Review: Put A Lid On It, Part 2

NY1

“Meehan,” Woody said, “what the hell have you got to do with the president?”

“They want me to steal something for him,” Meehan said.   “He’s got an evidence problem, just like a normal person, like you or me, and he needs a robber, so they look in the federal can, they find me, make me the offer.  I get this evidence, turn it over, they make my case go away, they can do that.  Next week I’m supposed to go to juvenile court, plead guilty, sentenced to time served.”

Woody frowned at him.  Down inside there, he seemed to be thinking very hard, but not very fast.  Finally he said, “How long I known you?”

“Maybe seven, eight years.”

“Here’s the thing of it,” Woody said.  “What you just told me there is the rankest bullshit, I wouldn’t try that one on my four-year-old nephew, but it’s comin outa you, and while you contain as much bullshit as anybody it isn’t that kind of bullshit, not in all the years I known you.  It just doesn’t have the mark of your kind of invention, and why would you try such bullshit on me in the first place?  What’s in it for you?  You aren’t trying to entrap me, not with a story like that, you aren’t making me any offers, so what is this shit?”

“Well, it’s the truth,” Meehan said.

“Jesus Christ on a crutch,” Woody said.  “If it isn’t the truth, what the fuck is it?  You can buy me that beer now.”

“Wouldn’t you describe yourself as antisocial?”

“Anti?”  He was surprised, but not offended; she just didn’t understand yet.  “I’m not against society,” he said.  “I need it.  Just like you do, or anybody else.  I got no objection to society at all.  I do try to keep out of its way.”

“And what?” she asked him, “do you see as your position in society?”

He couldn’t resist.  Hoping to achieve a boyish grin and a shrug, he said, “Usually, on a fire escape.”

For its author, this book was about three things:

1)Creating a (somewhat) more grounded version of the type of character Westlake had written about for decades, under several different names.  An unaffiliated operator who steals for a living, and has a network of fellow independents he can call upon to pull jobs too big for one guy.  Less invincible than Parker, less improbably multi-talented than Grofield, less fatalistic than Dortmunder, and more inwardly reflective than any of them.

2)Satirizing American electoral politics, and suggesting that the people who run electoral campaigns are in a poor position to call anybody else dishonest, as are most of their candidates–so use them, as opposed to letting them use you.  Not a revolutionary so much as an evolutionary message–wise up, voters.  Just because you dance with somebody doesn’t mean you have to go to bed, or (even worse) fall in love with your partner.  But you’re going to need to dance with somebody.

3)Telling a story about a guy who had already figured out who he was, what he wanted to do with his life–but then decided to strike off in a new direction.  Not forgetting what he used to be, but rather finding something new to do with the same talents and proclivities he’s always had, something with more of a future to it, and that decision comes with a smart interesting woman into the bargain (a recurrent theme in Westlake’s work, because the boy can’t help it).

That last story is out of O. Henry, of course.  A Retrieved Reformation, where Jimmy Valentine, the master safecracker, meets the love of his life, goes straight for her, never telling anyone what he used to be, and then one day he’s going to give his tools to a fellow cracksman (his reformation doesn’t mean he thinks everybody else has to reform–his personal choice), and then suddenly has to use them to save a child from asphyxiating in a bank vault.

This cop who’s been tracking him has Jimmy dead to rights, and he gives himself up, believing his new life has come to an end, along with his freedom.  But the detective, who saw what Jimmy just did, addresses him by his new name, and tells him his buggy’s waiting. It’s a beautiful story.  And that’s all it is.  In the real world, that cop would have clapped on the bracelets in a heartbeat.  Cops never reform of being cops, just like politicians never reform of being politicians.  And both have their uses, but you need to know this about them if you want to stay in the free and clear.  You must understand the nature of the beast if you want to make it work for you.  And you must understand yourself as well.

And say what you will about Francis Xavier Meehan, he knows himself very well indeed, but he’s never had much occasion to know anything about politics or its practitioners up to now.  He’s getting what you might call a crash course.  Released from a Federal prison, where he was looking at life behind bars, he’s been told all charges will be dropped if he obtains a videotape that could derail the reelection hopes of the incumbent President, if it’s released just before the election.

It’s being kept at the home of a rich supporter of the other party’s nominee, and reluctant though he was to pull this job, he suddenly got interested when told this gentleman, one Clendon Burnstone IV, also has a very fine collection of antique firearms.  Meehan’s interest only increased when he found out the fence he typically uses is well-familiar with this collection, would be delighted to get his hands on it.

Pat Jeffords and Bruce Benjamin, the two campaign organizers he’s making this deal with, are scandalized by his insistence on performing this ancillary theft-for-profit.  Why, that’s larceny!  Meehan gently informs them that’s what they were already asking him to do, and their intentions are just as guilty as his.  They take a little while to process this.

The other side will be releasing the tape very soon now.  That gives Meehan very little time to work with, but quite a lot of leverage, and what he wants from that leverage is room to maneuver.  So in no time at all, he’s heading back to New York with Goldfarb, getting a room in a fleabag hotel near the Port Authority bus station, and pulling phone numbers of past accomplices out of his head (since one of his ten thousand rules is to never write anything down).

There’s a voicemail function on the hotel room phone, and a recurrent theme in the book is that he keeps coming back to the room, sees the red light blinking, and it’s never good news.  So he gets a message from Goldfarb, and he calls her back, and some man answers, tells him he should come over there now, and he’s pretty sure it’s not her boyfriend.  So he fakes his way past the doorman in Goldfarb’s upper west side apartment building by pretending to be installing a smoke alarm, and long story short, they had her handcuffed to the bathroom sink, she unscrewed the pipe, she got her gun, and she was going to shoot both of them, and they were presumably going to shoot back, and it would get very messy, and cops would show up to question the survivors.

With a flurry of desperate mime, he persuades her this is a bad idea (Meehan would rather steal guns than use them), and they sneak out of there, so he can let his handlers know what a brilliant job they’re doing with security.  Goldfarb gets a room at the same crappy hotel he’s in.  She is not happy about this, but it keeps her in the story, something Westlake had often found difficult to justify with The Girls in his Nephew books.  The Goldfarb, with her legal expertise and quirky rapport with Meehan, is somehow easier to keep in the mix, even though she wants to know noth-eeeeng about the robbery she understands is to be committed as the price of her client’s freedom.  “No details!” she keeps exclaiming, all through the story.

Goldfarb, who doesn’t impress easy, is gratified that Meehan came galloping over there to save her.  Though he does like her, his primary concern was to make sure this was nothing that could negatively impact his freedom, to which she is currently vital.  But on the other hand, it’s nice to have her look at him like he’s her hero, even though she was in the process of saving herself when he arrived.  So he never disillusions her.  If the relationship worked out, maybe he tells her on their Golden Anniversary, but I have my doubts.  Probably one of the ten thousand rules is “You don’t need to share everything.” One of the rules that gets you to that Golden Anniversary.  If Goldfarb didn’t agree, she wouldn’t keep saying no details.  Oh, and this is where she tells Meehan, “I find I prefer the Goldfarb without the Ms.”  So does Meehan.  Cute couple, huh?

So having rescued the maiden fair, or whatever, Meehan gets back to business, and manages to make contact with Woody, one of his erstwhile partners in crime, and having submitted to being searched for a wire, because Woody knows he was in federal custody, he persuades Woody he’s got a legit job to work, as you can see up top.  Woody’s a fun character.  Don’t get too attached.

Next he and Goldfarb meet with Jeffords, to find out what the hell happened that two not-very-nice guys, one with an Arab-sounding name and one with a Jewish-sounding name, are holed up Goldfarb’s apartment, apparently in hopes of having a serious conversation with Meehan about his current activities.  Jeffords has learned the answer to this question.  Remember how they used a campaign contributor’s private jet to transport Meehan to North Carolina?  The campaign contributor, named Arthur, found out about it.  And turns out he knows some other people he owes favors to besides the President.  Small world, huh?

When next he could speak, he said, “We now learn that Arthur, through various multinational business connections, has, what shall I say, divided loyalties.  Conflicts of interest.  There are other elements, offshore, about which he feels as strongly as he feels about the reelection of the President.  Perhaps more strongly.”  He looked uncomfortable, fiddled with his wineglass, said, “It seems there’s a combined Egyptian-Israeli task force in the country at the moment, attempting to influence the election.  Been here for months.  Spending money.”

Goldfarb said, “Foreign power brokers always try to horn in on our elections, guarantee themselves a piece of the pie.  It’s like lobbying.”

(I find myself wishing we’d nominated Goldfarb. Oh well.  She’s not dumb enough to accept, anyway.)

Goldfarb asks if they want to get their hands on the tape so they can release it, to which Jeffords says “They would merely like our President to be deeply in debt to them.  Let’s say, even more deeply in debt.”  Yeah.  Let’s say that.

So then it’s off to the races with Woody (just Meehan, since Goldfarb still doesn’t want any details).  More specifically, it’s off to rural Pennsylvania, which you might recall is was where the insane ex–POTUS of Ex Officio lived, fancy that.  They scope out the estate where the tape and the guns are, and they get a bit of luck–they can wander around the property more or less at will, because there’s a big campaign rally for the Presidential candidate Clendon Burstone IV is supporting.  Only it turns out not to be so lucky for Woody.

See, this guy ginning up the crowd with the usual conservative boilerplate (I told you there’s no way in hell Clendon Burnstone IV was supporting a Democrat) says something about how we must build more and better prisons.  Some heckler shouts from the crowd “What’s a better prison?”  And a horrified Meehan realizes the shout came from Woody.  Oh God.  He’s developing a social conscience.  At the worst possible juncture in time and space.  Isn’t anybody besides Meehan immune from this shit?

What follows is a spirited if perhaps simplistic debate, regarding the pros and cons (heh) of rehabilitation.  At one point the speaker, seeing a white person at a conservative rally, and still using the standard code words for non-white minorities, yells “Don’t waste sympathy on those animals!  We’ve got to be tough on them!”  To which Woody responds “Tough?  You think you’re tough?  The joints I’ve been in, you wouldn’t last five minutes!”

Yeah.  He’s gone.

Now I’m a liberal born and bred, so obviously I think Woody wins the debate.  So did Westlake, as you’d only need to read Help I Am Being Held Prisoner to know.  But when winning the debate means being led away in cuffs, I think you have to say the victory is of the Pyrrhic sort.  Woody has outstanding warrants on him, so he’s not going to be working for a while.  Meehan sort of rolls his eyes, finds an unlocked vehicle with the keys in it, and drives away.  Back to the old drawing board.

There’s a message from Goldfarb waiting for him at the hotel.  She’s back in her apartment now, but she found out her phone is bugged. Meehan calls Jeffords again.  He sighs, says he’ll work on it, but what can you do on a Sunday?  Meehan calls Goldfarb back, tells her the bugs may be there a little longer.  She says what the hell, her mom’s been kvetching about how she never calls.  Yehudi and Mostafa can listen to an hour of the Jewish Mother Channel.  “Revenge is sweet,” says Meehan.  They’re bonding.

(Sidebar: Perhaps you think Westlake is just being his usual far-fetched farcical self by positing an Israeli-Egyptian team of spies working somewhat against U.S. interests–as I must confess I did at first.  And, as is usually the case, he’s smarter than us.)

Meehan’s memorized list of phone numbers for guys who might want to pull a nice friendly little heist now and again is reaching its end.  Many of the numbers don’t work anymore, or somebody he doesn’t know picks up, or it turns out the guy is in prison, or dead, or worst of all, leading an  honest life.  (Westlake’s drawing on the short story You Put On Some Weight, aka Fresh Out of Prison, that he published in Guilty Detective Story Magazine in 1960, which later appeared in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution.)

But he finally finds an active heister, name of Bernie, and meets him in Queens, at Atomic Lanes (a bowling alley that was built after the A-Bomb, but before Americans realized somebody might drop one on them too).  Bernie, whose physical description sounds fairly similar to Westlake’s (skinny, quick-moving, mostly bald with pepper-and-salt steel wool around the edges) is amenable to stealing some rich guy’s guns, why not?  Having arranged to drive back out to Pennsylvania with Bernie the next day, Meehan meets a woman named Mona at the bar there, and heads off for a one night stand.  Goldfarb is still just his lawyer.  I never said this was a storybook romance.

And this time they get really lucky.  At the structure outside the main house, which Meehan suspected was where the guns would be, they meet this old man, skinny, refined accent (almost but not-quite English), dressed mainly in white, with tan Docksiders.   I thought WASPs weren’t allowed to wear white after Labor Day, but I guess if you’re rich enough you can get a dispensation. He talks a lot.  He knows everything about old guns and the Revolutionary War, except maybe why it was actually fought.  Yep.  He’s Burnstone.  And he thinks they’re with the campaign.  You know, the other campaign.

So they learn everything they could possibly want to know, except the location of the tape, which Meehan figures is probably hidden there in the same room with the guns.  Bernie does a great job sounding like he’s interested in what the old man has to say, on history and politics, while inwardly seething at his patrician airs.  Here’s a random sampling of vintage Burnstone tone.  He’s explaining why he’d allow a rally for a candidate he’s only supporting to get a tax loophole passed to be held on his property.

“Mingling with the lower orders,” he said.  “What I normally do with the great unwashed is mostly leave them to themselves.  Unwashed they most certainly are, but what makes them great I will never understand.”

Perhaps reading Mencken a bit selectively, but doesn’t everyone?  By the time they bid Mr. Burnstone (oh damn, Westlake watched The Simpsons!) farewell, Bernie would almost be willing to rob him blind for free, if that wasn’t a contradiction in terms.  They meet two guys named Grassmore and Greedley (I couldn’t find those exact names on this database of authors I have access to, but I found Grassmuck and Greedy).  These are the actual two campaign guys Burnstone mistook Meehan and Bernie for.  Having been told the old man’s gone off on one of his rants about mouth-breathers they prudently decide to come back another time.  They mention in passing that nobody in his immediate family can stand to be around him either.

But as they drive back to New York, Meehan has an epiphany–see the problem with this job is that Burnstone is there all the time.  They need him to be gone in order to pull the job without bloodshed (sorely as Bernie is tempted).  How to achieve this?

He had confided to them his feelings of deep frustration that due to tawdry electoral concerns, he was not permitted to get up on a platform behind a podium and speak his mind, such as it is.

They go back, and tell him there’s this event they have planned, for a group called the Friends of the American Revolution (FAR)–a group formed for people who would have been on our side if they’d gotten here before the shooting was over.  Just good solid folks of northern European stock, none of that Ellis Island riff-raff you understand, and they’d love to hear you talk some good solid common sense Americanism to them, Mr. Burnstone.  EX-cellent!  Said event to occur on the day of the heist.  Problem solved, but now they need a limo to pick him up, and a chauffeur, complete with uniform and a cap to tip.

Then he returns once more to a message from Goldfarb, who needs to talk about his upcoming meet with Judge T. Joyce Foote, from Juvenile Court, who is supposed to remand him to Goldfarb’s custody, but could if she so chose make things difficult.  They need to meet and talk about protocol.  Plus she wants him to buy her dinner.  Meehan suggests this Caribbean place in the Village, that makes this great dish out of ‘goat elbow.’  That’s what he calls it.  It could very well be this Caribbean place in the Village.  Meehan the Foodie.  Who knew?  Well, his creator the foodie, obviously.

Goldfarb likes the goat elbow, but the restaurant is too noisy, so they chat as they walk down the winding side streets of  the Village.  This ends up feeling romantic, which confuses Meehan, because firstly he’s not the least bit romantic, and secondly this is Goldfarb, and she’s still his lawyer, but nonetheless he thinks to himself that if she wasn’t he’d probably be making a pass at her, though the glasses might get in the way.

She’s bent on lecturing him about how to behave around a judge so as not to get the usual reaction he gets out of judges.  Of course, this will be the first time (in his adult life, anyway) he’s ever been presented to a judge as a Person In Need of Supervision, legalese for a minor.  He wants to know why Judge Foote won’t just take one look at the 42 year old man in front of her and throw him the hell out of her courtroom.

“Chambers,” Goldfarb said.  “I wouldn’t parade you in juvenile court, believe me.  And no, she won’t boot it back, because she will see that everybody else, including people with more sway and import than her or anybody else in juvenile court has already signed off on it.  And that’s when I explain there are other humanitarian reasons for this special treatment, or perhaps you’re just a major turncoat about to testify against everybody in the world.  We’ll shade between superfink and a wasting disease without getting specific about anything, because we don’t have to get specific.  Are you following me?”

“No,” Meehan said.

“All right, fine,” she said.  “Your job, in front of Judge Foote, is to look hangdog but shifty, which I think you can do, and maybe toss in a little physical weakness as well.  Answer questions briefly.  Volunteer nothing.”

“I have volunteered nothing,” Meehan told her, “every day of my life.”

So they reach Seventh Avenue, and grab a cab back to their respective abodes, Meehan’s a little bummed the walk is over.  The Village can do that to a person, and apparently so can Goldfarb.

So back to the job–they need a third man, somebody to drive the limo that will convey both Clendon Burnston IV and his entire domestic staff away from the estate to a fictive political rally composed entirely of admiring Nordics.  Bernie’s got a guy.  Bob Clarence, who owns a chauffeur’s uniform, which he uses when he’s driving for a heist.  Cops just look at him idling there at the curb by a bank, and figure he’s supposed to be there.  Which as far as he’s concerned, he is.   Good driver, not jumpy, and best of all–he’s black.  Mr. Burnstone will be so pleased.  Bob won’t.

So Meehan has to go meet him, without Bernie (who doesn’t like to drive into The City, even though he lives in Queens), and there’s a bit of a sizing up process at this garage at 125th and Amsterdam, which it turns out Bob owns (useful way to hide his heisting profits).   He’s of an equivalent age set to Meehan, they share many similar life experiences, and they mainly get along fine, but Bob doesn’t like the idea of taking some old guy for a ride and just abandoning him.  Mean.  Meehan expresses his sincere conviction that after driving him for a few hours, Bob will be resisting the urge to run this particular old guy down with the limo.   “Anti-black, you mean?” Bob asks.  “Clendon Burnstone IV doesn’t fine-tune,” Meehan responds.  They have Chinese.  Bob’s a foodie too.

So then there’s yet another message from Goldfarb waiting for him at the hotel (I hope they don’t itemize those on the bill, but then Meehan isn’t paying, so who cares?).  Time to see the judge.  She picks him up in a limo provided by the campaign, and clearly this is the most fun she’s had in years, hard as she tries to conceal it.  The meeting in chambers goes as well as could be expected, with all kinds of judicial eye-raising (see the second of the two quotes up top, which is also about the most succinct expression of Westlake’s political philosophy as could be asked for), but the appropriate papers get stamped, and abbracadabra, Meehan is in Goldfarb’s custody, which suits him fine.

They go over to meet Jeffords at some restaurant out on Long Island, and Meehan wants to be reassured that Yehudi and Mostafa won’t be showing up at the Burnstone house while he’s working.  Jeffords says don’t worry about it, that’s been taken care of.  Suitable threats have been made.  The rich donor who was trying to get the video for his foreign friends has been informed that if there’s any further unpleasantness of that nature, he won’t be invited to the inaugural ball.  Meehan just looks at him.  “To crime,” says Jeffords, raising his glass.

And then, heading back into The City, Meehan and Goldfarb have The Talk.  Not that one, they both know where babies come from, but point is, where are they going?  Perhaps fishing a bit, Goldfarb sort of indicates that once she’s no longer his lawyer, they have no particular reason to see each other anymore.  I mean, he’s a crook.  She’s not.  The Gershwins wrote a song about this.  Tomaytoes, Tomahtoes, you know the one.

But in truth, they have much in common.  Both share a certain outlook on life, a curiosity about how things work, like language for example.  She says his being in her custody is just a technicality, and he says it’s the technicalities that clothesline you.  She’s not familiar with the term, wants to know how it originated.  She figures maybe if somebody like Meehan was doing a burglary, and the householder came home early, he might run neck-first into a clothesline trying to get away.  She’s fascinated.  “I love phrases from before technology,” she said, “that we still use.”

This is where he finally figures out she’s his soulmate, tells her he does not want to say goodbye.  She asks why.

“I dunno,” he said.  “I got used to talking with you.  Clothesline and all that.  You know, I think when I saw you that time in your apartment with the gun in your hand, stalking those guys, I decided I liked you.  You’re kinda goofy and fun.”

“Thanks a lot,” she said.

As professions of love go, it’s original, give it that, though it’s a few more paragraphs before she figures out he’s hitting on her.    And now she has to figure out how she feels about that.  And they agree he’ll come over to her apartment so they can work on that.  It’s a start.

Then it’s a wash, because god damn it, there’s another message blinking on his phone when he gets up to his room.    Why did people invent this answering service thing in the first place?  The message is from Jeffords, and he’s speaking in a terrified whisper, saying call him back, immediately.  Meehan calls his cellphone, and still with the terrified whisper, but he explains.  Yehudi.  Mostafa.  They grabbed him.  The threat of dis-inviting the donor to the inaugural was less effective than he’d hoped.  There has been talk of severed fingers.  Obviously these guys never read Butcher’s Moon, or else they read it as a sort of instruction manual.

So Meehan tells Goldfarb they have to put off the thing at her apartment in order to go rescue Jeffords, which she interprets as a fear of commitment on his part, thus proving she’s as feminine as the next gal, but considerably better armed.  Learning that Meehan is unarmed (as always), she says they’ll go to her apartment first, so she can get her heat, her rod, her gat (her exact words).  She’s warming to the endeavor.  It’s subtle, but you can tell.

They find Jeffords being held, as he informed Meehan in the aforementioned terrified whisper, in a ‘Reader’s’ (read ‘fortuneteller’) parlor, over by a Sloan’s supermarket on Broadway.  They have to look a bit to find the right Sloan’s, but fortunately it’s not that popular a chain.  I never liked their selection much, honestly.  They got gobbled up by Gristedes, which I don’t like that much either.  But never mind that now.

There follows a brief contretemps, in which the purportedly psychic proprietress expresses skepticism that Goldfarb would shoot anyone with that gun she’s carrying “She’s a lawyer, lady,” Meehan told her, “she’s capable of anything.”  In the end, only a very ugly painting gets perforated, and they escape in the limo with a very grateful Jeffords, who vows that Arthur’s access to the President is history, and he’s also going to see that a History of Steam museum in a certain congressional district is going to be defunded.  Don’t for one minute think this is not how American politics really works.

Meehan is fed up with these government people and their leaks.  Does anybody there know how to play this game?  Jeffords says everybody in Washington is terrified this whole situation is going to blow up, creating chaos across the board, worse than Watergate, Iran-Contra, that thing with the little blue dress that got jizzed on. Meehan says, “You people kind of specialize in farce down there in DC, don’t you?”  “Not on purpose,” an abashed Jeffords responds.  Meehan expresses a lack of understanding as to how all these people were not in the MCC with him.

Goldfarb and Meehan have yet another nice meal (paid for with our campaign donor dollars, I must remind you).  This time it’s a nice little French restaurant over near Times Square, kind of place my dad and I used to go when we had theater tickets.  Some of those joints have been around forever.  So has the talk they’re going to have now.  Same talk as before, only with more context.

“I’m the problem,” Meehan said.

“Truer words were never spoken.”  Looking at the wine in her glass, the glass on the red-and-white check cloth, she said “I’ve seen your dossier, you know.”

“Sure, you’re my lawyer.”

“There’s nothing much hopeful in there,” she told him.  “In fact, it’s all mostly hopeless.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re a recidivist,” she said, “you’re an autodidact, no degrees, no marketable–”

“Wait a second,” he said.  “What was that one?  The second one.  I know recidivist, that’s what’s going on my tombstone, Francis Xavier Meehan, Recidivist.  But what was the other?”

She grinned at him.  “That’s funny,” she said.  “The one word every autodidact doesn’t know is autodidact.  It means self-taught.”

“Self-taught.”

“You dropped out of high school, but you’re a reader, and you’ve picked up a lot of stuff.  And given the amount of time you’ve spent behind bars,” she added drily, “you’ve had plenty of time for reading.”

“A little more than absolutely necessary,” he said.

“If your country hadn’t called you,” she said, “you’d have nothing but reading time for the rest of your life.”

“We call that a close call,” he said.

“No,” she told him, “we call it deus ex machina.”

That one he knows.  So they talk about his failed marriage, the kids he’s decided can come see him once they’re adults if they feel like it, her fiance from law school who just drifted away from her, because he was on the corporate law track, and she just wasn’t interested in any of that crap.  They’re both losers, but of vastly different types.  Both serenely independent and content before they  met.  And yet.  And yet.

Westlake loved writing love stories, but this one feels more real than all the others combined.  This is relationships he’s really had, conversations he’s really had, adult relationships, sadder but wiser relationships, the kind you have after the early ones go supernova and die.  Because until you know who you are, you can’t know who you’re supposed to be with.  And it takes us so damned long to find that out.  And the answers keeps changing as you go.

And the synopsis keeps turning out longer than I wanted it to, so let’s cut ahead a bit.  Meehan now knows what’s on the videotape he’s supposed to steal.  He insisted, and Jeffords & Benjamin reluctantly agreed.  Turns out the incumbent POTUS made a very serious error regarding Middle Eastern politics, that led to a bunch of people being killed, including some of ours.  And here you were thinking it was going to be a sex tape.  Shame on you.

As they told him, it’s not that their guy was corrupt, or malicious, but in trying to solve a problem, he exceeded his constitutional authority, as Presidents sometimes do, and created even worse problems, as is too often the case.  If it came out early in his second term, it would be a PR black eye, but not enough to topple his administration.  If it comes out now, the other guy probably wins.  Better the devil you know, right?  Well yeah, that is frequently right.  We know that now.  Well, I guess there are still some hold-outs.

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Meehan and Bernie pull the heist, which isn’t going on any top ten Westlake heist lists, but it was never really the point of the story.  They get the guns, they get the tape, they get the corroborating documents, and Bob gets an earful from Clendon Burnside IV, and good thing he didn’t bring a gun with him.  He wants to go back and burn that damn house down, with Burnstone inside it, but Meehan persuades him to put those bloody thoughts aside, and concentrate on profit.  Oh, and could Bob possibly hold onto something for him?  Stow it at the garage on 125th.

Jeffords actually participates at one point, filling in for Bob as driver (Burnside doesn’t know him by sight).  Would you believe he actually enjoys listening to the old bat?  Mainly he just likes the idea of driving Bob Clarence’s beautiful new Jaguar, which Bob lets him know he better not put so much as the tiniest scratch on.  But the joys of the Jag aside, he found Burnside fascinating.

“I admire the effect,” Jeffords said.  “If I could tap into the subtext of fears and prejudices and prides and misunderstood history the way he can, only with a little more self-awareness, bring it out a little smoother, a little blander, I wouldn’t be a groundling in the CC, I’d be running for President myself.”

(I somehow feel that additional commentary is unneeded here.)

So all that remains is to meet Jeffords at one last final restaurant (honest!)  A diner.  No Westlake heist is truly complete without the double-cross after it’s all over, and guess where it’s coming from this time?  Well, you don’t need to guess, it was in that review blurb from Marilyn Stasio that I posted up-top in Part 1. But she misattributed the money quote.   She thought it was Meehan who said it.  It was Jeffords.  He feels really bad about this, Meehan having saved his life and his fingers and everything.  But they’re going to have to send him back to prison, for like, ever.

See, here’s the problem.  Meehan knows too much.  They can’t have him running around free with all that dangerous intel, and even if they could trust him, there’s the press sniffing around, wondering why this 42 year old thief facing a life sentence for mail theft got remanded to his lawyer’s custody in Juvie court.  Meehan already had to dodge some reporters at the hotel, who have the wrong idea entirely about what’s going on, but they’ll keep digging.  The political ops just can’t take the risk.  And it’s just who they are.

Meehan saw.  That was the worst of it, sometimes, being able to see the other guy’s point of view.  “I didn’t think you’d do this to me, Jeffords.”

Jeffords sighed.  “Oh, they never do,” he said.  “It gets them all, though, sooner or later.  They’ve been warned, they know better, they know all the bitter histories, but they just can’t help themselves.  They want to believe.  Everybody, somewhere down the line, trusts a politician.”

That’s the end of Chapter 46.  Chapter 47 begins with Meehan saying “Not quite everybody.”  Remember how Meehan left the evidence with Bob Clarence?  He’s got a package with him, sure.  It’s got a videotape in it.  Know what video it is?

s-l300

I guess the PG stands for Politicians so Gullible?  See, they are just regular people, after all.

Jeffords is furious, and somehow manages to express a sense of betrayal, but Meehan has him, and he knows it.  It wasn’t that he wanted to send Meehan back inside, but as he puts it, the idea of anything or anybody being out of their control just bothers them.  Nature of the beast.  And now the beast is going to give Francis Xavier Meehan a hundred bucks walking around money, and pay the check.

There’s one more little dance with Yehudi and Mostafa, that vaguely echoes a scene from Flashfire (yet another duo of hitmen in a Westlake book, only they never get to hit anybody in this one).   He threatens to sic Goldfarb on them, and by this time they’re so confused and demoralized, they don’t even put up much of a fight.  Forget it, Mostafa, it’s Yankeetown.  Let’s go home.

He calls Goldfarb.  It’s time for that talk, some of which might be of the pillow variety (he could use the rest by this time).  She says she can’t ask him to reform, she’s not trying to change him.  He says he’s ready to change himself.   He’s got enough money now to tide him over a while (“No details!” she exclaims one last time.)  She’s got social service connections, she could maybe help him land a job counseling ex-cons, tell them how they can use the ten thousand rules in the straight world.

The ten thousand what?  That’s right, he’d almost mentioned them to her before, and just barely caught himself, because that’s not something he talks about to anyone–it’s one of the ten thousand rules, apparently, that you don’t talk about the ten thousand rules.  But now he can talk about them to her.  She’ll be all ears, I bet.  End of book.

I wouldn’t put this one in my Westlake top ten, or even my top twenty, but it holds a special place in my heart, because it’s the very last time he successfully reinvented himself as a writer.  Sure, it’s full of ideas he’d employed before, sometimes more successfully, sometimes much less.  But just as he’d looked back at his twenties from his thirties and forties, in his work from the 60’s and 70’s, he’s looking back at his forties from his very late sixties in the late 90’s here.  If that makes any sense.

It’s a solid well-balanced complete novel, that hits every bullseye it aims at, personal and political, and that’s really the point here–that you have to make both things work.  Not just one or the other.  Because either one can fuck the other one up but good.

Worldly wise though he be, Meehan has been playing Candide here.  I suppose Jeffords was Dr. Pangloss, though you could make a case for Burnstone (still forlornly waiting, I suppose, for his stage, his podium, his audience of worshipful WASPs).  What was the point of Voltaire’s story?  It is best to cultivate one’s garden.  And now Meehan gets to cultivate his Goldfarb, and she him–even better.

But that’s never enough, and Westlake couldn’t have believed it was.  So what’s the real point, since if it was identical to Voltaire’s (who never really believed it anyway, just look at his life), there’d be no point in making it.  What’s he really trying to say, and why did he begin this book by telling we, his loyal readers, that he knew one of the three young men who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, for the crime of giving a shit about what happens to other people?

I do not, can not, will not believe that Westlake was saying Mickey Schwerner threw his life away for nothing.  Meehan quotes Sherlock Holmes at one point, says that maybe one of the ten thousand rules is “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  It’s IMPOSSIBLE that Donald Westlake thought Mickey Schwerner was a fool.

But satire is never meant to be taken literally, you see.  Satire is a gun that fires in every direction at once.  Satire is how we learn to take things more seriously by way of laughing at them.  I think on one level, he was just levitating Mickey out of his premature grave, giving him a different name, letting him live a more carefree less conscientious existence, have a nice score, meet a nice girl (perhaps not entirely unlike the girl he made a widow of in pursuit of the greater good, though she was every bit as gung ho for that as he). And even so, in the end, he’s going to do what Mickey did, work with people, try to share what he knows with them, because that’s what a mensch does.  That’s what a mensch is.  Forest green.

I read up on him as much as I could, and in the midst of all the pious eulogies about his honorable death, I read something that sounded 100% real.  Sue Brown, a mere girl of seventeen when she met him, had this to say.

More than any white person I have ever known he could put a colored person at ease.  To a group of young Negroes he didn’t seem like a preacher, a do-gooder, or a social worker, or somebody who was out slumming, or a reporter who had come to learn about the Negroes.  He was the only white man I have ever known that you could associate with and forget he was white.  He didn’t talk down or up to you, he just talked to you.  He made you feel he was interested in you, not because you were a Negro, but because you were folks too.  He never pretended he knew what was best for you.

And that’s the kind of political activism a Donald E. Westlake could believe in, applaud, and even maybe think was worth dying for, but worth living for as well, surely.  And please note she said Schwerner was the only white person like that she’d ever known.  Not many people like that anywhere, any color.  How many more can we afford to lose?

Call it a mirror universe, if you will.  Instead of three martyrs, two Jewish, one black, we have three heisters, and Schwerner is Irish this time, but hey, the guy called himself Mickey, right?  And I’ve often felt the difference between Jewish and Irish is purely academic.   The differences between individualists of any ethnicity are pretty academic.  Because an individualist is him or herself first, and everything else second.  And it’s the individualist who represents hope for the future.  Not every man for himself.  But every man knowing himself.  Or woman.  Same thing, down inside.

The point of the book isn’t that all politicians are crooks (in fact, there’s no evidence any of the politicians represented here are particularly corrupt, certainly not on the level of Idi Amin, who Westlake had written about in Kahawa–what comes after Democracy fails is exponentially worse than anything that comes before).  It’s not that you should behave as if they’re all equally bad, because that’s a cop out.  Meehan is seen in full philosophic mode at the end, and this is what he thinks–

He had time to sit for a while, on the platform, looking out from the station at the wide slow river and all of America beyond it, and to think that, if he cared about it, he could probably decide the upcoming Presidential election right now, all by himself.  But that would mean looking at these people, those candidates, getting involved, studying their histories and their programs, making an informed decision; so screw it.  Let the Americans work it out for themselves.  How bad a choice could they make?

You don’t want to know, Francis.  You really really don’t.  But that’s a nice modest little proposal you made there.  We could just take responsibility, for our choices, for our lives, for ourselves.  That’s what Democracy is supposed to be, but we cop out.  We say “I’m for this guy, I trust him, he’ll make America great again, he’ll take our country back, he’ll make those bastards pay for what they’ve done to us, he’ll bring about the Revolution!”  (The last one was for the Bernie-istas, and can I ask–where are his tax returns?  Mock not, lest ye be mocked.)

And over on the other side, they’re saying the same things about us, and trusting somebody else.  Maybe somebody worse, but it’s all relative, right?  No, dammit, it’s not about trusting politicians (or deluding ourselves that somebody running for high office isn’t one, by definition, a denial that sounds more like satire than any satire I’ve ever read).  It’s about trusting our ability to govern ourselves, which means hiring good solid professionals to run the place, and keeping a sharp eye on them to make sure they’re not cooking the books.  Not just showing up to vote for the one with the best catchphrases every four years or so.

And all we’re doing to ourselves with these periodic bursts of enthusiasm, for politics but never for policy, is sabotaging the few genuine leaders we do elect, by handing the whole job over to them, expecting them to do it all themselves, and then we’ve got somebody to blame when things don’t work out as planned, as they never ever do.  Who was it who said “We are the ones we have been waiting for”?  Some politician, quoting a poet.  Only politician I’d have ever taken a bullet for.  But just as happy I didn’t have to.  And I honestly don’t think he would have asked me to.

In politics, naivete and cynicism go hand in hand, each supporting the other, and if that’s ever going to change, we need to know ourselves.  Who we are, what we want, where we’re going.  When will we ever do this?  Westlake didn’t know, and neither do I.  I do know I’m way over 7,000 words, so the review’s over.

And next up in our queue is a Parker novel, one that oddly echoes this book, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, those who try to find political satire in it will be shot.  However, before I get to that, I need to talk about the very last Donald Westlake novel ever published.  Not to review it.  That will come later.  Call this a first reaction.  Now nail that lid down tight, because I have done.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Put A Lid On It

The MCC was the Bastille writ small, the runt of the same litter, tall, dark, concrete, with rounded corners rather than sharp edges.  It had a closed-in look, like the kind of maniac that listens to voices in his teeth a lot.  When the French decided to give freedom a shot, they tore their Bastille down; when the Americans opted for freedom, they put up the MCC.  Go figure.

A big goof (stealing an unmarked mail van) landed Francis Xavier Meehan in a federal prison, and only a bigger goof (stealing an incriminating videotape for the president’s re-election committee) will get him out. Donald E. Westlake turns this ridiculous premise into sublime comedy in PUT A LID ON IT (Mysterious Press/Warner, $23.95), a crime caper that also gets some nice digs in as political satire. With his deep distrust of human nature, Meehan is no patsy for the Washington pols who point him at the patriotic bigot who is hiding the presidential tape within his antique weapons collection. Looking to hedge his bets, the wily crook comes up with a scheme for lifting the tape and keeping the gun collection for himself, but he is nearly undone by the stupidity, not to mention the cupidity, of his associates. People should know better than to make deals with guys in government, he lectures himself; but no, ”they just can’t help themselves. They want to believe. Everybody, somewhere down the line, trusts a politician.” Although Meehan isn’t quite as ingenious a thief as some of Westlake’s other criminal protagonists, he’s a born philosopher.

Marilyn Stasio, New York Times, April 21st, 2002

Let me put a lid on this one right off the bat (to marry mixed metaphors)–it’s the last good crime novel Donald Westlake published in his lifetime that doesn’t involve Parker or Dortmunder.  Stasio describes it quite well in that capsule review, and one of the reasons it’s so easy to sum up is that it’s only 247 pages in the first edition, which with Westlake tends to indicate he knew exactly what he wanted to say with it, so he didn’t feel the need to take a lot of detours.  Very focused and economical, this one.

But because it doesn’t involve a series character, it tends to fall between the cracks.  As does its protagonist, who Westlake doesn’t see as a potential franchise bearer.  Which was initially true of Parker and Dortmunder as well, but in this case he puts the lid down pretty firmly on any further books featuring the witty wily Francis Xavier Meehan.  If it had been a big seller, I’d guess the lid would have come back up quick enough, but that was never very likely, and he knew it, so he could do what he never could with his more famous thieves–have this one decide his thieving days are done.

Westlake knew people would always remember him as the guy who wrote about heistmen who don’t get caught (or at least stay caught), and don’t ever repent of their wicked wicked ways.  He also knew there’s only so much you can do with that.  Parker and Dortmunder always live to steal another day, because there has to be another book.  Their characters can’t develop past a certain point, because their stories aren’t meant to end.  They can’t be used up, as Mitch Tobin was, when his identity crisis was finally resolved.

A Parker novel is never just about Parker, never entirely from his perspective.  A Dortmunder novel is even less exclusively focused on Dortmunder, with the ever-growing supporting cast and lots of important characters unique to each book.  Both anchor the story, but the story isn’t just about them.

The Grofield novels, by contrast, are mainly from Grofield’s perspective (the only one that tried switching perspectives, ala Parker, was the weakest).  Grofield wasn’t so much used up as let go–Butcher’s Moon was the pink slip.  Westlake didn’t know how to go on with him, since it didn’t work to have him remain a thief or to stop being one.  There was no workable solution to Sam Holt’s professional and personal conundrums, either.  Sara Joslyn’s conflicts were all resolved by the end of her first book (which sold really well, so there was a second; see what I mean?)  This book, by contrast, is written in the third person, but the only narrative perspective here is Meehan’s.  His show, from start to finish.

Prior to this, Westlake had only once written about a criminal protagonist who goes straight after one book (unless you count Cops and Robbers, and somehow I don’t).  His very first comic caper was Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, featuring Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, black sheep of an upper crust family of WASPs.  Kelly was never really a crook at heart; he was just dabbling, looking for a quick score, a chance to prove he could beat the system, live life on his own terms, and having achieved that goal, while meeting a girl he really likes with similar life goals, he sails off into the sunset with her.  Westlake never really believes in the character, and thus neither do we, but I think there’s a fair bit of him in Meehan, all the same.  Meehan is Kelly Bram Nicholas Mark II.  Among other things.

There are echoes of many prior Westlake books and stories in this one (we can list them in the comments section, if you like), and he’s basically using this book to take another whack at ideas he’d used in the past.  Sometimes Westlake liked picking up a spare more than rolling a perfect strike.  And when he solved a problem, he tended to forget about it, move on to something else (this late in the game, there wasn’t much left to move on to).

The Problem: Write a book about a career criminal who gets recruited to do the government’s dirty work, and make it credible this could happen, more than just another Alexander Mundy.  Use him as an opportunity to craft sharp timely satire that doesn’t get all baroque and preachy, but does feature Westlake’s trademark morality play of Self-Styled Loners vs. Cogs In The Machine.

Put in a good romantic subplot, like in the Nephew books, but this time let The Girl be a bit different–not such a girl anymore–a less glamorous more grown-up version of Chloe Shapiro from The Fugitive Pigeon.  A determinedly unromantic romance, about two people who just unexpectedly click and don’t make a big deal about it.  You know, like the book we never got about Dortmunder meeting May.  But no hearts and flowers, or even tuna casseroles (they eat out).

The result may not be one of his all time classics, but it isn’t really trying to be–it’s trying to break the earlier genre molds Westlake worked from, even while recycling them, and it succeeds handily.  Its ambitions are modest, but solid, and it hits every target it aims for.  It’s also maybe the last of Westlake’s books to peek around corners, to warn us with his accustomed sardonicism of unpleasant surprises that might be coming in the near future.  (Foreigners intervening in our elections, blackmailing our Presidents?  Whoever dreamt of such a thing?)

But for the characters in this book, when exactly is the present?  Cellphones are severely limited in functionality, and not all that relevant to anything most of the time.  The internet exists, but is referred to exactly once, does not figure into the plot at all.  VCRs are still a thing, and nothing goes viral (you’ll need the mainstream media to dish the dirt for you).  The President is pretty clearly a Democrat, up for reelection (there’s no way the rich megalomaniac in this story is backing a liberal).  There’s a reference to a little blue dress having plagued a previous administration.

There’s also a reference to it being harder to rent vehicles than it used to be, which presumably relates to the first Trade Center bombing in ’93.  The story seems to take place in some historical nether-realm between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Which makes sense, since he’d probably started it before Bush was President, and of course before 9/11 (an event that shook many of his core certainties to their foundations, along with everyone else’s).

My best guess is he had the idea in the late 90’s, when he was still being pressured to do more books like The Ax.  Once it became clear he could only do that once, he got back into comic caper mode as Westlake, leaving the dark material to Stark.  Possible it started as an idea for Dortmunder, maybe even Parker, then turned into a one-shot character’s one shot.

What resulted was Westlake’s best standalone caper featuring an habitual thief, though the caper isn’t really the main point, as it was with Cops and Robbers (which I sometimes think is Westlake’s best caper of all, taken purely as a caper).  The caper here is an entry point to satirizing the world of politics, and unless you count Anarchaos (which is really about what happens after politics, and how that would be even worse), I think this is his strongest attempt in that vein.  And certainly his most direct.  Not something I can ever be accused of. Let’s cut to the chase, or rather, what typically happens afterwards.  Which is to say, prison.  But before that (::sigh::)……

There’s no getting around this.  The book kicks off with unquestionably the most surprising and moving and oddly belated dedication of the author’s career.

My old friend Mickey Schwerner, who was murdered with James Chaney and Andy Goodman on a berm in Mississippi the night of June 21, 1964, by a group of political cretins, once in conversation described the American two-party system to me in these words, with which I have never found reason to argue; “It’s the same old story,” he said.  “The moochers vs. the misers.”

This is for Mickey.  Forest green.

I looked and looked and looked, and I can’t find any other mention–anywhere–of Westlake’s friendship with the eldest of those three young men, two Jewish, one black, who famously gave their lives to help put an end to Jim Crow.  Symbols of integration, equality, courage, camaraderie, self-sacrifice, martyrdom.

But, you know, they were also people, with goals and dreams and loved ones, and none of them intended to die.  They were very carefully trained how not to die down there, and it just wasn’t enough.  When an entire way of life wants you dead, odds are it’s going to get its wish.  Even though that meant accelerating the very process the murderers were trying to delay.  As Mr. Westlake said–political cretins.  All societies have them.  Like cockroaches.  Only they step on you, given half a chance.

I’d assume they met in the very early 60’s, possibly while Schwerner was working for CORE on the Lower East Side, and Westlake was still living in the Village, just starting to make a name for himself.  Maybe they met through Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s editor on the Parker novels, who had a long history of anti-racist activism himself, but however it happened, it happened, and Westlake would have picked up a paper one day, seen that cheerful cocky face looking back at him over a headline, known he was gone.

It presumably wasn’t a central relationship in either man’s life, more of a friendly acquaintanceship, a few conversations, held in bars perhaps, or while negotiating the winding labyrinths of lower Manhattan, but how would I know?  There’s no biography for either man, and Westlake’s unfinished memoirs remain unpublished. Schwerner tends to get bundled in with his fellow martyrs in the few books out there–the only part of his short generous life people pay much attention to is that last few bloody minutes, which is so funny it makes me weep.

But for Westlake, the memory of a free spirit would have lingered–this was one of Life’s independents, as Westlake would have seen it, but he had perversely chosen the path of serving others, trying to expand the freedom he cherished, and that had killed him, and turned him into a symbol, as opposed to a complex living being.  No doubt there’s much of Mickey (which is in fact what his friends called him) in Up Your Banners–maybe the wound was too fresh then for Westlake to bring him up.

This isn’t a book about race prejudice, though it’s referenced in various oblique ways, as is what happened in Mississippi (the trio that pulls the heist is two whites, one black, a combo we’ll see repeated in our next book). It’s not a book about social justice, though ditto.  It’s not a book about political activists–though it is, you might say, a book that argues political activists are suckers.  Or does it?  We’ll have to talk about that.  Later.  But strange, so very strange, to begin a mere ‘comic caper’ on such a somber note.  Then again, this isn’t exactly a comedy, is it?  It’s a satire.

So then the story begins at the Manhattan Correctional Center, a Federal detention facility over in the courthouse district, right by Chinatown.  The Gitmo of New York, some have called it.  I remember it well.  No, not that way.  Geez, Part 1’s going to end up being all prologue at this rate.  I’m rolling my eyes more than any of you, I swear.

See, I was an activist myself for a while.  Among other things, I was on something called the Committee to Free Joe Doherty (pronounced ‘Dockerty’), Joe being a very decent guy from Belfast who joined the Provisional IRA for roughly the same reasons Mickey Schwerner joined CORE (though his situation was closer to Chaney’s).  The nonviolent methods had already failed in Northern Ireland by then.  Bloody Sunday and all.  At least in Mississippi, they had to wait until sunset to lynch you.

So he never bombed anything, but he and his mates and their machine gun got into a fight with an SAS commando unit that was going to ‘capture’ them  (with extreme prejudice), and one of the British soldiers was killed doing his duty, and Joe was caught, and then he escaped to America like many an rebel before him, and the FBI caught him, and he got clapped in the MCC to await extradition.  And he ended up living there for about eight years, with all the court challenges.  Then he got transferred to Lewisburg Federal prison in Pennsylvania.  Then he finally got extradited, and was put in the Maze prison (no, that’s what they call it, really).  And then came the peace process, and amnesty, and he’s out now, living his life, and working with disadvantaged youth.  Viva Democracy, on the rare occasions it works.

(We never met, though one of the Committee’s meetings was held in a church right next to the MCC.  I did send him some books once while he was there, him being a great reader.  A Frank O’Connor anthology, and An Beal Bocht by Flann O’Brien, in the original Irish, since he was reportedly fluent.  I got a nice thank-you note, in English, since I wasn’t.  In retrospect,  wish I’d sent him some Parker novels instead, but I hadn’t read any myself.  Sorry, Joe.)

So this is where Westlake chooses to open the book.  And this is where we meet Francis Xavier Meehan, 42 years old, who as far as he’s concerned, shouldn’t be there at all.  He’s just an honest thief, who helped hijack a private carrier truck he thought was full of computer chips, but turned out it was full of registered mail.  Federal offense.  Goddam privatization.  Though he’s none too fond of the public sector either, and least of all Federal prison guards.

Of course, the primary difference between the Manhattan Correctional Center, which was where bail-less federal prisoners in the borough of Manhattan, city and state of New York, waited before and during their trials, was the attitude of the guards.  The guards thought the prisoners were animals, of course, as usual, and treated them as such.  But in this place the guards thought they themselves were not animals; that was the difference.

You get into a state pen, any state pen in the country–well, any state Meehan had been a guest in, and he felt he could extrapolate–and there was a real sense of everybody being stinking fetid swine shoveled into this shithole together, inmates and staff alike.  There was something, Meehan realized, now that he was missing it, strangely comforting about that, about guards who, with every breath they took, with every ooze from their pores, said “You’re a piece of shit and so am I, so you got no reason to expect anything but the worst from me if you irritate my ass.”  These guards here, in the MCC, they buttoned all their shirt buttons.  What were they, fucking Mormons?

Meehan is, as Stasio correctly observes, a born philosopher.  He is not content merely to observe his environment and the denizens thereof; he wants to comprehend them.  He rarely writes any of his observations down, because one of the ten thousand rules he lives by is “Never write anything down.”  That’s a big part of his philosophy, the ten thousand rules, which we can assume he’s never actually bothered to count, since that would involve writing them down. Basically a collection of helpful aphorisms to keep him solvent, alive, and free.  Hey, no system is perfect.

So Meehan gets word his court-appointed lawyer is there to see him, but his court-appointed lawyer is a skinny Jewish lady named Goldfarb just around his age, and this ain’t her.  This is some guy named Pat Jeffords, and with an eye for detail that Sherlock Holmes would envy, Meehan tells Jeffords that not only is he not Meehan’s lawyer, he’s not any kind of lawyer at all.  So what’s he doing here, would be the operative question.

In response, Jeffords observes that they’ve clearly found the right man for the job they need done, points out that Meehan is quite inevitably heading for a very long stretch in Federal stir, and writes out a little mini-questionnaire (or ballot, if you prefer), which reads “If you might want to help me, I might want to help you.”  Meehan can check the box saying ‘Yes’ or the box saying ‘No.’  What’s he got to lose?  ‘Yes’ by a landslide.

The referendum having passed, Meehan finds himself sprung from the MCC, but not exactly.  He’s still technically a Federal prisoner–the MCC thinks he’s in Otisville Prison in the Shawangunks, and Otisville thinks he’s still at the MCC.  But in point of fact, Meehan is now in the custody of the Committee to Reelect the President.  Of the United States, even.  Not that he’s told this right away.  These people would prefer not to tell him anything at all.  They just want him to steal something for them (you already know approximately what), and then they’ll arrange for his permanent release (pending his inevitable commission of further felonies, naturally).

But Meehan is not impressed with these jokers; Jeffords and his boss, a guy named Bruce Benjamin.  They have all the hallmarks of schmucks.  They forgot to get the key to his shackles before leaving the MCC.  They flew him to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a private campaign contributor’s jet, leading to people who shouldn’t know about him knowing about him anyway.  They even forgot to give him dinner before they locked him in what looks like an exceptionally bland motel room.  They just want to drive him near where the stuff is, and wait for him to come back with it.  That’s how they think this is done.  Like he’s a Labrador Retriever, or something.

Their idea was to avoid the fix Mr. Nixon got himself into by employing a burglar who actually knows how to commit burglary (as opposed to a guy who thinks holding his hand over a lit candle makes him look cool).  Meehan will obtain this videotape and supporting documents the challenging candidate’s campaign intends to use as an October Surprise, currently at the home of a rich supporter of the other guy.  But the real surprise is Meehan wants to go back to the MCC.  It’s a sound bargaining position, since it’s already October, and they don’t have time to get anybody else.  They ask him what he wants.  He tells them.

First of all, they tell him what’s going on, about the October Surprise and such (though not what it is, that comes later).  Meehan notes a major difficulty with their idea–the moment they let him go, he’s going to scarper, because that’s what criminals do when you let them go, for some strange reason.  He suggests maybe he could be the consultant, instead of the contractor, instruct eager young campaign volunteers how to commit grand larceny in his place.

They don’t like the idea (they’re too familiar with how eager young campaign volunteers tend to fare in such situations, or really any situation), but they accept it’s the only solution, and then they happen to mention that the man whose house is to be burgled has this large valuable collection of old guns.  And that’s when the light bulb pops up over Meehan’s head.  Sure, he can do the job for them.  All he needs is a string–and for them to look the other way when he and said string pull what you might call a supplemental heist.  Once the profit motive is engaged, they can count on him.  But first he needs to talk to his lawyer.  His real lawyer.  Goldfarb.

Why Goldfarb?  Because she’s the only lawyer he knows isn’t working for them (or else they’d have had her tender their offer in the first place).  Also, one might quietly infer, because in spite of the burka-like clothing she and all female attorneys at the MCC tend to wear, he’s developed a certain interest, and he’d enjoy seeing her again, and here comes the B Plot.  Boy meets Girl.  I don’t think we can call this a Meet Cute, though.

So they arrange for him to meet Goldfarb–first name Elaine (Meehan struggles to remember her given name, never uses it in her presence, one of those last-name-only pairs, like Mulder and Scully, only they’re both skeptics.)   She is by far the most interesting love interest Westlake created in his last three decades, harking back to Chloe Shapiro, as I said, but instead of a bohemian hippie chick who happens to be Jewish and is figuring out who she wants to be in life, she’s a battle-hardened professional, fiercely strong-willed, whimsically argumentative in ways that go far beyond her legal training, and if you’ve lived any length of time in New York, you’ve met her.  And if you’re any kind of person at all, you enjoyed the hell out of meeting her, and hope to meet her again sometime.

She presented herself differently out here; not more attractive,  more aggressive.  Her skinny body was encased in fairly tight black slacks and clacking black leather boots and a gleaming black leather jacket, with an open zipper.  Her steel-wool hair was controlled by a golden barrette at the back in the shape of a narrow bouquet of roses, and large gold hoop earrings dangled to both sides of that sharp-nosed sharp-jawed face, making her black-framed eyeglasses look more than ever like spy holes in a fortress wall.

She is, needless to say, wondering what the fuck she’s doing at an airport in Norfolk Virginia, meeting a guy supposed to be locked up in Manhattan who she’s only talked to three times in her life.  But as he fills her in, she adapts to the situation with remarkable aplomb, and mainly is just delighted not to be at the MCC for a while, though she will not be delighted at all times in this story.  Meehan wonders at times what influential a-holes she offended to land that MCC job.  She does not bear fools gladly, this woman.  Fortunately, he’s not one.

Where’d Goldfarb come from?  Well, Westlake spent a whole lot of time in New York, and as I’ve remarked in past, most of his best friends were Jewish, so he met many a Goldfarb in his day.  But just between you, me, and the fence post–

USAschwerner2

Rita Schwerner.  Mickey’s wife.   No, I wouldn’t want to piss her off either.  The glasses were no doubt added for comedic purposes.

(When I read Goldfarb’s dialogue, the voice of a friend of mine I don’t see half-often enough comes through loud and clear.  Goldfarb in a different life; not a lawyer, a bit less combative, but then again, not really–I once saw her threaten to punch out the headlights of a car that didn’t respect the stop signal, down in the Village.  And if she ever reads this blog, as she keeps promising to do someday, she’ll know who she is.  Hello you.)

So the reason he needs Goldfarb is that he doesn’t trust these guys to live up to their part of the bargain–even if they intend to get him off, they could screw it up.  He needs her to advocate for him, and in exchange he makes sure she’s going to be properly compensated for her time, which tickles her no end.

There follows an exchange in which it is made very clear they have no idea how to get his charges dropped without creating too many questions, or else putting Meehan in a situation he has no intention of being in (like witness protection).  She suggests a Presidential pardon.  Okay, a gubernatorial pardon?   They’re still getting the vapors.  Meehan has a brilliant idea (he gets those sometimes).  Switch him over to juvie.

“I bet you could do it,” Meehan said.  “It’s all in the bureaucracy, right?  Switch me to juvenile court, closed session, I plead guilty, time served.”

Elaine Goldfarb said “Which is how long?”

“If we count today,” Meehan said, “twelve days.”

Jeffords said “Why would we count today?”

Meehan looked at him.  “What am I, free to go?”

Elaine Goldfarb said to Benjamin, “What have you done about the paperwork at this point, his whereabouts?”

“Pat knows that,” Benjamin said, and Jeffords said, “The MCC thinks he’s in Otisville, and Otisville thinks he’s in the MCC.”

“So he’s still serving time,” she said.  “And if you could transfer his case to juvenile court, to a judge who wouldn’t make difficulties, he could first release Meehan into my custody, I undertake to assure his presence at a hearing in chambers, probably early next week, he pleads guilty, he’s remanded into my custody again in lieu of parole, and we could very esaily make the paperwork look kosher.”  Smiling at Meehan, she said, “Good thinking.”

“Already,” Meehan said, “I feel like a kid again.”

This is more involved and pragmatic than the usual justification for this type of deal we see in fiction all the time (such as in the Grofield novel, The Blackbird).  This is actually the first time we’ve seen one of Westlake’s heisters have any kind of real attorney/client relationship, though we saw a lot of that kind of thing in the Sam Holt novels (where the Goldfarbs were both middle-aged men).  Goldfarb knows you can’t just make all that paperwork vanish, because it’s in too many places, and too many people would notice.  But Meehan knows something else, which is what I’m going to conclude Part 1 with, because I’m creeping up on 5,000 words, it’s been over a week since I posted, and I need to put a lid on this one, so I can start on Part 2.  This book was harder than I thought it would be.  Well, what else is news?

And what is this brilliant insight (out of ten thousand), from that intrepidly Jesuitical philospher, Francis Xavier Meehan?  (Don’t call him Frank, he hates that.)

That was one of the great things about the law; they couldn’t help but make it too complicated, so that in the nooks and crannies an actual person might live.

She was going on: “Once I make an appointment, I’ll give you a call.  Where do I reach you?”

“Well, I don’t know, he said.  “Where I was staying before was just temporary, and I been gone awhile, and the cops came there after my arrest to pick up my stuff, so I think maybe I don’t live there anymore.  I’ll have to find a place.”

She gave him a funny look.  “You mean the stuff in that little carry-on bag of yours is everything you own in the world?”

“Sure,” he said.  He didn’t see any point mentioning the little cash stashes he had salted away here and there, figuring everybody has such things so she’d take it for granted.  And come to think of it, a couple of those older stashes he ought to deal with, now that the goddam government was changing all the money.

Government, everywhere you turn.

She couldn’t get over the skimpiness of his worldly goods.  “Maybe you ought to rethink crime as a career path,” she said.

“I do, all the time,” he said, “but nothing else gives me the same job satisfaction.”

If you read between the lines, you know that’s not just Meehan talking.  And if you read between Donald Westlake’s lines a lot, you feel much the same way about it.  These books were never meant to be taken literally, you know.  The goal isn’t crime.  The goal is freedom.  How we get there from here.  Or if.  Anyway, Westlake got his guy out of that room.  Several rooms, in fact.  And now he’s got to figure a way to keep him out.  And I’ve got to scarper.  See you.  Yeah, not if you see me first, I know.

PS: I have never been more tempted to give the British first edition (from Robert Hale, Ltd., no less) pride of place over the American edition from Mysterious Press.  That’s a nice evocative bit of Trompe L’oeil there to the right, and what do we have on the left?  A red phone with the receiver off the hook.  No, I don’t get it either.  They’re going to nuke Meehan?  I ever actually buy a copy of this one, I’m going with the Brits.  I’m sure Joe Doherty would understand.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Mr. Westlake, Mr. Breslin and the ‘feud’ that couldn’t shoot straight.

My much-valued friend, Dr. Barnard, now Bishop of Killaloe, having once expressed to him an apprehension, that if he should visit Ireland he might treat that people of that country more unfavourably than he had done the Scotch, he answered, with strong pointed double-edged wit, ‘Sir, you have no reason to be afraid of me.  The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen.  No, sir; the Irish are a FAIR PEOPLE; they never speak well of one another.’

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Six feet four inches tail [sic], Hugh Van Dinast was at forty-three utterly the patrician New York type in appearance.  His hair was thin and sandy, his eyes mild and blue and somewhat watery, his nose unobtrusive, his mouth broad and made for easy smiling, his chin slightly recessive, his body built for the uniform of a palace guard.  His accent seemed British to most Americans but other New Yorkers recognized it at once and bridled at it.  One assumed he would spend his evenings swapping condescending remarks with William F. Buckley and George Plimpton, though in fact his acquaintanceship with those two gentlemen was slight, and he much preferred the books of Gore Vidal.  (Seeing him with Jimmy Breslin, as one on occasion well might have done, they being in approximately the same vocation, was to undergo a strangely Kiplingesque echo; for if that wasn’t the Colonel with his loyal Master Sergeant, there is no such thing.)

From Dancing Aztecs, 1977. 

He fears the lancet of my art as I fear that of his.  The cold steelpen.

James Joyce

Jimmy Breslin, dead at 88.  So read the Sunday headlines, and though his rather improbable longevity softens the blow, it’s still a lot to swallow.  I’m not exactly in the pink of youth myself, and to me it seemed like he’d always been there, an illusion not dispelled by a satiric article I read once (can’t find it now) that imagined how the chariot race in Ben Hur would be covered by various well-known journalistic voices.  A parody of Breslin’s reportorial style has him not bothering to talk to Mr. Hur or any of the other bigwigs; he’s down in the stables, interviewing a disgruntled groom,  who concludes the piece with the words “Quit that!  Motherfucking horse!”  (I may not have gotten that quote exactly right.  Neither did Breslin, a lot of the time.)

When James Garner died, you may recall, I did a sort of obit for him here at TWR, including words of glowing praise for The Rockford Files that Westlake had written years before.  “Hey, did Westlake ever say anything really nice about Jimmy Breslin?” read the words in the thought balloon over my misshapen head.  And of course he didn’t.  See the above quote from Dr. Johnson, who knew his stuff where us micks are concerned.

Okay, it’s not an absolute hard and fast rule that we diss each other in public (and ten times worse in private; the venerable Gaelic tradition of back-biting).  But by and large, it’s pretty reliable, at least under certain conditions.  I don’t know if Yeats’ famous explanation for this cannibalistic trait of ours applies quite so well to those of us born over this side of the pond, but “Much hatred, little room” could certainly be said to describe the Gotham Irish at odd moments, and the less assimilated we are, the more true it holds.

The other quote up top, from Dancing Aztecs, is the only time Westlake seems to have ever mentioned Breslin in his fiction, and it’s not exactly a diss, but it’s not what you’d call a glowing compliment either, is it?  WASP aristocratic old moneyed political science professor Hugh Van Dinast is by far the most contemptible character in that labyrinthine comic narrative; a shallow silly-ass pseudo-ineffectual (I did that on purpose), and would-be rapist of the female lead, who happily escapes his lecherous designs to the waiting arms of the proletarian male lead, and I’d assume Breslin would only approve of that.

Westlake says they share a vocation, Van Dinast and Breslin, which is stretching a mighty thin point, since Breslin wasn’t ever a Political Science prof. that I know of.  Okay, they both publish books and articles.  That’s Westlake’s vocation too.  What’s he saying?  Maybe that Breslin often rubbed elbows with his social betters in private, even while he played the working class hero in public. Which I suppose is true, but you could call that research, I guess. It’s at most a glancing blow, playful, with little in the way of ill intent behind it, but still a mite head-scratching, no?  Where did it come from?  I don’t know.

It just so happened that 1976, the year of Dancing Aztecs, came just before The Summer of Sam, which catapulted the already successful Breslin to new heights of what you’d kind of have to call infamy (that’s when he got the beer commercial).  To say, as some have, that he was the first to give notorious murderers a public forum that might encourage others to try mayhem as a means to fame is kind of forgetting Jack the Ripper’s letters to the press that were widely published while he was still out there butchering, and a case could be made for Truman Capote, but there’s a lot of false attributions like that connected to Breslin.  I often think nobody ever did anything first.

But what Westlake would have taken out of that whole thing was that this was a tireless self-promoter, who probably didn’t even consider just turning the letters over to the cops, giving up the scoop Berkowitz had handed him, and too frequently doing just precisely what we know (from I Gave At The Office, and later on, the Weekly Galaxy stories) Westlake thought journalists should not be doing–not just reporting the news, but making it, getting involved in it.  Westlake himself never seems to have sought celebrity, in its own right.  He liked to be just beneath the radar.  Breslin, a different kind of writer, thought he was the radar.  He was occasionally right about that.

Cut ahead a few more years, to 1984. Westlake published one of his best comic novels, the shamefully out-of-print A Likely Story, and as you should already know, that is one of the most epic exercises in literary name-dropping ever printed.  The protagonist, aiming to put together an anthology of Yuletide-related articles, sends letters of solicitation to just about every famous name out there, and gets answers from many.  Guess who didn’t get a solicitation letter?

Now Westlake wasn’t necessarily a fan of every screwy scribbler he referenced in that book, but he certainly admired many of them (and made fun of them anyway because that’s what writers do), but seriously, Breslin would have been a natural for The Christmas Book, no easier style to lampoon, and he’s not even mentioned as a potential prospect.  What gives?  Again, not the foggiest.

Let’s drop back a few years, to 1969.  The year The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight came out.  Several years after Westlake had established himself as the King of Comic Crime, and mere months before the debut of John Dortmunder.  Did Westlake think Breslin was copying off his paper, stealing his thunder?  Doubtful.  He knew very well he hadn’t invented that kind of storytelling.

Did Westlake think Breslin was getting more attention for something he did much better purely on the basis of being a guy who wrote about real crime for the papers? Getting warmer, but far as I can tell, Breslin didn’t make the best-seller lists either that time, though his book sold well, and got a movie deal, as Westlake’s own much less violent comic crime novels had often done. (And the movie sucked, as ditto, though Bob De Niro was certainly better casting than Bob Redford).

The Times review described Mr. Breslin’s first foray into (admitted) fiction as ‘Neo-Runyonesque’, made reference to Fellini’s Big Deal On Madonna Street, and said maybe Breslin needed to work harder on the next novel (and so he did; Table Money is a damn good kitchen table melodrama about an Irish American family of sandhogs, and he manages to avoid a lot of his usual stylistic excesses in it).  That ‘Neo-Runyonesque’ label kind of stuck, though, as we’ll see.

Jumping ahead to September 16, 1988, there’s an article in the Times on that late great institution, New York is Book Country.  One of many beautiful things killed by terrorism and its intended results.  We learn that Westlake would be one of the writers (including Isaac Asimov, but he was everywhere), manning street booths where they’d be making with the autographs, and that later there’d be an auction where one of the items on the block would be your right to have a character in an upcoming Westlake mystery novel named after you.  I’m going to guess Sacred Monster, based purely on the fact that it’s the only novel Westlake had out in 1989.  I wonder who the lucky winner was, and under what circumstances he and/or she got killed and/or fucked?

Meanwhile, over the the Park Lane Hotel (toney!), Breslin was reading from his work over tea and scones, along with Barbara Tuchman and Toni Morrison (tonier!).  Also someone named Cleveland Amory. I should know who that is, right?  What I do know is that Jimmy Breslin was a lot more famous than Donald E. Westlake in 1988, and probably every other year they shared a planet.  He was more than a writer, a newspaperman, a local character–he was a celebrity.  And how did Donald E. Westlake tend to feel about celebrities?  Sacred Monsters indeed.

Let me take just one more little trip in my Times Machine (I finally broke down and subscribed, seems like a lot of people were doing that after last November), and good thing I had the exact date of my destination, since the archive search engine leaves much to be desired.  This time to 1991, which is when Jimmy Breslin’s 410 page biography of Damon Runyon, (evocatively entitled Damon Runyon: A Life) was published.

As Breslin himself related, he never personally had the idea of ever writing any such book, until Ticknor & Fields, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin since 1908, pitched him the idea and wrote him a big check.  Breslin’s not-uncommon philosophy regarding which projects to take was always something along the lines of ‘the more money you have, the more independent you are,’ and many eminent spiritual persons have dissented, but never mind that now. They want Breslin on Runyon, they got Breslin on Runyon.  Which I’m sure would be the name of a sandwich at Mindy’s delicatessen, if that existed outside of Damon Runyon stories.

Point is, he flew down to Austin, since the University of Texas is the rather improbable final resting place of the Hearst New  York newspaper morgue (that may be redundant, and do they have the sled too?). He immersed himself in the material for many a moon, and then he just kept typing until he had himself a nice fat hardcover with his Cheshire Cat face on the back of the dust jacket.  Which was then reviewed.  You see where I’m going with this.

The Sunday New York Times Book Review.  October 6th, 1991.  This is where the titans finally clashed.  Don’t ask me which one was the Kraken.  In the longest, liveliest, and most sarcastic review of his that I have yet to read, appearing under the title The Pleasures of Bad Company, Donald Edwin Westlake proceeded to dismantle James Earle Breslin’s Damon Runyon: A Life.  While at the same time making it clear he thought Breslin was usually well worth reading. To give you the flavor of it, let me type out the first few paragraphs, since the churlish Times won’t let you copy/paste from its digital archives, but at least I don’t have to fly to Austin.  Which I hear is a lively little town, but still.

So here’s how I score it: Runyon 57 points and 6 rounds, Breslin 43 points and 3 rounds, one round even (this was not a championship match).

But it’s a grudge match.  Jimmy Breslin dislikes Damon Runyon, disapproves of Damon Runyon and is determined to bury Damon Runyon all over again, 45 years after the man died.

It’s strange to read a biography in which the author doesn’t like his subject.  Of course, that’s common practice in the world of politics–Robert Caro gnawing endlessly at the withers of Lyndon Johnson, for instance–but it usually doesn’t happen that way when the subject isn’t a politician.  Much more typical is Phyllis Rose, who wrote in her preface to her biography of Josephine Baker, “Jazz Cleopatra”: “My choice was made as instinctively as it is when you fall in love…You see someone.  You light up inside.  If the choice is a deep one, the lists, reasons, and rationalizations come later…after five years I had come to see her…as not all that different from myself….You’d be surprised how much we have in common.”

But we wouldn’t be surprised at how much Mr. Breslin and Runyon have in common.  Both of them New York newspaper columnists turned fiction writers, both with successful movies made from their stories  (“The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” in Mr. Breslin’s case), both with a talent for transcribing or inventing tough street humor, both with an abiding interest in crooks and the wrong side of the law.  (Mr Breslin’s creation Marvin the Torch is merely a Runyon character Runyon didn’t happen to think of, and Jimmy Breslin is the only other guy who could have thought of him.)

In fact, the commonality must have seemed so striking to somebody in publishing that this book is the result.  Jimmy Breslin and Damon Runyon–almost a collaboration in one book.  Except it isn’t a collaboration, it’s a mugging.

And the review is police brutality, but on the whole, it’s still a fair cop.  I have a copy of Breslin’s book on my desk as I type this.  I’ve looked at it.  How can I put this?  Why don’t I let a much better critic than myself or even Westlake do the dirty work, since he does it for a living anyway.  I give you Adam Gopnik–who is doing Runyon, not Breslin, but when you’re writing about somebody who has a biography out, you’re supposed to read it first.  Whether you want to or not.  He opens with a compliment.  Breslin was still alive then.  (Also, there is apparently just one book ever written about Damon Runyon; all the rest were about his writing, which is different; well played Mr. Gopnik.)

The best book about Runyon is Jimmy Breslin’s slightly dispiriting biography, published in 1991, one of those “matches” that make a publisher feel wonderful until the manuscript comes in. Writers train for one length or another, and Breslin’s is essentially a series of eight-hundred-word columns strung together, all told in that good Breslin style, where this guy said that to this other guy—quick glimpses of Prohibition, the Hearst press, stealing coats in the Depression—so that the total effect is like watching the world’s longest subway train go by at night.

But see, Breslin could take that one on the chin like a good sport, since it came out in 2009, long after Damon Runyon: A Life had departed from the shelves of the local booksellers, to be followed in due course by local booksellers.  Westlake’s review was aimed directly at his royalties, and while it was somewhat disingenuous for Breslin to assert in public, vociferously, that this was The Only Bad Review In The Entire Country, it would be fair to say that the others were more diplomatic.

Most newspaper and magazine critics are journalists by trade, such as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who wrote a slightly earlier and much gentler Times review (the one I can actually find via the Times search engine, hmmmm).  Breslin and Lehmann-Haupt were comrades in arms.  Westlake was from a different outfit.  And as ever, the ultimate independent–Breslin probably thought that was him, but even the most powerful newspaper columnist is still an organization man, and Breslin wasn’t ever Walter Winchell, was he now?  (Which is only a compliment.)

Please note, Breslin never had any stated problems with that review, even though it basically hits all the same bases Westlake’s did.  But then it basically says “Buy the book anyway.”  The one crucial point Breslin wanted made.

And a point Westlake resolutely refuses to make.  It’s hard to read, it’s badly sourced (unsourced, really), the biographer seems to think the book is at least as much about him as it is about its ostensible subject, who he seems to cordially despise, while still looking for some way to make us think he’s important enough for us to want a 410 page book about him.  Also, it keeps sticking modern racial politics into the mix for no reason whatsoever, and insinuates there were no black people in New York City before 1961, which Westlake says would have surprised his dad who grew up in Irish Harlem (Mine too!  Small world.)

You can always go to the library.  You could probably figure out who Runyon was as a man much better by reading an encyclopedia article (no Wikipedia yet) and a good anthology.  Why would anyone not related to Breslin want to buy this?

(I want to be as evenhanded and objective here as a blogger who has written almost exclusively about one writer for three years possibly can be, and Westlake does type one line he thankfully did not live to see turn into a bad joke.  Responding to Breslin’s frequent attacks on Runyon’s admittedly less than stellar qualities as a family man, he says “This is not Bill Cosby, you know.”  Yeah. Now we know.)

A lot of Westlake’s ire is not against Breslin so much as it is for Runyon.  He’s deeply angered that Breslin doesn’t seem to appreciate how much they all owe this guy for arguably doing more than anyone (except maybe Ring Lardner) to create what you might call the basic infrastructure that every subsequent wordsmith who wrote about street people and petty crooks in a whimsical way has made use of, whether he or she ever read one word of Runyon. You give credit where credit is due, but Breslin wants to believe he’s his own unique creation, and there never was anybody like him before, and that’s just a silly thing for anyone to believe, however accomplished, but so many do anyway.

But clearly Breslin read the review.  Now this is a guy who was never known for mincing words, or even parsing them.  If he didn’t like something you did or said, or didn’t do, or didn’t say, he’d tell you and the whole world, in black and white, and he wouldn’t be gentle about it.  And you might think a guy like that would have a sense of humor about the same thing happening to him.  And you’d think wrong.  When it came to the physical stuff, he could famously take it about as well as he dished it out, if not better (ask Jimmy Burke).  When it came to criticism, written or oral, not so much (ask Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh).  Only words could ever hurt him.  Because words were what he most believed in.  Because Irish.

So he did this interview on C-Span, which you can watch online (or just read the transcript) and there he is, going off on tangents as always, and at one point he’s ranting about this one bad review he got in the Times (when he could have just talked about the other review from the same paper that said the same things more nicely),  The Only Bad Review He Ever Got In His Whole Life, and he doesn’t seem to even want to say Westlake’s name until the interviewer says it first.  He’s pissed.  And maybe a bit hurt.  What did I ever do this guy?  About as much as Runyon ever did you, Jimmy.  Nothing personal, right?  Well, I don’t know if it was personal or not.  For you or Westlake.  How could I know that?

My title is probably misleading.  This isn’t a feud.  It’s not Hatfields and McCoys.  It’s not even Bette and Joan.  It’s just two Irish Americans, both writers, both New Yorkers, both lapsed Catholics, both funny, both sharp-tongued, both self-styled champions of the common man, both hating the rich and powerful (while still perpetually fascinated by them), both capable of writing a timely essay (but Breslin was better), both capable of writing an enduring novel (but Westlake was better).  Not quite the same age set, Breslin having come in about five years earlier, but close enough to share most of the same generational experiences.  They both had failed marriages, they both made lasting matches later in life, they both had blended families of kids and step-kids, and they both had to compromise sometimes because of that.

You want to know how great Jimmy Breslin really was, when he was doing what he was born to do?  Read this.  And weep for the loss of him.  Our loss, not his.  And I have no doubt Westlake would have agreed, if we hadn’t lost him first.

But something about Breslin clearly bugged him.  I can only guess about what that was.  I can’t find any evidence Breslin ever noticed Westlake prior to 1991.  That could have been what bugged him.  But I do kind of imagine them keeping occasional tabs on each other over the years; circling each other warily if they met at some midtown bar or literary soiree, squaring off like gunfighters, “This town ain’t big enough fer both of us!”, then thinking nah it’s plenty big enough, and heading over to wherever they were keeping the hors d’oeuvres.

And that’s all I got.  Bye, Breslin.  Maybe you and Westlake can hash things out now.  You can always bond over Trump (I swear, he’s like the Huns; all kinds of weird alliances springing up in his wake).  But if we hear thunder in the heavens…….well.  There’s room up there too.

PS:  I found something else!  At the 1997 trade show of New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Organization (NAIBA), held October 3-5 in Philadelphia (it would be Philadelphia), there was a Saturday morning breakfast roundtable thing, featuring Nat Hentoff, Michael Moore, Jimmy Breslin and (drumroll please) Donald Westlake.  They were discussing issues like censorship and whether there were going to be any independent bookstores in the near future because Walmart.  No mention of Amazon being discussed, or for that matter whether Breslin publicly upbraided Westlake for that bad review (one feels somehow it must have come up, at least in private conversation).

NPR recorded the discussion for its Radio Times show.  At present, I can’t figure out how you get a transcript.  Obviously the actual recording would be even better.  Or hey, there’s always a seance.  😐

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Filed under Donald Westlake

Mr. Westlake and The Home Stretch

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

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

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

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

Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Bad News, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arraignment of Redcorn:

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

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

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

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

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

(Lucky horse.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Un-Busy Body:

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

Tiny said, “What you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bet they would,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The signage stunk,” Kelp said.

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

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

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

“You got it again,” Tiny told him.

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

“Did I know about what?”

“Southwest,” Tiny said.

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

Kelp looked up there.

“Back on the road!” Dortmunder yelled.

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

“Very useful,” Dortmunder suggested.

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

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

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

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

The Native Nephew:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Color is Dortmunder’s Parachute?:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We also go for quieter,” Dortmunder said.

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

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

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

“You don’t have a purpose in life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t hear it,” Margaret said.

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

Margaret looked interested.  “Oh yeah?”

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

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

“Frank.”

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

“Yes.  And I know it’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that leaves us nothing but–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Bad News

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

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

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

“We know,” Kelp assured him.

Dortmunder said “Little Feather’s an Indian.”

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

Dortmunder said, “And putting casinos on them.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Anastasia,” Tiny said.

Dortmunder said, “That’s it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why–Why that thing?”

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

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

“At the moment,” Tiny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aside: Mr. Fitch and the Theme Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(horns come in lower now)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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