Tag Archives: 87th Precinct

Review: Transgressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merely Hate:

The driver behind them kept honking his horn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But someone had killed one of them last night.

And he was not yet finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking The Line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you need to see my ID?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking Around Money:

Dortmunder said, “It’s a heist.”

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

“Huh,” Dortmunder said.

“You oughta try cough drops,” Querk suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Querk said, “What is this?”

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

Querk said, “I don’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp said, “Tell us a story, Kirby.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeez,” Querk said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Levine

If you’re a man fifty-three years of age, there’s a statistical chance your heart will stop this year.  But there’s no sense getting worried about it.  There’s an even better statistical chance that it won’t stop this year.  So, if you go to to the doctor and he says don’t worry, then you shouldn’t worry.  Don’t think morbid thoughts all the time, think about life.  Think about your work, for example.

But what if it so happens that your work, as often as not, is death?  What if you’re a precinct detective, the one the wife calls when her husband just keeled over at the breakfast table, the one the hotel calls for the guest who never woke up this morning?  What if the short end of the statistics is that end you most often see?

From The Feel of The Trigger, by Donald E. Westlake

In any mystery story, one element is inevitably the detective’s attitude towards death, his reaction to the concept of death.  The amateur detectives, for instance, the whimsical Whimseys and quaint Queens, view death in the shallowest possible way, as a solvable puzzle, which is in any event one of the subliminal comforts of the mystery form.  Death is stripped of its grief, horror, loss, irrevocability; we are not helpless, there is something we can do. We can solve death.

Similarly, it has become the convention that policemen, professional detectives, are hardened to death, immune to life untimely nipped.  “All I want is the facts, ma’am,” Jack Webb used to say in his Sergeant Friday persona on Dragnet; nothing would make him scream, or cry, or–o’ercome–turn aside his head.  (Although they broke with that just once, when the actor who played Friday’s partner died.  They wrote it in, and on camera Jack Webb–somehow no longer the cop–did cry, was human, faced death squarely.)

From the Introduction to Levine, by Donald E. Westlake

Donald Westlake’s first series character was either Phil Crawford or Abraham Levine.  I don’t know which.   Crawford, an aspiring stage actor who got lucky with the opposite sex far too often for credibility’s sake, was the protagonist of three semi-porn novels Westlake published under the name Alan Marshall, starting in 1959.

Abraham Levine made his debut in a short story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that same year.  But that story was published under Westlake’s own name, so overall I’d say Abe gets the winner’s garland, no matter who came first.   Westlake would be the first to admit Phil was never much of a character, but maybe we’ll take a look at him sometime, once I can afford to buy those highly collectible never-reprinted paperbacks that are not yet available electronically, dammit.  Neither is this book, and that’s a much bigger shame.

I feel like I don’t need to write a long introduction for Levine (though of course I will anyway), because Westlake already wrote it for me.   The preface to the book that ultimately collected all the Levine stories together (and added one last story to finish the character’s arc) lays everything out beautifully, and you’ll find it not only in every edition of that book, but also in The Getaway Car.  It’s valuable on a lot of levels–as much as any of the stories it introduces–not least in the way it broadens our understanding of a critical period in Westlake’s life and career.

He begins by telling us that 1959 was the most productive year he ever had as a writer (and this is a guy who published six novels and a children’s book in 1967).  Other than the pseudo-porn he cranked out for his then-employer Scott Meredith to sell to fly-by-night outfits like Nightstand Books, pretty much all that output was short stories, written for the pulp magazines–mystery and science fiction, for the most part.

Having started out expecting to be a science fiction writer who dabbled in crime fiction, Westlake was finding the SF genre increasingly hard to write for, because his primary interest was in character development.   Science fiction was heavily geared towards conceptualization, and characterization tended to be rather basic, often bordering on nonexistent.  Also the pay rates stunk.  So he started looking around for publishing niches where he didn’t have to write about horny actors bedding nubile starlets, or square-jawed spacemen zapping BEM’s with rayguns.  Mystery is a very large and diversified genre, so he had to find his proper place within it, via trial and error.

The sub-genre he explored here–one might argue the ultimate sub-genre–was the police procedural.  Part of the larger mystery genre, but also very much a form unto itself. Le Policier, the French call it.  And at its best, it can be amazing.  And at it worst, you might start getting nostalgic for the horny actors and square-jawed spacemen (and I happen to like BEM’s).

The Fall 2015 Network Primetime Schedule had no fewer than fifteen shows that are, more or less, about police detectives of various kinds.  That’s not counting cable.  To be sure, many of these shows are not about ordinary working cops–they’re supercops, members of elite units, or (in the case of Gotham or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) a warm-up act for vigilantes running around in tights.

But at the core of them all is the concept of the police procedural.  A crime is committed.  Trained people working for the state go out and investigate that crime.  They find out what happened.  They apprehend the perpetrator(s), and report their findings.  Anything else that may happen in the course of these events is incidental (and so is life, in case you hadn’t noticed).

Though it’s impossible to say who invented this form, since you can always find some antecedent to whatever story you’re looking at, certainly when you’re talking about the modern incarnation, there are two names that come first to mind–Jack Webb and Ed McBain (AKA Evan Hunter, OKA Salvatore Albert Lombino).   Less remembered is Marvin Wald, who wrote the story for The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin (who, like Westlake, would end up being more interested in robbers than cops).

It was that pseudonym of a pseudonym McBain (Lombino preferred to be called Evan Hunter in real life) who Westlake learned the most from.  Hunter created the ridiculously long-lived 87th Precinct series–54 books published in just around 50 years–all stemming from Hunter having seen unrealized potential in Webb’s Dragnet.

His innovation was to make the procedural an ensemble piece.  The precinct itself is the protagonist.  Multiple rotating leads, multiple storylines in one book, an all-seeing worldly wise narrator tying it all together, and pontificating to beat the band.  Beat cops, detectives, coroners, police lab techs–all working as a team to bring Law & Order (dun!dun!) to a fictional city that is sort of New York, but not exactly, because he didn’t want to have to do a lot of extra research on streets and neighborhoods and etc.

Hunter was wryly sardonic about the fact that television, having only managed one thirty episode season of a direct adaptation of his books, proceeded to cannibalize them for spare parts, that later helped spawn a virtual industry within the industry.  But given that he was influenced by a TV series to start with, maybe that’s poetic justice.  You tell me.

Westlake was reacting more to Hunter’s work than anything else here, and the influence is obvious–so much so that one of his Levine stories served as the basis for a script on the short-lived 87th Precinct show.  In his introduction to this book, he mentions having to be out the night that episode aired, and it’s unclear if he ever got to see it.  This being the 21st century, you can certainly see it if you want.  I wasn’t quite interested enough to spring for the DVD box set.  Maybe later.

But of course Westlake, as we know, was never comfortable with making policemen his protagonists.  He’d make them the heavies, or the butt of jokes, or solid pros outwitted by some wily crook, or all of the above.  He’d been arrested for petty theft as a young man, interrogated, thrown in a cell, treated in a way that clearly left a permanent mark on his psyche, which must have been fairly anti-authoritarian to start with.

If he makes a policeman his protagonist, he’s a disgraced ex-detective like Mitch Tobin, or a cop turned robber, like the two heister heroes of Cops and Robbers.   Abe Levine is the only instance I can think of where his hero is a working lawman doing his job honestly and well, and never once questioning his vocation (certain aspects of it, maybe–a Westlake hero can never be a true organization man).

And he did this not once but six times.  Creating what amounts to a mini-saga, six standalone stories linked by a common theme, taking place over perhaps a year’s time, even though it took over twenty years for Westlake to complete the saga, and he’d never really planned it as such–it just came out that way.

Now I think it’s time to review each of the six stories, one by one (do I need to remind you my reviews are spoiler-laden?  Consider yourself reminded).  Westlake calls them ‘novelettes,’ and they’re a bit short for that (20-30 pages, on average), but there’s never been any strict criteria separating a short story from a novelette/novella. It’s the term he prefers to use, and they’re his stories, so why not?

I think in this case it’s not about length so much as it is Westlake feeling more like he’s condensing a novel than stretching out a short story–taking what would be just one plot skein from an 87th Precinct book and making it stand on its own, giving it a bit more depth and emotional heft, focusing on one unique perspective.   Since he typically had trouble with the short story form (less time to build character), that may be what he liked about these stories–and their melancholy mensch of a protagonist.  Who we first meet in–

The Best-Friend Murder: Westlake says in his introduction to Levine that he only realized years later how much of his own daily existence he was putting into this story that he originally wanted to call Intellectual Motivation (he had the same belated realization about the Parker novels he started writing not long afterwards).  Given how feverishly he was hammering out story after story, I can well believe this, up to a point.  But it strains credulity just a mite with regards to this particular piece, which is about one aspiring writer who claims to have murdered another, and let’s just say they both sound really familiar.

Abraham Levine, detective with the 43rd precinct in Brooklyn, goes with his partner Jack Crawley to an apartment on Prospect Park West (did they call that neighborhood Park Slope back then?  Not many unemployed writers living there now, I bet).  They are investigating the poisoning death of a young man named Al Gruber.  Perhaps I should mention that Westlake’s father’s name was Albert, though it’s also the original middle name of Evan Hunter.

(Sidebar: Right off the bat, we learn that Levine is at an age where he’s worried about his heart,  is thinking a lot about his own mortality, but not much supporting detail, or any specific reason to think Levine is in any immediate danger of having his ticker give out–Westlake, as usual, is starting a series without knowing that’s what it is, or what its full potential might be–well hey, Chester Himes didn’t know he was starting a series when he wrote For Love of Imabelle.  Great series characters often creep up on a writer, uninvited, unanticipated, maybe even unwanted [ask Conan Doyle]).

Gruber, in his 20’s, was going to college on the GI bill, while trying to sell stories to various magazines, and it was going so badly that he kept a bottle of poison around as a macabre joke–he’d kill himself if he couldn’t make it as a pro.  His close friend and fellow journeyman wordsmith, Larry Perkins, walked up to a patrolman in Prospect Park and said he’d just put some of that poison in Al’s beer when he wasn’t looking, Al drank it, and he’s dead.  He won’t explain why except to say that the decedent was a pompous ass.  Levine thinks this is a lousy motive.

So he and Crawley, having failed to get anything that makes sense out of Perkins, make the rounds in classic procedural style, talking to people who knew the deceased and his purported killer, learning a bit more with each interview (Levine also gets to read Gruber’s notebooks, that contain a lot of personal material, as well as copious notes on people and settings that could be used in stories he was writing).

The picture gets clearer, particularly after they talk to a professor of a writing course both men attended, and a young woman both men dated (they seem to have been rivals in just about everything).   Both acquaintances say that the two friends were polar opposites–Gruber wanted to learn how to express ideas he had about life, about people–he was interested in the way other people thought, in the way the world worked, and how you can get all that across in a story.  Perkins just wanted to be famous and figured being a writer was as good a way as any to get there.  Both were talented, but they had different ideas about how to use that talent.   Gruber comes off a lot better out of the comparison.

The professor says that each would react to the others’ work, particularly Perkins towards Gruber–if Gruber started working on a particular type of project, Perkins would do something similar, and try to one-up him.  He can’t for the life of him believe one would ever try to hurt the other, though.  That doesn’t make any sense to him, or to their shared girlfriend (saddened but not really heartbroken over the grim news), who has a hard time processing that this isn’t all a prank, and Gruber isn’t still alive somewhere.

“I don’t really believe it anyway,” she said–“Al–he’s a lot quieter than Larry.  Kind of intense, you know?  He’s got a kind of reversed Messiah complex.  You know, he figures he’s supposed to be something great, a great writer, but he’s afraid he doesn’t have the stuff for it.  So he worries about himself and keeps trying to analyze himself, and he hates everything he writes because he doesn’t think it’s good enough for what he’s supposed to be doing.  That bottle of poison, that was a gag, you know, just a gag, but it was the kind of joke that has some kind of truth behind it.  With this kind of thing driving him like this, I suppose even death begins to look like a good escape after a while.”

New York had the death penalty in 1959.  Perkins is confessing to cold-blooded premeditated murder without any motive other than spite.  He’s going to the chair for sure, but he sticks to his confession like flypaper, and seems angry at Levine for questioning it.  He’s being put through the system, prepared for indictment and inevitable conviction, when Levine asks to talk to him–he brings another officer Perkins doesn’t know, who at Levine’s request is pretending to be a newspaper reporter.

And as Levine steers the conversation towards publicity, Perkins perks up–then is visibly shaken when the faux-reporter (accurately) tells him that without a sex angle or some serial killer vibe, the story will be lucky to end up buried on page ten.   Too many murders in New York.  Nobody cares if one unemployed scribbler poisons another.    And that’s when Perkins cracks.

Okay, fine, Levine had him figured right.  He didn’t kill Gruber, Gruber killed himself, in a fit of despondency over his failure to achieve his grand ambitions (that pompous ass).  Perkins, feeling just as frustrated by his own failure, decided to piggyback his way to fame by claiming to murder him and frying for it–thus simultaneously copying and one-upping his friend, as he’d been doing all along.  He burned the suicide note.  Murderers are always better remembered than those they murder.  Nobody remembers a suicide, unless he was famous already (maybe if there’s a country-western song about him).

Perkins hadn’t thought it through, and he realizes that now–he doesn’t want to die a nobody, so he’s ready to recant.  But Levine won’t let him.  Levine is furious, at him and Gruber both.   “Youth is wasted on the young,” Shaw wrote, and no truer words were ever penned.  Levine hates both of them with all his faltering 53 year old heart, because they threw away what he’d give anything to have–their healthy young lives, their healthy young hearts, the potential to go on for decades, to see the 21st century even.  He can’t hurt Gruber, but damned if he’s going to help Perkins.

His partner, Jack Crawley, heard the whole thing–as Levine knew he would–and it’s hard to say whether the kid is really going to be tried and convicted.  But as far as Levine is concerned, he’s dead already.  To give up on life is to prove yourself unworthy of it.

So I can well imagine that Westlake had both Al Gruber and Larry Perkins inside of him–along with a host of others, and so do we all have that Greek chorus of selves inside of us, each striving for dominance, but is that really what this story is expressing?  Doesn’t feel like it to me.  It feels more like Al Gruber is a less encumbered version of Donald Westlake–as he both wanted to be and feared he might become.  And Larry Perkins?  Larry Block.

Westlake had met Lawrence Block (Larry to his friends) just a short time earlier (November of ’58), and had quickly formed a close combative connection with him, in spite of a nearly five year age difference–a lifelong rivalry, as well as a friendship, and I think Block is everywhere in Westlake’s writing.  I need to read more of Block to know where Westlake crops up–haven’t seen it yet.  Maybe it’s not there.  Block approaches fiction differently than Westlake did.  But no question, they were learning from each other all the time, and this is just a snapshot of some early impressions Westlake had, no more, no less.

A writer uses people he or she knows when writing.   There’s no avoiding it, and you can’t be thinking all the time “Is this fair?” or the writing will stink on ice.  If you have to cut, cut deeply–it’s a story, and that’s what they’re for.  I think Westlake was dissembling a bit in his intro when he said he didn’t know at the time what he was doing here.  He did know, but he didn’t want to say, because Lawrence Block was his best friend, and it was a real friendship, and a lasting one, and what he said about himself and his friend, the harsh  judgment he passed upon them both, clearly wasn’t the whole truth, but I doubt it was made up out of whole cloth either–obviously I can’t know.

I do know I’d give anything–even my youth, that I don’t have to give anymore–to have a friend who knew the very worst about me, along with the best, and still wanted to be my friend.  Maybe I got that just once.  It’s hard to know, isn’t it?   Point is, you can’t know anything if you end the story before it’s done.  Gruber and Perkins never get to find out who they might have been when they grew up.  Westlake and Block did.

Somehow, Levine brings out these kinds of thoughts, and that continues in the next story–

Come Back, Come Back:  Westlake put Levine aside after that first story, not expecting to write about him again, but the character had touched something in him–there was a potential theme in his love of life, his hatred of death, and his inability to understand anyone who doesn’t feel the same way about the two.

So over a year later, he wrote this story, self-evidently patterned after the 1951 Henry Hathaway film, Fourteen Hours, starring Paul Douglas as the cop and Richard Basehart as the jumper.  That movie was remade for television in 1955 under the title Man On The Ledge, which is probably why Westlake’s original title of Man On A Ledge was not used, and just as well, no?  Particularly since they used that title for a not terribly well-regarded suspense thriller starring Sam Worthington in 2012.  Westlake admits in his preface to this book that titles were always a problem for him, and he’s not the only one.

So it was already a well-worn idea when Westlake got to it, and it’s seen a fair bit of wear since, but that’s the point–how does Levine react when put in the same situation as some other fictional cop trying to talk somebody off a ledge?  What makes him different?  So sure, he does some of the same things Paul Douglas does in the movie; talk to people close to the jumper, try to find out what’s driving him to this, learn about problems in his life, failed relationships, etc.

While all the while Levine’s partner Jack says that the guy standing on the eighth floor ledge of his own office building, his own successful business, is a fraud–that if he wanted to jump he would have already.   It has come out that the jumper’s real problem is his marriage–his wife won’t let him be himself, has controlled him all his life, pushed him to be a success to vicariously fulfill her own ambitions.

He’s met someone who will give him the chance to be his own man (she works at his office, naturally), but his wife won’t talk to him about a divorce–he’s trying to get her to talk to him, but she won’t even come there, or talk to him on the phone.  She’d rather he jumped–in the movie, it was the jumper’s bitchy controlling mother (played by Agnes Moorehead, naturally) who was the problem.

When the moment of crisis finally comes, Levine doesn’t talk to the guy about how they’ll go fishing together, go drinking together, everything’s gonna be okay, life’s not so bad–in other words, he doesn’t lie.  He lashes into that man on the ledge with a fury.  He’s as honest as one human possibly can be with another.  This is probably not approved police procedure for dealing with people on building ledges.  But it’s who Levine is.

“Cartwright, you’re alive.” Levine stared helplessly at the man, searching for the way to tell him how precious that was, the fact of being alive.  “You’re breathing,” he said. “You can see and hear and smell and taste and touch.  You can laugh at jokes, you can love a woman–for God’s sake man, you’re alive!”

Cartwright’s eyes didn’t waver; his expression didn’t change.  “I want to talk to my wife,” he repeated.

“Listen,” said Levine.  “You’ve been out here two hours now.  You’ve had time to think about death, about non-being.  Cartwright, listen.  Look at me, Cartwright, I’m going to the doctor at three o’clock this afternoon.  He’s going to tell me about my heart, Cartwright.  He’s going to tell me if my heart is getting too tired.  He’s going to tell me if I’m going to stop being alive.”

But he still can’t break through, so he screams at Cartwright, tells him to go ahead and jump, throw it all away, JUMP!!!

And Cartwright, face white with shock, begins to cry, loses his balance on the ledge, is about to fall–and at that moment understands the living truth of Levine’s words, and that’s when Crawley grabs him and hauls him in.

And then, crisis averted (for now at least), Levine gets a ride from Crawley to the doctor’s office, telling his partner he’ll get a cab home after he hears the verdict.  And as he stands there alone at the curb, he murmurs “I wanted him to  jump.”

Paul Douglas would never have said that.

Westlake still didn’t think he had a series here, but the character refused to go away, and six months later he had another idea, which became–

The Feel of The Trigger:  Westlake says this story in particular shows the influence of Evan Hunter and the 87th Precinct books, and he was confirmed in that belief by the fact that it was the one that got adapted into an episode of the TV series based on those books (there not yet being enough of them to sustain a series).  Meyer Meyer, the 87th’s resident Jewish detective with the ironically repetitive name, was predictably chosen to stand in for Levine, and was played by Norman Fell (a bit young and healthy-looking at the time for a heart condition, but otherwise a perfect fit, I’d say).

Now there’s a problem with Levine’s heart problem–if it’s that bad, the NYPD would pension him off.  And he couldn’t be a detective anymore, and there’d be no more stories.  And then maybe he and his wife have to be foster parents to a bunch of bratty kids, and that wouldn’t work at all (I know at least one of my readers gets this joke, but the real joke is that Abe Vigoda died eight years after Donald Westlake, having been born twelve years earlier).

So in this story, taking place a few months after the last one (the time lag between when the stories were written and when they took place keeps getting wider, you see), we find out that the doctor told Levine he’s fine, nothing to worry about, just a slight irregularity in the heartbeat, take care of yourself and you’ll live to be a hundred.  (Yeah, that’s probably what Bernie Sanders’ doctor told him, never mind, I didn’t say anything, let it go.)

Levine doesn’t buy it, because he’s listening to his heart all the time now, and it skips every eighth beat; only when he’s under stress, it’s seven, then six, then five, and if it ever skips twice in a row, he’s dead.  I have no idea if this is medically accurate or not, and I have no intention of finding out.  For the record, Marvel Comics introduced Iron Man in 1963, this story was published in 1961, and no I’m not suggesting an influence.  Great minds and all that.

So cutting to the chase (figuratively now, literally soon) Levine and Crawley are investigating the robbery of a tiny Jewish-owned grocery store, where the owner was killed by some trigger-happy kid with a gun.  The widow didn’t know she was a widow, since he died on the way to the hospital, and Crawley, with cruel necessity, uses the shock of the revelation to get her to spill the identity of the killer–a boy who lives in the building next door.

The parents don’t want to believe it, are giving their only son an alibi on pure faith, and there’s no search warrant, so again some psychological manipulation is called for, and when the mother seems ready to break, the kid makes a break for it, up the fire escape, over the rooftops, putting a bullet in Crawley’s leg as he goes, meaning Levine has to follow him alone, the combination of physical exertion and fear putting ever greater strain on his pump.

He corners the perp, but the perp figures he’s cornered Levine– doesn’t think Levine has a gun because he’s not shooting back, and the boy keeps moving closer in the darkness, hating Levine for having exposed his crime, saying he’s going to kill him, and Levine keeps trying to tell him, there in the darkness, don’t you understand what death is, what it means to take a life, how horrible it is, how wrong?   Of course he doesn’t.  He’s not old enough yet for death to be real for him.  All that was real was that the store owner had money and he didn’t.    Nobody is real to him but him.  That didn’t start with videogames and action movies, people.   It didn’t start with guns, either.  Guns just make a bad situation worse.

And Levine realizes that he won’t kill this boy, he can’t, no matter what he did, no matter what he’s about to do, Levine can’t do it, life is too precious, anybody’s life, even a murderer’s.  He’s defenseless.  Then one of the uniformed patrolmen blunders in, and the boy is about to shoot him, and Levine, acting on pure gut instinct, puts a bullet through the boy’s brain, only then feeling the trigger pressed against his index finger, understanding what he’s done, the immutable irreversible nature of it.  “I’m sorry,” he whispers, once again to no one in particular.  And once again, for all of us in general.

So by this point, Westlake knew that any story he wrote about Levine had to be about his relationship with death, and it was almost a year before another idea came to him, and that story was–

The Sound of Murder:  Now all of a sudden I’m seeing Julie Andrews twirling around on a mountaintop with a gun.   But this is probably derived from The Bad Seed (plus one other story I’ll get to in a minute), and I mentioned there’d be spoilers, right?

A remarkably self-possessed and intelligent little girl, ten years old, clearly from a well-off family, comes into the precinct office, and reports the murder of her step-father by her mother.  It’s been four months since Levine went to the doctor, and he’s trying to quit smoking, just to improve his chances–he’s rather irritable as a result, but he’s still very sympathetic to the child, and while dismissing her story at first, is increasingly inclined to give it credence.  Because little children don’t lie, right?  Imagine, sure.  But she doesn’t seem like the type to make things up.

So skipping over the obligatory procedural stuff (that contains a clue as to the real killer, that you will probably fail to spot, just like I did),  Levine suddenly wakes up with a horrifying insight–he’s got to get to the girl’s house–another murder is about to be committed!

He gets over there, and is greeted by a horrible apparition–and a bloodcurdling scream, that affects his heart, but not fatally so.  And then he tells the killer it’s all over, the gambit has failed.

See, the killer knew that Levine, like the murdered man, had a weak heart–but not weak enough for the taped and amplified scream to cause heart failure.  The killer overestimated her cunning.  It’s the little girl, as everybody who saw The Bad Seed has already guessed, though I must say Westlake covers it well, makes you doubt.

Levine is always more about the why of a killing (something he shares with the soon-to-be created Mitch Tobin)–you learn the why, you can figure out who.  His partner asks the questions, he listens closely to the answers, looks beneath the surface of them.

Who had something to gain from the father’s death?   A little girl who hated being told what to do, whose mind had developed too quickly, who wanted the independence of an adult while still a child.  And now she’s killed her mother, poisoned her, and forged a suicide note from her, confessing to the murder of her husband.  And having known Levine was coming, since he called first, the child thought she could kill him too, to shut him up.   But now he’s going to kill her.

Do you know what’s going to happen to you?” he asked her.  “They won’t execute you, you’re too young.  They’ll judge you insane and they’ll lock you away.   And there’ll be guards and matrons there, to say don’t do this and don’t do that, a million million times more than you can imagine.  And they’ll keep you locked away in a little room, forever and ever, and they’ll let you do nothing you want to do, nothing.”

She tried to kill him with a sound, and now he’s going to kill her with words–obviously she might be released someday (and who might she kill then?), but she doesn’t know that, and he won’t tell her.  Goaded to a frenzy by the vision he paints of her future,  she screams “No, they won’t!” and leaps from the window to her death.

Levine had been telling himself all through this that the old have to make way for the young, but looking without guilt at her small broken body below (it was her choice, and this story takes place before The Feel of the Trigger), he says, to all the impatient young people in the world, “don’t rush us.”

(This story, Westlake informs us, was written during the very period when he was writing 361–then hit a wall with it, so he wrote The Hunter–then he wrote The Sound of Murder–then he finished 361, feeling his humanity restored enough to do so by writing this story, which sounds weird to me, because this is the starkest, coldest, and least compassionate of the Levine stories by far.  He was sure in a dark mood that year.)

And the other influence on this would be Ray Bradbury’s The Small Assassin, unless I miss my guess (and I frequently do).  Westlake was Bradbury’s intellectual superior, and a better writer in many ways, but couldn’t match him as a word painter, and really, how many ever could?  I finished Bradbury’s story in a cold sweat, my heart beating wildly.  I didn’t react that way to this (well, I’m older).

But again, the point is not to surpass the earlier story on its own terms, but rather to use it to tell us something about Levine, and about the way different people feel differently about death.   At least Levine doesn’t use a scalpel.  Well, a different kind of scalpel.

And that leads us to–

The Death of a Bum:  The gaps between the stories got longer and longer–The Sound of Murder clearly takes place before the events of The Feel of the Trigger, but was published afterwards.  Westlake had an idea for another Levine, but he couldn’t sell it to Hitchcock’s, probably because the murder in it is never solved, or even shown.  About three years after the last one was published, he finally found a home for it in Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine.

This one takes place after Crawley was shot in the leg, and Levine has been saddled with a new temporary partner, hotshot go-getter Andy Stettin (this development reeks of 87th Precinct, btw–Hunter would have to keep bringing in handsome lusty new detectives to keep the female readers interested, or so his publisher thought anyway).

They’re investigating the murder of a smalltime bookie, hustler, and part-time heister named Morry Gold, found shot dead in his rented room by his landlady, chunks of potato indicating that the killer used a tuber as a silencer (a little tip of the hat to Peter Rabe and Anatomy of a Killer).

So again with the procedural stuff, and it becomes increasingly clear that while Gold knew a whole lot of people, absolutely none of them are even remotely moved by his death.  Nobody has any idea who’d care enough to kill him, though it seems to be a mob contracted hit.  His own brother tries to get Levine to drop the case entirely, talking to Levine as a fellow Jew, not a cop–telling him there are higher laws.  To Levine, there is no higher law than justice, and he resents the notion that his being Jewish means that he and this equally shady character are linked, part of the same club.

While running down one possible suspect, Levine and Stettin are shot at through the door, because the guy was selling narcotics, had them right there in the apartment, and wasn’t ready to take such a long fall–Levine senses it coming, tries to warn Stettin, but he still gets a potentially fatal wound (a year later, Westlake would recycle this idea for Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death–in that case, Tobin wasn’t there, and his partner was killed, and his relationship with guilt, rather than death, drove that entire series).

His superior gins up the men of the precinct to go out there and find the would-be cop killer, saying that a policeman is a symbol, and an attack on a police officer is therefore an attack on society itself.

No, thought Levine, that’s wrong.  Andy Stettin is a man, and that’s why we have to get Jake Mosca.  He was alive, and now he may die.  He is a living human being, and that’s why we have to get his would-be killer.  There shouldn’t be any other reasons, shouldn’t have to be any other reasons.

So now Levine is doggedly continuing the Gold investigation on his own, and he won’t let go of it, even as other casework piles up, and finally his superior orders him to ‘open’ the case, meaning really to close it, mark it unsolved, pending, stick it in a file, forget about it until such time as new evidence presents itself, which may well be never.

Levine realizes he is literally the only person on earth who cares about what happened to Morry Gold, a man he never met, a man who really was a bum, who led a worthless life, and died a worthless death, and nobody gives a damn.  He does what he’s told, and as he rides the subway home alone, he begins to weep to himself, his shoulders heaving with inconsolable grief.

Yeah, it’s not very Hitchcock, is it?  Then again, Vertigo.   Not like Hitch was editing the magazine.  Maybe if Morry had turned out to be alive?  I kept thinking suppose it turned out the brother was actually Morry, but there’s no ironic twist here.  There’s no resolution.  There’s no closure.  You know.  Like life.

So that was it for Levine–as Westlake explains, he’d moved into the comic phase of his career by then; there was Parker, there was Tobin, there were ‘Nephews’, there’d eventually be Dortmunder, the short story market for mysteries was drying up, and there just wasn’t time for Levine anymore.  Did he forget all about him?  Of course not.

So much time passed, nearly two decades, and Westlake began to form both a professional and personal relationship with a guy named Otto Penzler, and we’re going to be seeing that name a lot in future articles, so I don’t feel any need to go into detail here.  Penzler was starting his own publishing company, and when he found out about the Levine stories, he said all he needed was one more and he could publish them in book form.

And Westlake really wanted to do this, but he had a problem–Levine, 53 years old in all the previous stories, couldn’t possibly still be working as a detective at 73.   Even if his heart had held up.  And for him to live that long negated the point of the earlier stories anyway.

But Westlake never liked writing period stuff.  Nor did he want to rewrite the older stories to match up with the 80’s (thank God).  So the solution, he figured, was to write a story that took place very shortly after the previous one, still in the late 50’s/early 60’s, Levine still worried about his heart, still musing over what he’d learned from those five previous cases, and his partner Jack out of the hospital at last, while Levine is still visiting the recovering Andy Stettin in the hospital.  But he’d avoid any details that might tip the viewer as to when it took place, even though the earlier stories had such details that he left intact (I’m sure this made perfect sense to him).  And this final story was called–

After I’m Gone:  It’s rather a shock seeing how much Westlake’s writing had developed since the early 60’s.  A much more sophisticated and involved piece, that really could have served as the basis for a novel, this has a Mafia hook to it. Levine is approached by a made man, the right hand of a local crime boss, whose son was whacked on the orders of that boss because the kid had been caught screwing the boss’s pretty young wife.  And he’s heard through channels that his head is next on the chopping block, if only to make sure he doesn’t take revenge at a later date.

This guy’s name is Banadando, and in spite of himself, Levine likes him, appreciates his guts and his cunning, his determination to avenge his son and live to tell about it.  He’s no rat–he won’t turn state’s evidence, go into witness protection (he says he himself has bribed NYPD officers to look the other way when witnesses under their protection were murdered).  It’s not his style.  But he will provide enough evidence to jail his boss, and put him in a situation where his own people will have no choice but to kill him.

So he wants Levine to serve as his messenger, help him get the materials he needs, while he dodges the button men, and it’s all working out fine, but then Banadando’s luck runs out.  Levine has been working with just a handful of other cops, including his partner Jack, hoping to keep the cops on the mob payroll from finding out what’s going on.  But now he realizes, out in a lonely spot on the coast of Long Island, that the jig is up, Banadando has been hit, reinforcements are going to be too slow arriving, and he has to somehow hold Banadando’s killer at bay until they get there.  If he fails, it will all have been for nothing, the evidence will have been destroyed, the murders will not be avenged.

And he can feel his heart skipping with the tension and stress, as the killer shoots at him–three beats–two beats–no beats.   Mother of mercy.  Is this the end of Levine?

It is.

His partner and the Suffolk PD get there in time to catch the hitman, who couldn’t get away because he didn’t know Levine was dead–he was crouched behind a boat, with his gun held up in the air, and he was still holding it up in his lifeless hand when they found him, blocking the killer’s escape.  “The wrong ones die,” Crawley says.  Everybody dies, Jack.

Abraham Levine is the only Westlake protagonist to ever definitively unquestionably kick it.  It’s pretty damned likely that Tim Smith, the anti-hero P.I. of Killing Time is dead a second after that book ends, but we don’t see it. Nobody stands over his body and pontificates.  Westlake did not like killing his leads.  Because, I deduce, he had a fairly strained relationship with death himself.  Killing the characters he’d put the most of himself into was too much like suicide for his taste.  And we know what he thought about  suicide.

Did he kill Levine because he didn’t identify that strongly with him, Levine being a cop and all?  I’ve thought that in past, but I don’t anymore.  That’s not it.  It was because he had to respect the character’s integrity, and part of that was respecting the character’s relationship with death, which meant Levine’s story could only end one way.

Much as he feared the end, he feared losing himself more–and the best part of himself was his professionalism, his pride in doing his job, in seeing murderers brought to justice (of one kind or another), and while he may not die without fear, he dies without overpowering fear, knowing that it must be done, knowing that it means something, and knowing he will be mourned.   By his wife, by his colleagues and friends, and by me.  Because as I finished this story for the second time, it was my shoulders heaving, as I quietly sobbed to myself in a local restaurant near my job.  I’m 55, by the way.  I was younger the last time I read it. My heart’s fine, far as I know.

And we can imagine his funeral procession weaving its way through the streets of Brooklyn, the bagpipes droning, the drums beating, the shots fired over his coffin (I don’t know what special provisions might be made for Jewish officers, and we never do find out much about Levine’s religious beliefs) but I fondly imagine Crawley ordering the hearse to make a stop at a local pub along the way to the cemetery, where he and a few other cops, Irish of course, give tribute to a man they loved without ever really understanding, in the only way they know how.   With a song that the Irish have long used to bellow defiance at that bastard Death, and may they ever do so.

And let’s end with that (the next book is funnier, I promise–it’s about the publishing industry, so it would pretty much have to be).

(And they’re all dead too.  Liam went the last, almost exactly a year after Westlake.  Maybe Westlake is having a drink with them right now.  Isn’t it grand?)

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Levine, Uncategorized