number of major talents a start, Westlake not least among them.  But it wasn’t what they wrote for him that was the making of them.  It was just the practice, cranking out crap for a quick buck–and reading other people’s bad books in the slush pile, sending them notes, learning what to avoid.  (And most of all, they learned to avoid guys like Scott Meredith.)

Self-publishing has a new wrinkle today–you can literally publish yourself.  Online.  Start your own digital publishing company, which can be just for you, or host other writers as well.  I’ve greatly enjoyed the comic crime novels of Caimh (pronounced ‘qweev’) McDonnell, an Irish stand-up comedian who decided to be funny in print, while getting in a good bit of trenchant social commentary along the way, and damned if he doesn’t pull that off some of the time.  But other times I’m thinking this guy needs an editor.  (And all the time I’m thinking he may have read almost as much Westlake as I have, so at least he chooses good models to work from.)

See, the problem with this type of self-publishing–even when it works out financially–is that you don’t get the apprenticeship.  You don’t have to worry about rejection slips, or being summoned to an office and given notes on how to improve your work.  And that all sounds great, but Westlake knew damned well that a good editor is worth his or her weight in gold-pressed latinum.  No matter how good you are, you can always be better.  A practiced eye can tell you where your weak spots are, how to fix them.  So you develop faster, find your own voice more easily.  (Or in Westlake’s case, multiple voices.)

Magazines aren’t a good medium to break in through anymore.  Just not enough people willing to pay to read fiction in that format. Westlake did an enormous amount of writing for science fiction and mystery magazines in the late 50’s, early 60’s, most of which are gone now.  Hundreds of stories, most of which will never see the light of day again, and he’d probably be fine with that. His memories of writing to that market were not, in the main, nostalgic.

The dark side of having an editor/publisher is that he may not be there to nurture you, but rather use you, as editors like John W. Campbell used generations of up and coming wordsmiths to give him (and us) the same basic idea over and over again–his notion of evolved psychic superman (‘psupermen’ was Westlake’s own contemptuous term) overcoming their inferiors, and then quite often ruling them.  In an essay where he announced his decision to stop writing for the SF pulps, Westlake revealed that he’d put an outright spoof of Campbell into one story–and Campbell not only didn’t realize he was being lampooned, he loved the story, insisted it be made longer, and his surrogate’s role greatly enlarged.

But then again, a whole lot of great writers came up through the pulps, going back to one of America’s greatest–Westlake’s hero, Dashiell Hammett.  Part of crafting a unique voice for yourself may involve meeting resistance to it–learning how to fight back against editorial expectations.  Anyone who reads about Hammett’s early days as a yarn spinner for Black Mask will know he had to fight several editors on his way up–each of whom helped and hindered him to varying degrees.

And then he had to fight for his vision at Knopf, where he was asked if he really needed to make it clear Spade and Brigid were doing the horizontal tango?  He insisted he did.  They backed down.  See, the ending wouldn’t have the same impact if the two hadn’t been lovers–the ending of the Huston film,  stylish and beloved as it is, doesn’t have a tenth the power–because you never really believe Bogie’s Spade ever gave a damn.  Just playacting his way through.  Which is something any writer better watch out for.  Huston had Bogart, Astor, Lorre, Greenstreet (and Arthur Edeson).  Hammett just had a typewriter.  And every time I compare the two reigning takes on that story, the typewriter wins.  Hands down.  Always will.  Mere words.

Of which I have now typed over 3,000, and FYI, I started typing this thing many months ago, and fell into a sort of creative torpor.  I came across the draft last week, thought maybe it was time for me to finish it up, or delete it.

Here is my point–I’m not a real writer.  I just write about what other people wrote.  And since I don’t get paid for it, I can’t even call myself a critic, not that I really aspire to be called that.  I aspire to understand why some words move me more than others.  Why some writers get under my skin, and others don’t.  And these days, I see so few of the former, so many of the latter.  And I suspect that’s because the way writers get made nowadays is not so conducive to the kind of writing I like.

And yet I know there are many good writers of fiction out there.  Many make their living in entertainment, where the money is much better, and the creative freedom is–negotiable?  Writing scripts, for TV or Film, comes with so many directives, rules, formats, time constraints, and endless tropes.  It’s really more of a collective effort, which is not in itself a bad thing, but it’s not the same thing as sitting down and writing a story for yourself–even if you also have a market to write to.  Even if you have an editor to satisfy.  It’s still mainly just you, hammering it out, building stories, seeking settings,  fleshing out characters, pondering motivations, and dealing, always, with whatever the reigning style of your era is.

Should you work with the grain, or against it?  I suspect pretty much every writer worth reading has done both.   Westlake combined the two with a deftness I’ve never quite seen anywhere else, to the point where you wonder where the formula leaves off and the man begins.  Probably he did too.  The  most important thing he did was decide what he wanted to say with each story–the questions he always wanted to ask, of each character.  Who are you?  What do you want?  What are you willing to do to get it?  What wouldn’t you do?  How much can you compromise without losing the only thing you ever really have–which is yourself.  Your identity.

Now I know full well Westlake will never have nearly so impressive a literary footprint as Tolstoy, Melville, or the beloved Dickens.  (Nor did he ever sport as impressive a beard as any of them, which is probably why he shaved it before long.)    But his achievement as a writer, in many ways, is even more remarkable, since he kept producing great work over half a century, never had a day job, or a landed estate.  Certainly crowds of people never waited restlessly at a dockside wharf to learn the fate of Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon (Just keep reading.) but try finding anyone who can give you a plot synopsis of The Old Curiosity Shop.  (Maybe Peter Dinklage for the evil dwarf?)

His humbler place in the pantheon is nonetheless a place, and it rises over time–nobody thought Shakespeare was all that big a deal in the early 1600’s.  Point is, Westlake did what he loved, and people still love it now that he’s gone.  That’s a winning game.

So will there be another like him?  Who produces nearly a hundred fascinating novels, none of them really bestsellers, or critical favorites, yet most of them popular, endlessly reprinted, each very much its own thing;  alternately funny, dark, thrilling, empathic, philosophical, searing, satiric, sardonic, piquant, prescient–and yet each somehow tied to all the others, forming a corpus, a body of work, that rewards endless rereading and cross-reading–so much so that at the time I type this, all but a handful of his books can be downloaded into a digital device for a few bucks?

Might someone accomplish that once more?

All I can tell you is, it won’t be me.  How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nitpick: Mr. Parker and ‘Poetry in Steel’

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Parker is the classic antihero, with lots of free-floating hostility and, of course, fulfilling male fantasies, all the “dames” in the novel are crazy about him on sight.

But to clear up a few facts: There isn’t a spot at the approaches to the tollbooths where any kind of hero, anti or otherwise, can be offered a ride; only a world-class spitter could possibly hit a rapidly moving hubcap; and the Hudson, at the point where Parker throws his cigarette into it, is a tidal estuary, not the ocean. Also, there are those of us who take issue with the suggestion that anyone heading for New Jersey is a “nobody.” However, none of this stopped Hollywood from twice making films inspired by The Hunter: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.

From The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press)

We went up the Henry Hudson Parkway and over the George Washington Bridge. We took the lower level and Dad said “This is new.”

“This part of the bridge?  It looks nutty.”

We went up 9 to 17,and then west on 17 toward Binghamton

From 361, By Donald E. Westlake.

I’ve got about a hundred articles I’m thinking about writing.  Thinking about writing isn’t writing.  (Barely qualifies as thinking.)  I’ve even started a few.  Then I get sidetracked.  Bogged down.  Or there’s too many books crossing my desk at the library. Enterprise of great pith and moment, currents turned awry, you know the drill.

But this past week, a book crossed my desk at the library.  The one quoted up top.  Which was published in 2008 (a few months before Mr. Westlake went out of print), but for whatever reason, we got it in 2020.

It’s supposed to be the first book ever written specifically about The World’s Busiest Bridge, which Prof. Rockland justly feels is unjustly slighted in favor of the one in Brooklyn–but in fact another one came out in 2006, probably after he started writing his.  Not evailable, that one.  I ordered a used copy, just to be thorough.  And because I love that damn bridge.  Not quite as much as I love a certain story that begins there.

Now you know me, pals.  You know exactly what I did.  Same thing you’d do in my place.  Flipped forward to the index, headed over to the ‘w’s, and there it was.  ‘Westlake, Donald.’  That’s right.

But when I flipped back to Chapter 8, ‘The George Washington Bridge in Literature,’ what I found was not an enconium to epic pulp writing, but a curt backhanded diss.  Prof. Rockland was not impressed with Richard Stark’s–starkness.

Parker, the protagonist, has been double-crossed by his partner, shot by his wife, and left for dead in a burning building. The novel begins on the New Jersey side of the bridge with a tone more than a little reminiscent of Mickey Spillane’s unremitting, often misogynistic, malice:

Followed by a truncated quote from the book’s opening.  Followed by the jaundiced offhanded critique you can read up top.  And that’s it.  He gives The Hunter a lot less ink than several other novels referenced in the chapter on literary references to the GWB.  Even though, as he somewhat begrudgingly concedes, it’s the only one that inspired two major motion pictures, that people actually still watch, unlike Up the Sandbox, based on an out-of-print novel by Anne Roiphe, a film even a Streisand fan couldn’t love.  (That movie doesn’t feature the bridge, and neither do the two based on The Hunter, which is what Rockland ought to be mad about–I sure am.)

But you know, he’s got a right to his opinion. He likewise gives short shrift to Howard Fast’s Redemption, and James Baldwin’s Another Country–he thinks they’re good books, but they aren’t bridgey enough.  Other than the out-of-print Up the Sandbox, (included because of a fantasy sequence where the heroine helps blow up his favorite bridge) you can get most of the novels he references for Kindle–some for free, if you have Kindle Unlimited.   The Hunter you’re going to have to shell out for.  People actually still want to read that.

Ah, but here’s the rub.  At the time Rockland must have submitted his manuscript, The Hunter was also out of print, at least in America.  The University of Chicago Press edition came out the same year as Poetry in Steel.  So cut him some slack.  He thought he was writing about some Spillane wannabe who had been lucky enough to sell a few books to Hollywood.  He didn’t know he was writing at the dawn of  The Starkian Renaissance, courtesy of Levi Stahl.

Neither does he seem to have known that Mr. Westlake was, like him, a New Yorker born, who lived a fair bit of his life in New Jersey.  No indication he knows Westlake set many a brilliant novel there; nor does he seem to have twigged to the fact that Parker spends most of the series holed up in Passaic County with Claire. If he had known all that, I think he might have been a mite less jaundiced about the eight best paragraphs of prose ever set on that most complex of edifices spanning the majestic Hudson.

Prof. Rockland is a noted Jersey Chauvinist (he helped popularize the term ‘Jerseyana’), and speaking as one myself, I’ve no problem with this.  Most of the bad attitude that reeks from his brush-off stems from what he mistakenly reads as a typical Jersey Slur from a Manhattanite.  Stark is saying the traffic going into New Jersey on a weekday morning is light, which is correct–not that the people going there are nobodies.  (It’s the people heading into Manhattan who are subjected to Stark’s sardonic scrutiny, and Parker barely even knows they’re alive.)

Parker’s alienation from humankind as a whole likewise gets written off as sexist machismo (Rockland’s not the only one making that mistake).  I’m scratching my head a bit about his air-quoting “dames”, since that word appears not even once in the book (in fairness, Darwyn Cooke has Parker call Lynn a slut in his graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter, and that’s not in the book either–there’s always a lot of projection going on with these books, somehow–your reaction to them probably says more about you than the author).

But pretty clear that many other books he writes about more favorably have that problem as well–he dismisses one of them as ‘chick-lit’ (that’s a bit misogynist, wouldn’t you say?) but still gives it a lot more attention.  So it’s the Jersey thing. And the general ignorance of who Donald E. Westlake is thing.  Hey, he’s not the only one who can get his back up over a slight.  (And not even posthumous–barely possible Westlake could have seen Rockland’s book before he headed off to Mexico one last time.)

But let’s cut to the reveal.  Even if this book came out after the U. of Chicago edition, I’d know which one he read–Pocket Books.  1962.  Has to be.  Because of the throwing the cigarette butt at the ocean thing.

I had never noticed this before–Westlake changed something.  I have both the Pocket Book PBO and Gold Medal reprint published as Point Blank! to go with the film release.  In the latter, Parker throws his cigarette butt at the river.  That’s the only change I can see, at least in the opening chapter.  So Rockland’s only relevant complaint was corrected four decades before he got around to making it.  (Not that the phrase ‘tidal estuary’  would have any place in the passage we’re dissecting here.)

Possible somebody mentioned it to Westlake, maybe there were letters from distressed limnologists, perhaps an editor at Fawcett suggested the tweak.  But my guess is that while reading over the book prior to republication, Westlake the word nerd decided that while to Parker it’s the ocean, to Stark it’s the river.  Stark cares about getting that kind of thing right, Parker doesn’t give a damn.  It’s salty, there’s fish, it’s the ocean.

The first edition is channeling Parker more directly;  in the reprint, Stark translates for us. The narrator voice in that series was a lot more focused and fine-tuned by the Mid-60s.  And so was the man behind it.  Who always knew the Hudson was a river.  He grew up alongside that river, near Albany.  He wrote one hell of a good Parker novel set on and around it, if Rockland had only thought to check.

But try telling that to the distressed Jerseyanist, who can’t stop himself from going back there later in the chapter, when in the midst of analyzing a poetic paeon to The George by a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Newman, feels obliged to state–

The line “Here where the Hudson feels the sea” is beautifully suggestive of the G.W.B.’ s site, not to mention a welcome corrective to Donald Westlake’s confusing the Hudson with the ocean.

It’s saying the same exact thing, in more flowery language, but the poem doesn’t disrespect New Jersey, or even mention it, so no umbrage is taken.

(How did he come to read the first edition paperback?  Hardly to be found at your local used book shop in the early 21st. Borrowed from a friend?  Interlibrary Loan?  Amazon Marketplace?  [That’s how I got it.]  Rutgers library doesn’t seem to have The Hunter in its collection, though they’ve got Comeback. Did he realize The Hunter had been reprinted scores of times over the course of half a century, all over the planet, in English, French, Russian, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese?–no doubt Lithuanian as well.

And what would he say were he to learn not one of those books featured the George Washington Bridge on its cover?  Don’t even ask.  I get the distinct impression he didn’t even know there were 23 more Parker novels after this one, and of course the first edition wouldn’t inform him of that.  No “Other books by” page in there.)

So that leaves the very first nitpick–that nobody could have offered Parker a ride before the tollbooths.  Now in this very book I’m nitpicking, there are a whole lot of stories about things happening on the GWB that are not supposed to happpen. Like did you know a small plane once crash-landed there?

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Much of Rockland’s book, in point of fact, devotes itself to such anomalies, like a herd of goats escaped from an overturned truck, a man stopping his car in mid-bridge to jump off it, an elderly cyclist who found the pedestrian walkway closed, so she rode across the bridge with the cars and trucks, and didn’t ask if that was okay, because if you ask they’ll probably say no.  Probably not a day passes without something happening on that bridge that isn’t supposed to happen.

I’ve actually caught a ride from the Bridge Plaza, not far from the toll booths–turns out drivers who want to be charged the much lower carpool toll will look around for passengers in Fort Lee–they’ve been ticketed for that (even though it isn’t technically illegal), but they keep right on doing it, whenever and wherever they can get away with it.

But agreed, it would probably be pretty hard to openly hitchhike right in front of the toll booths–except, first of all, Parker isn’t hitchhiking.  He’s just walking across the bridge.  And, as I am suddenly realizing, he’s not using the pedestrian walkway.  He’s walking with the cars and trucks.  Heavy morning traffic.  Slow moving vehicles.  And this explains so much else (like how hard is it to spit on the hubcap of a vehicle stalled in traffic that you’re walking right through, like some implacable unstoppable force of criminal retribution?)

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(Darwyn Cooke figured all this shit out a long long time before me.)

But wait–there’s more!  Because the book is set in 1962–and Westlake’s own fateful walk back from New Jersey, that inspired the opening scene, was a few years before that.  And let’s just say the toll plaza looked a bit different then. Wanna see how different? YouTube, do your stuff.

There’s a few cops, yeah–because they’re sending a film truck through.  Putting up a front.  But every morning?  Early in the morning?  Heavy commuter traffic? Cops there all the time?  I don’t think so.  And there’s scads of room for cars to pull over, offer someone a ride.

So why did the fresh-faced guy in a Chevy stop and ask Parker if he wanted a lift? Because Parker isn’t on the pedestrian walkway.  Maybe it isn’t open yet.  Maybe Parker just doesn’t give a damn.  He’s going to walk right through the traffic, right past those women getting vibrations above the nylons, and the guys remembering when they didn’t have a car and thinking they’re empathizing with him–and who’s going to tell him he can’t?  You’ve read the description of how he looks that morning.  Would you?

And if a tollboth worker called the law, by the time they got there, he’d be long across and down into the subway hole.  (It looked really different on the other side as well back then, as you can see up top).  A long time before 9/11, and stuff still happens on that bridge now that nobody wants to know about.

But it was changing, very quickly, right around the time Westlake was writing. They were putting in the lower deck, referenced in both The Hunter and 361, but it didn’t open until August of 1962.  We’re told how Parker is irritated by the way the bridge surface ‘trembles and sways in the wind’–the wind effect used to be a lot more pronounced, before the extra weight of the lower deck (charmingly referred to as ‘The Martha’ by many–hey I learned some things from Rockland’s book) stabilized it.  The amazing Othmar Ammann, Switzerland’s gift to American bridge design, had worked it all out decades before.

When Westlake took his own walk across the bridge, in a troubled state of mind, the lower deck wasn’t in place yet.  The Cross Bronx Expressway, the GWB Bus Station–still in the works.  By the time his mirror twin noirs, published under two very different names, came out, he knew people would have come to terms with the Martha beneath the George, so he must have written that in.  But the George Parker is stalking across early one morning is somehow still a bachelor, so still swaying madly in the wind, signifying Parker’s chaotic unsettled state of mind, that he can only fix by killing Mal Resnick and getting his money.

It all makes perfect sense.  If you take the time to understand it.  If you realize this isn’t some two-bit hack, writing trash for a living.  This is Richard Fucking Stark, bitch.  And you missed every last thing he was trying to tell you.  Yeah, I’m mad.  Apparently that’s what it takes to get me to finish an article these days.  I’ll feel better after I hit the button that says ‘Publish.’

Oh there’s a trashy aura to it–part of its charm, as Rockland should know, since he once penned a scholarly work called Popular Culture: Or Why Study Trash? that my workplace doesn’t have and Amazon doesn’t seem to know exists.

(I forgot to mention that he’s a Professor of ‘American Studies’ at Rutgers.  Is that what Charles Kuralt majored in?  Aren’t we all of us here technically studying America, all the time?  Not carefully enough, it seems.  Now Donald Westlake–there was a veritable polymath of American Studies. For all anyone noticed.)

Now I’m being mean.  I am aware of this.  Writing even a short mass market book about such a storied bridge (even if it is a bit too full of folksy asides and personal anecdotes to be a serious history, and I’m hoping something better comes along for the 100th Anniversary)–that’s a lot of research.  A lot of moving parts.  Just the two chapters on books, stories, poems, artwork, and films featuring the GWB would have been time-consuming.  It’s not reasonable to expect he’d drop everything to become a Westlake expert (and online resources were scarcer then, though they existed).

He somehow found out The Hunter begins on the George, he read it, and he didn’t have the context to appreciate it–but so many people have read that book with zero context, and loved it.   (Westlake probably got at least as much fan mail from black men for the early Parker novels as James Baldwin got for Another Country).  We love what we love, we hate what we hate, and there’s room for all kinds.

The bridge book was worth reading.  But few will ever read it twice.  And far fewer who read The Hunter stop at just once.

Now I said that not one edition of The Hunter (or 361) that I can find features an image of the George Washington Bridge or any aspect of that opening scene on its cover.  And that is true.  But there’s a caveat.

That is, without question, the most engrossing visual of the entire book, Parker walking through that traffic, the wind blowing his hair like a bad toupee, his face like chipped granite, his onyx eyes set on the city before him in a ten thousand yard stare, his big gnarly hands swinging at his sides and the ocean (yeah, I said it, Rockland!) down below him, cold and dark and hungry, waiting for bodies to drop, and they will.

It’s one hell of a visual, and no artist worth his salt would have missed it.  Here’s to you, Darwyn Cooke.  You got it.  (But Parker doesn’t say ‘slut’–not his style.)

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Well damn–I’m done.  PUBLISH.  (or perish)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Parker at the Movies, Part 4: Mr Suzuki and The Stark Homage.

His hand on the knob, she called his name.  He turned around, questioning, irritated, and saw the Police Positive in her hand.  He just had time to remember that it had to be either Chester or Mal–the two who’d been given the revolvers–when she pulled the trigger and a heavy punch in his stomach drove the breath and the consciousness out of him.

It was his belt buckle that saved him.  Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh.  The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door.  But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.

He awoke to heat and suffocation.  They’d set fire to the house.

I shouldn’t need to tell you.

Rojini has offered cease-fire agreement in Paakaa. However the truce was broken by the traitor of the organization. But the son of man aiming secretly position of boss took the gold, Paakaa you charge the brunt of the attack, increase the fire, strikes back to unscrupulous traitor! Villain Paakaa and his friends, Ru Osoikaka mighty criminal organization. Premier epic yelling prime all the charm of the series.

Promotional text from the first Japanese edition of Butcher’s Moon, run through an online software, which only goes to show that some things are gained in translation.

Japanese film is yet another thing I loved a long time before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And as I now discover, much to my delight, I can conclusively link up the two.  (This will be a short piece.  Hopefully get the motor running again.)

Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Kobayashi–I’ll admit I tended to favor the Jidaigeki, or period costume dramas, often dealing with the heavily mythologized samurai class, and creatively rebelling against those myths.  My first love was the Kaiju Eiga , naturally–what other Japanese flicks is an American kid going to know in the 60’s and 70’s?  Crush the grown-ups, Godzilla!)  I know many other names besides those three above. But I was never enough of a maven to know them all.  Too rich a vein to ever fully mine out, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, which I am decidedly not.

You branch out over time–I’ve gotten a fair few kicks from Takashi Miike, ‘J-Horror’ being something many in the west have learned to warily love (and assiduously copy) in the 21st, and the variety of stuff available on cable and Region 1 DVD has kept expanding.  Japanese film isn’t what it once was, of course, but what is?

Miike also did Yakuza films, of which I’ve only seen the intentionally over the top and confusing Ichi the Killer, which being a David Lynch fan, I had no trouble following.  Well, maybe a little, but it didn’t bother me.  You’re either along for the ride or not, right?  Last chance to leap out of the getaway car.  Here we go…..

So TCM has recently been showing a lot of Japanese crime films (you can call them noir if you like, everybody else does) from the late 50’s and 60’s, usually in the wee hours of the night, but that’s what DVR is for.  Many of these were produced not by Toho or Toei, but by what you might call in Hollywood terms, a poverty row studio, Nikkatsu.  Founded in 1912, it opted in the post-war era to make the Yakuza thriller and the police drama its twin wheelhouse, because they couldn’t afford to hire the best samurai stars, and didn’t really know how to make good monster suits and tiny model cities for them to stomp on.  If you can’t afford the top names, make your own, right?  That’s what they did.  Worked for Warner Bros in the early 30’s (didn’t work out quite as well for Nikkatsu).

One of their top stars made himself, you might say–Joe Shishido, sometimes called Joe the Ace, though I struggle not to refer to him as Gerbiljaw.   A conventionally handsome man with both talent and ambition, he decided he needed something to make him stand out from the farflung field of fashion plates (and didn’t want to play cheesy romantic leads), so he had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheekbones, leading to a face looking like– well……a chipped chunk of concrete with eyes of flawed onyx? At some angles, chipmunk would be more like it, but he usually had directors who knew how to point their cameras.

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Regardless of whether the new look caused vibrations above the nylons among female filmgoers (definitely had that effect on women in his films), Shishido became the definitive star of the Yakuza Eiga.  And he frequently worked with a creative young director named Seijun Suzuki, who just recently passed away at the age of 93.

At times, the studio heads wanted Suzuki to be less creative.  He would actually trim his budgets, just to get them to leave him alone to do what he wanted, and as so often happens with geniuses, this made the films even more creative (and therefore, more problematic for the studio).  He claimed it was never his conscious intent to be surrealistic.  It just came out that way.

He’s been written about a lot.  Many a cult western filmmaker has waxed elegaic.  I’m not a film critic, and I haven’t seen most of his movies (and I have to admit, sometimes I fast-forward the ones I record off TCM, when he’s wanking around too much).  So let’s cut to the chase, since this blog ain’t The Suzuki Scenario. Came a point when Suzuki souped up the motorcycle too much for his own good.

It was when he got brought onto a project about a steely-eyed assassin working for the Yakuza, with Shishido playing the surly strong-willed hitter, like he’d already done a few times before.  Joe had the right face (paid well for it).

According to the Wikipedia article for Branded to Kill, the studio hated the original script, brought Suzuki in to rewrite it, then told him they couldn’t understand the script he handed in (a not-uncommon complaint), but there was no time for a do-over, because release schedules. They told him to go ahead and film it.  Even though the auteur theory was by this time a thing, Suzuki had no such pretensions, and was simply following orders–he just followed them his own way.  A true rebel doesn’t have to say no–he just does it.

Suzuki didn’t believe in storyboarding.  He wrote and directed by what I think could be justly called The Push Method, which is probably harder than it looks, and in his line of business, there wasn’t much time for rewrites.

He would often come up with ideas for a scene the day before shooting it, or while shooting it.  He did as few takes as possible, exposing the bare minimum of celluloid, which he said was a habit he picked up in the days after the war, when film stock was hard to come by, but maybe also because he didn’t want the studio to recut the film in a way he didn’t like (is any of this sounding eerily familiar to long-time readers here?)  25 days allotted for shooting, three for post-production, but he finished editing the sucker in one.  (Now don’t talk about efficiency, that’s racist.)

It was released on June 15th, 1967.  Just shy of nine weeks before John Boorman’s Point Blank premiered in San Francisco.  There is not the slightest chance either film impacted the other.  And yet, they somehow share a subplot and a scene. As well as the distinction of being revered visionary cult films that bombed to hell at the box office because audiences couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on in them, but that’s just something that happened a lot with studio films in the 60’s and 70’s.   The subplot and the scene–that’s a bit different.

See, in Branded to Kill, Goro Hanada, #3 hitman in Japan, has a wife named Mami, who likes to talk about how terrifying her husband is, then have wild sex with him after he smells pots of cooking rice (don’t ask).  A conniving Yakuza boss starts chatting her up, and she is aware that Goro has been lustfully eyeing another woman (played by half-Indian actress, Annu Mari, and I for one don’t blame him), and she’s particularly concerned when he blows a major job because a butterfly landed on his rifle barrel (lousy special effect, but that’s hardly the point of anything).

Goro is planning to leave the country, while Mami lies in bed, holding a gun, looking scared.  To save her own lovely skin (of which we see a lot in the movie, which broke new ground in onscreen nudity), she shoots Goro in the stomach (just once, with an automatic) and flees in a panic, while he lies on the floor, seemingly dead.  For no rationally comprehensible reason, we see flames spring up outside the window immediately after her naked form scampers out the door. Well, the film isn’t trying to be rational.

Goro isn’t dead, though.  The bullet glanced off his belt buckle (Suzuki does a close up of the bullet hitting it, just so we’ll know).  He’s hurt, but alive–and enraged.  Off-kilter.  Bad stuff ensues.

Yeah.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that The Hunter (aka Human Hunting Parker/ Villain) was published by Hayakawa in 1966?  You can see the cover up top, along with a written dedication from the translator, Nobumitsu Kodaka, who seems to have sent Westlake a copy in 1975.  (These images courtesy of the Official Westlake Blog.)

So you know, just because you’re a brilliant artist doesn’t mean you don’t steal from other artists sometimes.  As Akira Kurosawa might have said to Sergio Leone if they ever met.  I don’t see anything else in the film specifically from the work of Richard Stark (who doesn’t make organization men his heroes, however surly they might be). I don’t think Westlake would have blamed Suzuki at all–he was known to lift the odd few things himself, though he was rarely this obvious about it.  (Godard would be another matter, since that involved welshing on a debt.)

What’s interesting is how both Suzuki and Boorman independently decided they had to justify the wife’s treacherous behavior, and have her be attracted to a criminal colleague of his  (who isn’t all that attractive), be dissatisfied with her marriage–she couldn’t just shoot her heinous hubby because she panicked under pressure, saw no other way out.  (Played out about the same way in Payback).

She has to be a willing pawn, I suppose, to justify what’s coming later, so the anti-hero doesn’t seem too anti-heroic for taking revenge (and of course, nobody ever goes with the face mutilation thing from the novel).  But Suzuki, who was never much inclined to pull his punches, doesn’t make his two-timing missus take the coward’s way out–hey, remember the floating hair thingy at the end of the climactic sword fight in Kill Bill Vol I?

(Mami saying they’re beasts, as she does earlier in the film, is also interesting, as if Suzuki is picking up on Parker’s lupine nature, but if so, he’s not seeing it as a positive.)

But understand, it’s not just one scene–there’s a build-up to that moment where the film goes full DaDa on us (because Goro is going mad), and it all clearly stems from the twisted relationship between Parker and Lynn in Westlake’s novel, that moment of betrayal that first introduces us to that strange mental state Parker goes into when someone betrays his trust.

Only Goro, while genuinely dangerous, is in a very different type of story, and doesn’t know himself the way Parker does, which is Suzuki’s point, fair play to him.  And the intent, as with Point Blank, is to send up the whole genre, deconstruct it (I doubt Suzuki used that term).  And, in many ways, to make a fool of the rugged hitman, cut him down to size, even while mythologizing him. As Westlake in a sense tried to do with Parker when he wrote what became The Hot Rock–only to realize it wouldn’t work.

Do I agree this is a work of visual genius, that influenced generations of filmmakers?  It’s every bit of that, whether I think so or not.  Do I think it’s a great film?  Ehhhh…..remind me what I said about Point Blank when I wrote about it?  Only that had Lee Marvin, and he didn’t need any surgical enhancements, did he?

There are some pretty serious second act problems.  I feel that Suzuki missed a great opportunity with the Annu Mari character, a female assassin, ice cold, deadly, and oddly vulnerable at the same time, who is written out far too quickly, and replaced by a less interesting (and far less alluring) male counterpart to Goro whose primary claim to fame is that he never uses the toilet when he has to go, because that would be unprofessional.

The film is not long, but seems endless, as bad dreams invariably do.  There’s a bit too much self-conscious posing for the camera, a bit too little attempt to make the nonsense make sense (as the best work of David Lynch does, for example).   It’s got the makings of a masterpiece, and in a certain limited sense it is (as is Point Blank), but not in the sense I’m looking for when I decide whether to call a film that or not.

Because a movie theater isn’t an art gallery.  In a movie theater, story matters, and stories have messages, however nuanced and ambiguous–and as with Point Blank, which I also admire from a visual standpoint, I am not at all sure this film has any message to convey other than “Isn’t this cool?”  It definitely is, but I need more.

Suzuki was on the cusp of a new style, but he hadn’t quite figured it out, and because of a famous legal battle with Nikkatsu that put his career on hold, he never really got the chance until much later, by which time his meandering muse had largely deserted him (studio suits can be annoying, but for some artists, they can be a necessary irritant).  It’s never easy to be in the vanguard, and I will say, I want to see more of his early work; what he constructed before he started with the deconstruction.  I don’t begrudge him one bit of his belated recognition as a cinematic trailblazer.

But remember, they just handed him this project, he shot it in 25 days, edited it in one, got paid a whole lot less than Boorman, and film buffs are still studying it. Maybe someday they’ll find a plot in there somewhere (and be shot for their pains).

Nobody has to look for the plot in Westlake’s novel–it comes hunting for you, and good luck trying to escape it.  It’s been hunting us down since 1962.

Cutting to the proverbial chase, Branded to Kill is not an uncredited  adaptation of The Hunter, but was sure as bloody hell directly consciously influenced by it.  Coincidence my Aunt Fumiko.  An unquestionable match.  Still and all, if anybody wants to question it, here I am, waiting.  There’s no butterfly on my rifle barrel.  Sayonara for now, suckers.

 

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

Belated Reminder: A Westlake classic, Traveling once more.

Brother Clemence spoke first. “There’s no record of the lease with the County Clerk,” he told us. “I swear to you that when I expressed surprise at that, an ancient clerk there snapped at me, ‘Don’t you know there was a war on?’ Meaning the Revolution. Most of New York City was held by the British under martial law throughout the Revolution, and many deeds and leases and other legal papers just didn’t get properly recorded. A transfer of property would eventually have found its way into the records, but a simple rental doesn’t create as many legal necessities.”

Brother Dexter said, “But the lease is still binding, isn’t it, even if it isn’t recorded?”

“So long as one party retains a copy of it and wishes to enforce it,” Brother Clemence said, “it’s still binding. But I just wish I could get a look at the wording of the thing. Brother Oliver, still no luck with our copy?”

“I spent all day searching for it,” Brother Oliver said mournfully, and the dust smudges on his cheeks and the tip of his nose bore silent witness. “I’ve searched everywhere, I was even in the attic. I went through every page of VEILED FOR THE LORD, just in case it had been put in there by mistake.”

Brother Clemence squinted, “VEILED FOR THE LORD?”

“Brother Wesley’s fourteen-volume novel,” Brother Oliver explained, “based on the life of Saint Jude the Obscure.”

“I’ve never actually read that,” Brother Hilarius commented. “Do you recommend it?”

“Not wholeheartedly,” Brother Oliver told him.

Brother Clemence, who was usually a jovial galumphing St. Bernard sort of man, could become a bulldog when his attention was caught, and this time his attention had been caught for fair. “I need that lease,” he said, his heavy white-haired head thrusting forward over the refectory table as though he would chomp the missing lease in his jaws. “I need to look at it, I need to see the wording.

Absent-minded as I am, it had quite slipped my mind that Brothers Keepers was due out in early February, courtesy of Hard Case Crime. (Well, it was a Hard Case edition of a never-before-published Westlake novel that told us in grim detail how unreliable a tool memory can be.)

As is their usual custom there, the book is available both as an e-edition and a reasonably priced paperback, complete with misleadingly sexy cover.  In fairness, there is intercourse other than the social in this one, and at least they got Ms. Flattery’s hair color right (though she doesn’t look very Irish to me with that golden tan–must be the Puerto Rican sunshine).

I quite like this art, which covers the bases, story wise.  My heart will always belong to the original M. Evans dust jacket, which puts full emphasis on the monastery and its dowdy yet doughty denizens.  But that more contemplative approach, appropriate though it may be, doesn’t work for a crime novel in paperback.

Begging the question–is this a crime novel?  I would assume somebody at Hard Case must have posed the question at some point.  A few people get punched.  A few documents are pilfered.  A foiled mugging in Central Park.  A monastic vow of chastity is repeatedly and pleasurably broken.

The only malefactor of note in the piece is an avaricious and unapologetic New York City real estate developer, seeking to destroy a beautiful old building to put up an ugly glass tower, caring not that this will destroy the lives of a handful of monks whose order is so obscure, one suspects the Vatican has no inkling of its existence.

A very white collar crime novel, one must conclude.  But that is, after all, the sort of crime many of us are most concerned with of late, or ought to be.

I go back and forth over which of Westlake’s comic novels that isn’t about Dortmunder is my personal favorite, but I always come back to this, and have long lamented its absence from the ranks of books in print.

Precisely because it’s so hard to slot, it’s been hard to find a lasting home for it, and all glory and praise to Charles Ardai & Co. for returning it to us, like an illuminated manuscript of the deed to a long-neglected sanctum sanctorum of the soul, where the primary object of contemplation is human folly–and the joys of brotherhood.  And, of course, the perilous possibilities of Travel.  Broadens the mind, they do say.  But that depends very much on what spirit it is undertaken in.

Of Mr. Westlake’s problem books, the two outstanding absentees are now Adios Scheherazade and A Likely Story.  I have been known to put a bug in the ear of the odd publisher about their absence from the rolls.  And it would take a very odd publisher indeed to take a chance on either, but what joy to see them breathe again.  To present their problems to us–which are still our problems today.  We need to take another look at them. We need to see the wording.

Sorry for the long absence–I’ve got things in mind, and if I can just relocate my mind (which has been absent, as mentioned), I’ll get to them.  In the meantime, I see The Official Westlake Blog has found a few covers for this one I had not heretofore encountered–and my fidelity to the M. Evans dustjacket is now sorely beset–

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From Japan–and I think I’m not the only one who recognizes this is the same unsung genius who did several Dortmunder covers I’ve showcased here in past.  (It’s so breathtakingly wonderful, I don’t even care that Eileen’s hair is the wrong color.)

The title translates to We Are Salvation to the Saints, and I’m just now realizing how well the story would translate to a Buddhist monastery or Shinto Shrine, threatened by development in Tokyo or Osaka.  Now that would have been a great Kurosawa film.

Here’s the Rivages edition–

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Droll indeed, and Rivages continues, in its own modern way, the classic tradition of Le Série Noire–ie, never pay for original cover art if you can possibly avoid it.  Never mind if it fits the story or  not!  It is noir, ne c’est pas?  Non?  Read the book and stop complaining!  Hopefully at least they shelled out for a decent translation.  But Rivages publishes more Westlake than any other house I’m aware of.

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Same title used by an Argentinian publisher, but I believe this edition hails from Spain.   And I don’t like it one bit, but I like that the birthplace of so many religious orders has its own edition.  Curious–does the term Brothers Keepers (derived from a familiar children’s taunt) not translate into any language other than English?  Well, at least there’s the actual English–

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Good old Hodder and Staunton.  Not a bad job at all.  But I’m still all agog over the Japanese cover. How many more Westlakes did this luminary illuminate?

Hey, if there’s anybody out there who can read Japanese–can you see the name of the artist?  I think I want to erect a shrine to him. Or her.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Traveling to do.  Metaphorically and literally.

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Metaphysical Coincidence: Brian Garfield, 1939-2018.

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The English call them thrillers, and in our clumsier way we call them novels of suspense.

They contain elements of mystery, romance and adventure, but they don’t fall into restrictive categories. And they’re not circumscribed by artificial systems of rules like those that govern the whodunit or the gothic romance. The field is wide enough to include Alistair MacLean, Allen Drury, Helen Maclnnes, Robert Crichton, Graham Greene, and Donald E. Westlake. (Now there’s a parlay.) The market is not limited by the stigmata of genre labels, and therefore the potential for success of a novel in this field is unrestricted: DAY OF THE JACKAL, for instance, was a first novel.

The game’s object: To perch the reader on edge — to keep him flipping pages to find out what’s going to happen next.

From Ten Rules For Suspense Fiction, by Brian Garfield

Not long ago, I happened to catch a bit of the original Death Wish movie on cable.  I realized I’d never read the original novel by Brian Garfield, whose Hopscotch (made into what I consider a much better movie) I reviewed here a few years back.  I also reviewed Garfield’s Gangway, but solely because he co-wrote it with Westlake (that’s the back dust jacket image you see up top).  And of course The Stepfather, which was co-produced by Garfield, was his concept (and Carol Lefcourt’s), but Westlake ended up writing the screenplay.  It is by far the most successful of their collaborations.

So I checked, and yes, Death Wish is e-vailable.  So is the follow-up Garfield wrote to it, simultaneously protesting and exploiting the international box office success of the film adaptation of his first novel, that he despised on many levels.  (Which is probably the main reason both are e-vailable.)

So what the hell?  Got both, read both.  Finished them up a week or two back.  Figured there was an article or two in it.  You may have noticed that in my last article I made some reference to this.  I posted that article on New Year’s Eve.  I did not remember that was the ten year anniversary of Mr. Westlake’s demise.  Nor did I know it was the two day anniversary (give or take) of Mr. Garfield’s.  Found out yesterday.

He went on December 28th.  Made it to 79, so he beat Westlake by a few years. (Not the only time Garfield ever beat Westlake, going by another photo of one of their many poker games.)

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Garfield was a relative late-comer to the Westlake inner circle, who didn’t cut his teeth in the sleaze paperback industry, or by writing science fiction and crime fic for the pulps.  Nor to the best of my knowledge did he ever know Scott Meredith. But he got his first novel published at 18, which beats Westlake by quite a few years.  Though he was also born in Gotham, he ended up way out west, in more ways than one.  Sometimes under an alias, cuz he was one bad hombre.

This was the main professional point of difference between them, since the only western Westlake (generally averse to period writing) ever published was the one they worked on together, and we can guess whose idea that was.

So crime was their meeting point–but with a difference.  No heists for Garfield, no comic capering, no hapless Nephews fleeing irate mobsters.  Needing a back-up for the shrinking westerns market, Garfield didn’t write straight-up crime fiction, or classic mysteries, cozy or hard-boiled.  He wrote ‘suspense.’  And what the hell is that?  See up top.  (Great article.  I guess it wouldn’t be fair to blame him for Grisham.  That’d be like blaming Westlake for all the hacks who’ve gotten rich copying him.)

Garfield’s two best-known novels are respectively about an accountant who moonlights at hunting muggers and a forcibly retired CIA agent baiting his former employers into hunting him.  They live up to his suspense writer’s credo in spades.  They are also complex insightful looks into the psyches of men who stray from the beaten path, which is what Westlake would have liked about them.  They are, first and foremost, about human beings, and the formula is adjusted to that end.

They both bear a considerable debt to Westlake.   Hopscotch in particular goes out of its way to reference him.  And in reading Death Wish, I found myself convinced that Westlake had, in his way, returned the favor (he name-checked Garfield more than once, particularly in some of the Dortmunders, but that’s not what I mean.  Get to that later.)

Garfield, like Westlake, was fascinated by identity, though the theme is less defined in his work (not that I’ve read enough of it to definitively opine on that). He also had a deep respect for professionals, and a curiosity about what happens to them when they have to redefine themselves in some way, find a new mode of living, working.

Garfield, like Westlake, saw many of his books adapted into films.  Sometimes by him, usually not.  He had a closer connection to Hollywood (Westlake never seems to have aspired to producing anything), and that came with both pluses and minuses.  There’s only so much of yourself to go around in one lifetime.

If Garfield’s literary oeuvre is less impressive than Westlake’s overall–I’d have to say it is, and of course I would–it’s partly because he had fingers in a few too many pies.  Jack of many trades, master of most, he fell short of supreme mastery as a novelist.  (I’d say the same for William Goldman, and he was arguably the greatest screenwriter of all time, as well as a magnificent novelist, but again, spread himself too thin.  The novel is the harshest of all mistresses.)

Garfield made his choices, and they may well have been the right ones–for him. Posterity will have its say, but point is, it will have something to say about Brian Garfield. He made his mark and then some.

Most of all like Westlake, he never retired (though his last book came out in 2008–nonfiction, and I keep meaning to read it).  I assume health was part of the reason for that, not taking it easy.  What can such as they retire to?  You keep going until you can’t.  Nobody runs forever.  Just like nobody stops doing what they love to do.  Unless they have a death wish.

My focus here is Westlake (it has been known to blur at times).  I’m going to review Death Wish.  And Death Sentence.  And try to put them in a Westlakeian context.  But the most important task of any reviewer is to ask the question–who wrote this?  If a novel doesn’t tell you who the novelist is, the novelist didn’t do his or her job.

Brian Garfield always got the job done.  And reading him at his best is like holding a tiger by the tail.  He and the tiger were old friends, don’t you know.

bgdrifter

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