Tag Archives: Anguilla

Promo: The last Westlake I ever thought would be reprinted. On paper yet. With decent cover art even.

97819092698111

I got the news, appropriately enough, under an Irish heaven.  First from Anthony, in the comments section for my review.  Then a few days later, from the publisher.  By which I mean the actual publisher, one Humfrey Hunter, not some PR flak.

Humfrey Hunter?  I’ve long suspected I’m a supporting character in a Wodehouse novel, and now I’m certain of it.  (Maybe something by Waugh, or Nabokov, but God, I hope not.)

Hi Fred [editor’s note: he didn’t call me Fred, but you know…]

I’m the publisher of Silvertail Books and I’m getting in touch because we will shortly be bringing out UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN by Donald E. Westlake. His son Paul suggested I get in touch with you in the hope this might be of interest to you? I know you’ve written about UNDER AN ENGLISH HEAVEN before, but I wondered if this new edition might be something worth you mentioning? The book doesn’t seem to have got the attention it deserved when it first came out, and I would love to correct that now. There is some more information here:

http://www.silvertailbooks.com/portfolio-post/under-an-english-heaven/

Silvertail is best-known for being the only UK publisher willing to put out books critical of the Church of Scientology. In recent years, among others, we have published Lawrence Wright’s GOING CLEAR, and Leah Remini’s TROUBLEMAKER. Having Donald E. Westlake on our list is a huge moment for us, as I’m sure you can understand.

I look forward to hearing back from you.

Best wishes,

Humfrey.

It’s not one of the great houses (which by Westlake’s account were not always so great to work with), but sounds like they have some good writers.  We’re going to see more and more of this, as small publishers, mainly hawking their wares online (though as mentioned, there is a paperback edition from Silvertail as well), look to boost their profile by publishing long out of print works by well known writers.

There’s been a lot of that going on with Westlake of late, with the digital publisher Open Road, in unholy alliance with The Mysterious Press (which lives on in ghostly form) putting out one long-neglected opus after another.  But much as I appreciate this, the cover art has been, shall we say, sketchy.

What you see above is by no means the best imaginable specimen of the illustrator’s craft, but I find it thoughtful and well-conceived, all the same.  The planes for England, the eel for Anguilla.  (Some dolphins would have been nice, but what the hell).  And we don’t have to gaze at the bared lilywhite bums of confused British soldiers, as in the original (and up to now only) edition of this book.

Not a masterpiece this cover, but much better than you’d expect for a reprint of such an obscure and little-known book, about an obscure and little-known island, which was indeed largely ignored when first published (and probably contributed to the end of Westlake’s professional relationship with Simon & Schuster).

Fact is, the only place you’re ever likely to find the original edition in a shop is on Anguilla itself, and their supply must be running low by now (if there are any shops left there, after Maria had her winsome way with them).

So why now?  Well, first of all, I’d assume they got the rights pretty cheap, and with the ongoing Westlake renaissance, they get some new readers for their other books.  Unlike the original, this edition comes out under an English publisher, and this is a fascinating and forgotten chapter of England’s imperialist history, though no Anguillan has ever forgotten it.

They could probably break even on this edition just from sales to Anguilla and its far flung diaspora, as well as tourists to that blessed yet beknighted isle, who want to read up on its history.  For all of them, this book is pretty much the only game in town, or at least the only one with decent prose.  Eventually the original hardcovers will be read to death, and now there’s finally a new edition, that you can buy in a shop, or just download to your device while lounging on a beach, or dolphin-watching from a pier.

And finally, I would surmise, a publisher this small and spirited (taking on the deep-pocketed Scientologists with their vast army of legal lions takes guts) certainly must empathize with other slippery eels in a sea full of bigger fish, biting above their weight level (eels don’t punch).  Whatever the reason, I applaud the revival of any Westlake.  And the fact that so little of his work is out of print now attests to the growth of his reputation.

Westlake hated colonialism, celebrated the independent spirit of small nations, but still had an interest in how past exploiters could become present-day protectors (he revisisted this idea in High Adventure, also recently reprinted).

The irony of this story is how Anguilla, living in the shadow of its hated enemy St. Kitts, could only retain its cherished independence by remaining a colony (in name only) of the British Empire (ditto).   It’s the kind of sly sardonic literary journalism the late V.S. Naipaul was best known for, and with the rebirth of interest in him following his death earlier this month, the timing of this relaunch seems fortunate (not that the critics are likely to pay any more attention this time than last, but fuck them).

So anyway, I let Humfrey know that I’d comply with his request, once I was back under a New York Hell, and boy am I ever.  Have to get back to the air conditioning now.   See you next month, fellow eels.  Stay slippery.

PS: Note to Humfrey.  Nobody’s reprinted Adios, Scheherazade in a good long while, and it’s one of his best books, albeit controversial on matters sexual, and this is the #MeToo era–but if you’re not scared of Scientology…..)

 

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Under An English Heaven

Review: Enough, Part the First–A Travesty

“It’s so hard to keep track of an individual death, isn’t it?” she said.  “There are so many deaths, so many injustices, they all blend together.”

“Well, that depends how closely they affect you.”

She smiled; she had bad teeth.  “That’s right,” she said.  “It isn’t morality at all, it’s personal convenience, personal emotions.  None of us really care how many strangers get killed.”

Well, if you’re going to a cocktail party you have to expect cocktail party conversations.  I said, “Naturally, it affects you more if it happens to somebody you know.”  And even as I was saying it, I knew I was giving this girl an irresistible opportunity to quote John Donne.

Which she took.  I received the tolling of the bell with my best glazed smile, and she said, “But the point really is morality, isn’t it?  People are liberal or conservative these days, they believe in women’s rights or property rights or whatever, some of them are even still ethical, but nobody’s actually moral any more.  Nobody hates sin.”  Then she nodded, looking amused at herself, and said, “See?  People smile if you even use the word sin.”

Was I smiling?  Yes, I was.  Wiping it off, I tried another catch phrase: “The only sin is getting caught.”

Nobody knew what to make of this book when it came out, and to the extent anyone remembers it, they still don’t.  It isn’t a novel.   It isn’t an anthology of previously published material; short stories, essays, whatever–it contains two stories, neither of which had ever seen the light of day before.   A farcical novella about a critic/murderer who turns detective (while still committing murders), followed by a longish short story about a sailor who finds out his ex-wife is a movie star, goes to see her, then goes back to being a sailor.   They’re both written in the first person by Donald E. Westlake, and that’s about all they have in common, aside from being in the same book.  Or so it seems, anyway.

‘Newgate Callendar,’ still writing his pseudonymous crime fiction column for the New York Times that he inherited from Anthony Boucher, was baffled.  He liked the first story a lot–it was what he and most people expected from Westlake–a funny mystery.  But the second story, which he admitted was well-written, had no murder mystery in it (well, no dead body, put it that way), no heists, no illegal activity of any kind.  It’s not crime fiction by any accepted definition.  “What it is doing in this book is anybody’s guess” he wrote.  Well, we’re anybody, so let’s guess.

Westlake’s work for M. Evans & Co. was eclectic, to say the least.  You really never knew what was coming next.   He published ten books with them (not including the western/crime hybrid he co-wrote with Brian Garfield).   Except for the two Dortmunders, no one book much resembled any of the others–but they were all  at least nominally in the genre he was known for,  with the exception of the political thriller Ex Officio, his first book for them, which he published under another name, so nobody got confused by that.

Westlake was producing much less by this time, and the previous year he’d come out with Dancing Aztecs, a sprawling comedy epic, which must have taken longer to write than his usual thing, and had perhaps depleted his energies somewhat.

He’d finished with Parker, Grofield, Tobin–couldn’t really write as Stark or Coe anymore, at least for the time being. He was probably enjoying the novelty of just being one person for a while.  But it was perhaps harder for him to write as much as he used to with only one voice, and the publishing industry still didn’t like putting out too many books by the same author in one year.

He’d just about run out his string with the ‘Nephew’ books–only so many viable variations in that story.   His personal life was more complicated than ever, with two ex-wives, four growing sons, and a new relationship that was heading towards a third and final marriage.   It has to have cut into his writing time at least a bit.

You could say that he simply owed M. Evans a book for that year (1977), so he foisted some odds and ends on them–but he gave them a Dortmunder later that same year.  Hard to believe this was a mere contractual obligation volume–particularly since he published nothing with them in the next two years, only to finish off with one last rather head-scratching heist story set in Europe.

Westlake’s relationships with publishers often seem to have soured towards the end, and he’d head off to the next one.  You get a shift in personnel at the top, a change in priorities, and all of a sudden the rapport isn’t there anymore.  Or maybe his agent got him into another bidding war.  He’d had an amazing run there, but it was winding down, along with the 70’s.  The 80’s would be–problematic.  But we’ll get there.

The title itself is odd–Enough what?   The first story isn’t really long enough for a hardcover mystery, so maybe the second is just to pad things out, so the book buyer would feel it was worth the $7.95 pricetag.  I love the cartoon-strip artwork on the cover of the first edition, but it says absolutely nothing about the contents.

None of the covers ever managed to address both stories, which demonstrates an underlying problem of the book.  How many people looking for a nice little comic crime novel really want to stick around for a somber, poignant, and impossible-to-pigeonhole story about a sailor and his starlet ex?

The dedication reads “For Avram Avakian, fondly, this two-reeler.”  Avakian being the guy who made a workmanlike but rather uninspired film from Westlake’s screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which Westlake later turned into an excellent novel.  Westlake felt that Avakian was a brilliant film editor who didn’t possess the full skill set to be a successful director.

The opening quote is from Ambrose Bierce (a favorite writer of Westlake’s, which is an interesting coincidence, since I was mildly obsessed with Bierce as a kid, and didn’t know Westlake was similarly afflicted until well after I started reading him)–it’s from The Devil’s Dictionary–“Enough: too much.”  (Or perhaps, two much?)

And then there’s a quote from Thomas DeQuincey  (who I keep meaning to read), specifically geared towards the first story, which basically says if a man commits murder, this may lead to worse sins, like bad manners.

Allow me to theorize (like anyone can stop me).  He normally gave M. Evans two books a year–maybe they didn’t insist on it, but he wasn’t getting paid for books he didn’t produce.  Dancing Aztecs had, of necessity, been his sole contribution for ’76.  He had a Dortmunder for ’77, but he needed something else.

He had an idea for a mystery novel, but it wasn’t ‘enough’ for a full-length book.  And at some point in time–maybe recently, maybe years before–he’d turned out a short story, that he liked, but couldn’t find a buyer for, because it wasn’t what people expected from him, and it was too long for a magazine.  He talked M. Evans into publishing them both in the same volume.   That way with the Dortmunder published shortly afterwards he’d have two books for ’77–not much, for him–but enough.  And then he published no books at all for over two years.  Well, I didn’t say it would be a flawless theory.

We can’t discount the possibility that Westlake did think there was a link between these two stories, different as they are.  That one served as counterpoint to the other, and of course they’re both about identity, because that’s what he writes about.  Probably a few years earlier, he’d have published the second story under a pseudonym, but he was fresh out of pseudonyms.  Maybe he wanted to remind people yet again that Westlake wasn’t just the comic caper guy.

And maybe I’ve speculated long enough about Enough.   I debated about whether to review the two stories in it together or separately, and mainly decided on the latter because in subsequent editions they were often published separately, particularly overseas.

The second story actually got a film adaptation, many years later, in France–which must have come as a surprise to Mr. Westlake.  It would have come as a surprise to ‘Newgate Callendar’ as well, but he’d died the year before.  Really no surprise a part-time mystery reviewer and full-time music critic liked the first story better–the protagonist is, after all, a critic who solves mysteries, while bedding luscious ladies, and outsmarting (and cuckolding) befuddled homicide detectives.   Seriously, show me a critic who’ll give that story a bad review.

Carey Thorpe is another of Westlake’s unapologetic cads–in many ways reminiscent of Art Dodge in Two Much.  But he has a somewhat more conventional profession–he’s a film critic, moderately successful, who writes semi-scholarly articles for various obscure film journals, as well as reviewing recent releases for a small Manhattan weekly called The Kips Bay Voice (for those who are not Gothamites, Kips Bay is a neighborhood on the east side of Manhattan, just below 34th, and since the British used it to land their invading forces during the Revolutionary War, has never been known for much of anything other than absurdly high rents).

As we meet him, he is standing over the dead body of one of his two girlfriends, Laura Penney.   They had quarreled, and he hit her, and she hit her head on her own coffee table, and is no more among the living.  If this were the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham writing this, he’d say the manner of her passing was almost like a cliche, but this is a murder mystery novel, let’s remember.

Thing is, nobody knew he and Laura were sexually intimate–they were seen at various social events, screenings and such, but because he has a somewhat more serious girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, and he wanted to date both of them at once without either of them knowing, he’s created the illusion that when he’s seen with the other it’s only for the purposes of having somebody on his arm at the aforementioned social events.  The quarrel that led to Laura’s death was a byproduct of this deception.

Carey, who is separated from his wife Shirley (only an offstage character in this play), doesn’t sound to be all that much of a hunk, but he’s clever and charming enough to talk his way into bed with any number of desirable females, though talking his way out again is a more challenging proposition, as many a rake has learned.

He’s been under a lot of stress from work and multiple bedmates and insufficient funds and an estranged wife who wants his head on a platter (which ties neatly into the insufficient funds thing), and he’s been taking a lot of valium, which allows him a somewhat more abstracted view of his increasingly dire situation (maybe a bit too abstracted).

But even when he’s not popping pills, he’s never going to be the soul of compassion.  His main agenda here is going to be to make sure he doesn’t take the rap for Laura’s death, so he tidies up the crime scene a bit, and makes his exit.   When two police detectives greet him at Laura’s apartment (he’s keeping the date he knows she put in her appointment book, because it would look suspicious if he didn’t), and inform him of her demise, he is suitably horrified–and rather surprised to find that as the investigation proceeds, neither of them seriously suspects him.  They’re nothing like the police detectives in the movies he reviews.

Carey thinks of everything in terms of movies–when somebody buzzes him into Laura’s apartment, and just for a moment he thinks she’s alive, he starts envisioning Gene Tierney.  The first detective, named Bray, reminds him of Dana Andrews–he wonders if that makes him Clifton Webb.   The second detective, Fred Staples, doesn’t remind him of anybody, but he, surprisingly, is a fan of Carey’s reviews in the Kip’s Bay Voice.    He says his wife loves them too.  This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For a short book, this one has a lot of plot twists, and I don’t have the patience to cover them all.   I’ll list a few–there’s a blackmailing private detective (working for a company called Tobin-Global, and let me just say, this book makes me miss Tucker Coe very badly), who was tailing Carey on behalf of his wife, and wants ten grand to keep quiet.   Carey liquidates every asset he has, then actually robs a bank to get most of the rest–then realizing the detective has set himself up as an ideal suspect that Carey could finger in turn, makes him give the money back.

As if things weren’t complicated enough already, Carey is rather effortlessly seduced by Fred Staples’ outwardly placid and domestic blonde wife Patricia, while Carey is screening Gaslight for her (Gaslight becomes their code word for sex).   Contrary to his first impressions, she turns out to be a total narcissist, and a really incredible lay.   He knows this is a bad idea, screwing the wife of a detective investigating a murder he himself committed, but he just can’t seem to stop acting on bad ideas.

In the meantime, the private detective (who reminds Carey of Martin Balsalm in Psycho), unwilling to play the patsy, refuses to go away quietly, and you know that recurring line from the Parker novels about how you shouldn’t make murder the answer to everything?   Seems like Carey never read any Parker novels, and that line never made it into any of the movie versions.   And private detectives rarely come off well in Donald Westlake novels.

So is that the end of his problems?   Alas, no. Because the detectives suspect his favorite girlfriend, Kit Markowitz, of murdering Laura in a fit of jealous rage.  She doesn’t have an alibi, and once they question her, the indignant Kit decides to play girl detective–she even throws a party (with Carey’s help) where she invites all the potential suspects.

That’s where the little exchange up top occurs, Carey talking to a woman who showed up with two gay male friends–who just got married in San Francisco–interesting little bit of social data there, we tend to forget that gay marriage was going on for decades, with varying degrees of legality, long before it became a major national issue.   The dialogue rather reminded me of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which only goes to show that Carey is not the only one out there who is constantly making connections with movies.

God is a luxury Carey can’t afford either, not that he ever brings up religion.  Unfortunately for Kit, she turns out to be a pretty good detective after all, and she figures out who the killer is–and rather inexplicably, chooses to tell him that in private.

Now this is a major problem with the story.   Are we supposed to believe the otherwise bright and perceptive Kit is so engrossed in her role as detective that she thinks Carey will simply turn himself in, or the police will break in just in the nick of time–or that she’ll have a hold on him, to keep him from straying in future?  None of the above happens, and he feels just terrible about what he does next, but in for a dime…..

So this is all entertaining enough, but frankly it’s rather sub-par Westlake, full of characters that are intentionally tissue-paper thin (this is a farce, after all, but Westlake doesn’t normally use that as an excuse for poor characterization).   And yet for all that, it’s still worth reading, and it’s worth asking why.

The central gimmick, what sets the story apart, is that in the midst of trying to avoid being identified as the murderer, and committing two further murders (and a minor bank heist) towards that end, Carey finds out he’s a far better detective than he ever was a film critic.

Fred Staples is just delighted to pal around with (as he sees it) a celebrity, and Carey wants to keep an eye on him and his partner to make sure they don’t get the right idea about him.  So he accompanies them on another case, and he just happens to solve it–in that way that fictional detectives in bad mystery stories so often do.  Just spots something the professionals missed.

It’s not something he particularly wanted to happen, it’s not something he ever aspired to do.  He just wants to attend film screenings, write articles, go to bed with pretty girls, and live a generally shallow meaningless pleasure-filled existence, like any civilized man who reads Esquire.

But having done it once, to Fred’s awestruck delight, Carey finds himself in demand as a consulting detective.  And over and over, he spots that one little clue that cracks the case.  He has a gift for both committing murders and solving them.  Go figure.

Now if he actually wanted this to happen, it would be impossibly contrived and far-fetched (like most detective novels), but because it’s just something Carey finds himself doing reflexively, more or less because it’s so damned obvious to him that he can’t keep from speaking up, and because, after all, it’s what detectives are always doing in the movies, you sort of let him slide, because you want to see how far Westlake can stretch this gag out.  And he can stretch it pretty damn far.

First he solves the mytery of a murdered director, shot while he was screening his own film.   Turns out the killer was an aspiring screenwriter whose work was used without attribution.   He immediately confesses, as fingered killers so often do in mystery stories, because trials are so messy and time-consuming for dramatic purposes.

There’s this leitmotif of otherwise sensible people behaving like cheap genre cliches, when they really ought to know better, because they, like Carey, think that’s how you’re supposed to behave in this type of situation–the movies have programmed them.  Life imitating bad art, badly.

Then there’s another murder, this one a gay travel writer murdered by a lover–Carey realizes the man put a coded message into what he was writing at his desk when he realized he was in danger.   See, the murdered copy-writer refers to Antigua as being right next to St. Martin.  They check a map.

When he removed his finger, I bent to read the lettering: “Anguilla.”

“Anguilla, Antigua.” Staples shrugged, saying, “He was upset from the argument, that’s all, he just got mixed up.”

“Does that make sense?”  I studied Ailburg’s writing again, shaking my head.  “No, it doesn’t.”  This was his job, he knew what island was where.  And look how he broke that sentence, starting a new line after the word ‘charming.’  It looks awkward.”

Staples said, “I don’t see what you’re driving at.”

Only because you’ve never read Under An English Heaven, officer.

Then there’s a seeming suicide that Carey realizes was a murder (see if you can spot the clue), but he decides not to finger the killer for personal reasons (this one’s a bit of a reference to The Sincerest Form of Flattery, a Westlake short story that appeared in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution).

And finally, a classic locked door mystery at the consulate for some tiny obscure nonexistent Eastern European nation, and I have to confess, Westlake plays fair with all these mysteries, puts in enough information for the reader to solve them all, and I didn’t solve any of them–even on the second reading.   Well, I remembered whodunnit, but I didn’t remember how Carey figured it out.

(All the chapters in this book have mystery novel titles, even when they don’t have an actual mystery in them–The Adventure of the Missing R–The Problem of the Copywriter’s Island–The Chainlock Mystery–The Death of the Party–see if you can guess which of these features Carey solving a murder mystery, and which is just him dealing with the complications attendant to his own personal murders).

So Carey’s rather enjoying being the criminal sociopath’s answer to Ellery Queen, but he’s gotten so wrapped up in playing detective/murderer that he misses the obvious denouement.  Fred finds out Carey’s been diddling the missus.  So he frames Carey with planted evidence.  For murders Carey actually committed.

Fred does not know, nor will he ever, that Carey actually is the murderer–nor does he care who actually did the killings.  He thinks he’s just being petty.   Being framed for something you actually did is an old obsession with Westlake, ever since The Affair of the Purloined Microscope (see The Getaway Car).  It’s just so–unprofessional.   Detectives should care about their craft.  Carey rubs it in just how much better a detective he is, by pointing out an obvious (to him) clue in that one case he’d decided not to solve–something Fred missed entirely.  Fred is most admiring of Carey’s sagacity, but what’s that got to do with the fact that the man had sex with his wife?

So Carey is in Fred’s car, going to the inevitable Station House, knowing that he’s going to prison, because the only way he can prove he was framed is to admit his actual guilt.  He’ll have to plead guilty, get the lightest sentence possible, and hope to rejoin the civilized world someday.  And there’s every indication in the book that he will do that, and he might be a more successful film critic than ever–notoriety will bring him a wider readership.  But it’s still so unfair.  All he did was kill three people, and he didn’t mean to kill the first one, and the other two were just–loose ends.  He’s guilty, but he’s not the least bit guilt-ridden. He’s only sorry he committed the sin of getting caught.

Westlake was experimenting with a very detached yet whimsical tone in this novel, and it doesn’t entirely work.  And it doesn’t entirely fail.   It’s one of those middling efforts, cleverly worked out, fun to read, and easily forgotten.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the very detailed knowledge of film that Westlake reveals–he probably could have been a fairly successful film critic, but I have this feeling he wouldn’t have been a very enthusiastic one.   He can’t really make Carey live and breathe the way his best characters do, because he can’t identify with somebody who’d spend his life writing about movies–even writing smutty greeting cards would be more creative, because they’d at least be your smutty jokes.  Movies are fun and all, but are they worth all that analysis?   Is anything?   (Yes, I do seriously wonder what he’d have thought about this blog).

In his capsule review of this same story, Ethan Iverson quoted a passage I surely would have used myself if he hadn’t beaten me to it–it’s an interview Carey does with some aging Hollywood director, one of those guys who made a bunch of classic films and never wrote the scripts for any of them, but he still gets the credit, and the money, and a gorgeous young thing to keep him warm in his declining years, because that’s how it works in Hollywood.

And it really sums up that mixture of affection and disdain Westlake always had towards the movies–how well a good filmmaker can tell a story, and how helpless he is without a good script, and yet look who gets all the worship and acclaim in that business.   How can you say it’s your work when so many other people contributed?   And how could somebody who has decided to just live in the reflected glow of that unreal medium ever know himself?  Carey Thorpe got caught up in unreality, captured by it, and was ultimately undone by it.  And yet it really doesn’t matter, because there doesn’t seem to have been much of a person there to start with.   That’s the weakness of the book.

I think Westlake might have been influenced in the writing of this one by Charles Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, which is about an art critic, and which is roughly ten times the novel this is (and Westlake would have agreed).   Willeford wrote a lot less than Westlake, and he had to make his shots count more.  Westlake, having so much more ammo, could afford a few misses.

But while it’s not the kind of story we remember him for, the second part of this two-part tome was by no means a miss.   It’s a palpable hit, and ‘Newgate Callendar’ should have seen that, but let’s just say Westlake had a point about critics.  Yes, me too.  It’s a fair cop, Mr. Westlake.  But being a mere amateur, typing all this nonsense for absolutely no monetary compensation at all, I can always plead insanity.  I’ll be out in two years, tops.

24 Comments

Filed under A Travesty, comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, Enough, Uncategorized

Review: Under An English Heaven

under_an_english_heaven_1st_1The_Mouse_That_Roared_first_edition1200px-Flag_of_Anguilla.svg166453124-uprising-of-the-people-of-anguilla-island-in-gettyimagesanguilla

An té nach bhfuil láidir, ní foláir dó bheith glic.  

If you are not strong, you had best be cunning (Old Gaelic Proverb)

There are many different versions of this story, but the way I heard it, an English biologist (probably J.B.S. Haldane, but not definitely) was asked what his studies of the natural world indicated regarding its Creator.   He replied that God must have a an ‘inordinate fondness’ for beetles since He’d created hundreds of thousands of different species (not to mention the most famous rock band of all time).

If we were to pose the same question of Donald E. Westlake (whose existence is not currently disputed, that I know of), we might easily deduce that he had a weak spot for independents of all stripes–individuals who fly their own flag, determine their own destiny, go their own way.  Individuals and also nations–he liked small nations so much that he ended up inventing them by the bunch.  Klastrava, Descalzo, Undurwa, Talabwo, Guerrero, Ilha Pombo Island, Tsergovia–that’s by no means a complete list.  He might also sometimes stick in a real small country like Belize, but that entailed more research.

These nonexistent republics of his could be found in Central Europe, Africa, South America, the Caribbean–he was bemused and delighted at the sheer variety of small nations around the world, and as I pointed out a few weeks back, my blog stats would tend to indicate he still has ardent readers in many if not most of the small nations out there today.  Call it a mutual admiration society.

He even had one of his characters, the inimitable J.C. Taylor, invent her own country, the island nation of ‘Maylohda’, and con various official personages into believing it truly existed–she’d learned that once you’re a country, all sorts of revenue streams (and schemes) are opened up to you, if you can learn how to navigate the bureaucracy.  The trick, of course, is to be the maker of schemes, as opposed to the object of them.  The fleecer, not the fleeced.

Westlake’s admiration for the independents didn’t blind him to the fact that small nations may have many crosses to bear; greedy oppressive dictators, corrupt ineffectual administrations, limited natural resources, and they very often have sad histories of being dominated and exploited by their larger, richer, more aggressive neighbors, or by distant colonial powers.  It’s a fine thing for a nation to be small, because that means its identity can be more focused, its people more united against common perils, but it’s never an unmixed blessing.  Life is simpler in a small nation–until the bigger nations insist on complicating it.

I don’t know when he first became interested in Anguilla, one of the Leeward Islands, which are in turn part of the Lesser Antilles Chain, way out in the Caribbean Sea (and mercifully free of pirates who look like Johnny Depp).  Certainly no later than the time he was doing research for I Gave At The Office, though the Caribbean island that book is partly set in bears no resemblance to Anguilla in its government or the immiserated condition of its people (I have a strong suspicion as to which Caribbean locale he did base Ilha Pombo Island upon, but we’ll get to that soon enough).

He was writing in Caribbean settings much earlier than that–in Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, for example–that might have been the genesis of his interest, since that book owes its existence to Westlake being tasked with writing a screenplay about a movie star kidnapped in Jamaica, and he’d have needed to study up a bit on the Caribbean (and probably do some traveling there, hopefully at studio expense).

But the fact is, Mr. Westlake had long demonstrated an inordinate fondness for tropical climates, as might anyone who was raised in upstate New York (it’s really cold).  He liked spending time in the Caribbean islands, notably Puerto Rico (much larger than Anguilla, with a similarly nebulous status with regards to its ‘mother country’), and he liked writing about them.  But it must be said, his best books were rarely set in them.  You can take the boy out of New York….

This is a different kind of book for him.  It’s not fiction.  Everything in it happened more or less the way he describes it, even if others might interpret those events differently.  It’s a work of history–one of the very few ever written specifically about Anguilla.  A British journalist named Colin Rickards, an old Caribbean hand, was working on a book that covered much of the same ground as this one, and was generous enough to share his research with Westlake.  It does not seem the late Mr. Rickards’ Anguilla book ever got finished.   I can’t find it anywhere, and working in a library, I know how to look.

So Westlake basically had this very specialized area of history all to himself–this is presumably why he’s cited as a reference in an article from the Spring ’85 issue of a Canadian quarterly bearing the rather generic name of International Journal.   The article is bleakly entitled Militarization of the Caribbean: Concerns For National And Regional Security.  And informs us in a comforting footnote that Anguilla presents absolutely no such concerns, that its secession movement was ‘somewhat peculiar’, and cites Westlake’s book as a source.  Well, he was one of the world’s leading authorities on peculiarity, as is well known.

It is not a scholarly work–Westlake was not a scholar, a trained historian.  As many authors of fiction had done before him (such as the Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul, who Westlake quotes in this book), he was applying his talents as a storyteller to the field of nonfiction journalism.   He’d only done this at book length one time previously–writing a biography of Elizabeth Taylor under a pseudonym.  I may review that book sometime, but then again I may not.  I have read it.  It’s available for kindle as we speak (because Elizabeth Taylor).

This book we’re looking at today is not currently in print, nor is it available in electronic form (because no Elizabeth Taylor), but copies aren’t that hard to find.   I assume there’s still plenty in Anguilla itself.  They should probably set up some kind of depository, to make sure this vital record of their glorious victory over the British Empire is not lost to posterity.   Though one could argue this book had already been written back in the 1950’s, in novel form, only set in Europe and America, and there were longbows in it.  And in the movie, Peter Sellers.

The_Mouse_That_Roared_British_Poster

The popularity of the 1955 novel and its sequels (one of which was published not long before Westlake wrote this book), along with the 1959 film and its sequel, may be one of the reasons Simon & Schuster agreed–I’d guess with some misgivings–to let Mr. Westlake publish a work of foreign affairs journalism/history in place of the crime novel they were doubtless expecting from him.  No question, people were drawing analogies, spurious though they might be, between Anguilla and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (there were references in the papers at the time), because that’s what people do when faced with something they can’t understand–look about for a story they’ve already heard that somewhat resembles it.  The appropriate pigeonhole.

Westlake wasn’t out to make any such analogies–he was out to document what really happened, and he’d already had a good start, in a piece he wrote for the 5/23/71 edition of The New York Times Magazine–I believe the only article he ever got published there.  Entitled In Anguilla, It’s The Spirit of ’71, it’s basically an essay-length version of this book, which according to the little author squib at the bottom of its opening page was going to be called I Fear The Worst–a working title that somebody must have decided did not work.  The only other book of Mr. Westlake’s that is mentioned there is I Gave At The Office, which Simon & Schuster was just then trying to hawk in paperback form.   His far more substantial achievements in the mystery field were not considered relevant, I suppose.  Not in the Times magazine.

Now in The Mouse That Roared, you may recall, that grand little bit of Ruritania named Grand Fenwick was faced with an economic crisis, and determined to address it by invading the United States–in a Viking-style longboat, armed with swords and longbows and chain mail–in order to be conquered themselves, so they could then apply for aid money–this being how the United States tended to deal with defeated enemies.  But then there’s this business with a doomsday device, and the plan goes slightly awry.

The main point of Wibberley’s book was to extol the virtues of small nations, and to suggest that they should get more say in world affairs, which in this case was achieved by one of them getting an all-powerful nuclear device that would render the great powers more cooperative–with the Cold War in full swing, it seemed a whimsical alternative to the existing situation.  Perhaps not so amusing anymore, eh wot?

Anguilla’s situation was far more prosaic–having been colonized by the English centuries before (Westlake writes a brief engaging summary of its history up to that point), it was quite content to remain a crown colony forever.  A mere coral atoll,  three miles wide at its broadest point, and 16 miles long, it was simply too small and poor for the British government to ever pay it much mind–the Anguillans mainly ran their own affairs, employing a form of direct democracy (which you can do when you’re an island roughly the size and shape of Manhattan, with around six thousand people living on it), and the British simply provided a small amount of aid to bolster their meager economy, and handled their foreign policy, which was simple enough because they didn’t have any to speak of.

Here’s the thing about colonizers–they get very contrary.  If you want to leave, they insist you stay–particularly if you have resources they covet, or are strategically located.  But if you want to stay, and lack the aforementioned revenue sources, they may decide you’re not worth the bother, and try to fob you off on somebody else.  This is what happened with Anguilla, and with the deep cultural sensitivity for which it is world-renowned, the British bureaucracy wanted to make Anguilla part of an confederated grouping of former island colonies–which would be headed up by the island of St. Kitts–Anguilla’s most hated enemy.

About 70 miles away from Anguilla, St. Kitts was then led by one Colonel Robert Bradshaw–not quite exactly a dictator, but close enough until one came along.  He and many of his countrymen disliked Anguilla and Anguillans on general principle.  The two islands had incompatible cultures–St. Kitts had a plantation economy, and its people were mainly descended from former canecutters,  mingled in with a handful of the descendants of the people they were cutting cane for.  Anguilla was more racially mixed, and though slavery had existed there, it had been arranged differently, because of the different economy and society of Anguilla, which tended to encourage a more free-wheeling outlook on life.   They were, you might say, free in spirit before they were free in fact.

Westlake calls Anguilla a nation of petit bourgeois, and being no Marxist, he means that as a distinct compliment.  They were shipbuilders (far and away the best in the area), small land-owners, and confirmed egalitarians, with nothing much resembling a class or caste system.  They were all very much in the same tiny boat, and saw it that way.  You get the sense that in describing their society, he’s almost describing his own democratic ideal–neither socialist nor capitalist–perhaps a tinge of libertarianism but with an important codicil–they can be the way they are because they’re small.  And because Mother England is there in the distance, to keep them from getting swallowed up and dominated by the larger islands.  Their independence depends upon their dependence.  As perverse as that may sound.

Westlake spends much of the book rather relishing the perversity of the story he’s telling.  It’s like one of his comic capers come to life, only without the heists (though at one point the Anguillans did have to break into Her Majesty’s safe containing a small amount of money–with deep remorse–they needed the cash).  He also spends quite a bit of time looking at an odd phenomenon that occurred once the Anguillans more or less accidentally declared their independence from both Great Britain and St. Kitts.   It seems that the notion of a tiny island practicing direct Democracy–and being fundamentally a creole nation, therefore presumed to be somewhat childlike and easily molded–led to a number of people out there with big ideas figuring this was their chance to make history on a small scale.

There was the kilt-wearing, cigar-smoking Jewish Chinaman from the United States who wanted land for some sort of ill-defined “thousand-year-old European religious sect,” which the Anguillans decided translated into “free-love farm plus abortion clinic.”  There was the young American hippie couple who appeared on the island one day with nothing but a tent and a shotgun and began cadging food from the natives.  There was the American in a business suit who seemed impervious to heat and who promised to solve all the island’s economic problems in two weeks if he were simply given a free hand and the title “Economic Minister.”

(Donald?  The other Donald, I mean.  That you?  Oh never mind.  Continuing–)

Another American offered twenty-five thousand dollars a month for an indefinite period if the Anguillans would mortgage the island to him for security.  Another businessman said he was buying a floating hotel from Montreal’s Expo 67 and wanted permission to moor the thing offshore.  An Englishman wanted to dump his freeloading brother on Anguilla, and a Canadian offered to build the islanders a radio station if they would give him a couple of beaches.   A man named Dino Cellini, said to be a representative of Meyer Lansky, who in turn was said to be the head of the Mafia in Florida, dropped by either to chat about gambling casinos, or just to get a tan.

(Both Colonel Bradshaw and the Her Majesty’s government would later use this one-time visit from Mr. Cellini as a pretext to say the Anguillans needed to be protected from being turned into a wretched hive of scum and villainy, not that this reference would resonate for another five years or so, and where is Alec Guinness when you need him?  Organized crime was already well-established on many other Caribbean islands under British authority, and there was just not enough infrastructure–or electricity–or water–or interest–to support a casino there.  Oh and did I mention Colonel Bradshaw was already funneling basically all the British aid money for Anguilla to his own treasury?  They didn’t need any more bloodsucking gangsters than they already had.   Just one more paragraph and we’ll move on.)

A doctor from America wanted land on which to build a clinic for the machine he’d invented that cures all diseases.  A group from America–they were coming over in flocks after a while–wanted the Anguillans to join them in a partnership to make gold from sea water.  Yet another American wrote a letter saying he represented Aristotle Onassis, who was prepared to offer a million dollars a year for the use of the island as a flag of convenience for his shipping, in the style of Panama and Liberia.

As the saying goes, you can’t make this shit up.  Of course you can, but then they call you a comic novelist, and never take you seriously, and give all the major literary prizes to more sober-minded scribes.  Unless your name is John Kennedy Toole, and you’ve been dead for twelve years.

But surpassing all these hooligans, halfwits, and hucksters in sheer unbridled wackiness was The San Francisco Group, which Westlake devotes a great deal of space to in the book–the author of God Save The Mark would feel himself on very familiar ground here.  See, he must have realized as he went on that as fascinating as the subject was, a lot of the actual story which he was bound as quite possibly the only book-length chronicler of this historical episode to fairly and fully document, was bound up in governmental memos, and reports, and long boring conferences where absolutely nothing got accomplished, and the real story was happening on Anguilla itself, which he only visited after most of the really interesting stuff had already happened.

So he did indulge himself with several chapters largely about The San Francisco Group, an amalgram of (shall-we-say) enthusiasts, inspired by the writings of a Austrian-born professor of economics named Leopold Kohr.  There was, at this time, a movement based on the principle that “Small is Beautiful”, the title of a book by E.F. Schumacher.  Kohr was part of this movement, feeling like the essence of a happy well-run society is smallness, and that the big nation-states should be broken down into tiny regional units, or would just spontaneously break down into them, it’s a bit unclear.  You know, like with Marxism.  Well really, as with any idea anybody ever had about how to reorganize society along some radical new concept.  Devil in the details, don’t you know.

Now Westlake ought to be sympathetic to this.  As I said, he likes Anguilla precisely because it’s small, its people independent-minded and egalitarian, and nobody there has much use for big guvmint, except that they need financial assistance and protection from a larger state in order to go on living in Anguilla, and to protect them from those nasty Kittitians (actual word used in book).

This book is dedicated upfront “To anybody anywhere who has ever believed anything that any government ever said about anything…”  That would certainly seem to agree with Kohr’s notion of small local government–except isn’t a small local government still a government?  And therefore not to be trusted, no matter how small it gets?  Just because you can drown it in a bathtub doesn’t mean it can’t drown you first.

And who is easier to get around?  The huge distant impersonal bureaucracy, or your nosy overbearing neighbor who got himself elected mayor or sheriff or head of the local homeowners group, and thinks you don’t cut your grass often enough, or supervise your children properly, or maybe has stated in public that he will not rest until he has turned your home into a desert?  Which not coincidentally, is precisely what Robert Bradshaw said (in public) that he would do to Anguilla (and then denied it).  He made many similarly ominous statements about Anguilla that he later denied making.  Colonel Bradshaw might have gone far in American politics, methinks.  Or at the very least, talk radio.

You can’t say the leader of another tiny island 70 miles away from Anguilla represented big government, any more than you can say Bull Connor, his firehoses, and his badly socialized police dogs were representing it in Memphis, back in the early 60’s–they were vigorously fighting the ‘oppression’ of big government telling them what they could do with (and to) their minorities, and made no bones that they were doing so.  That’s the paradox, that Westlake is keenly aware of–the most oppressive abusive authority people face is usually local, not federal.  Sometimes big government, for all its undoubted failings, is the only friend the little people of the world can count on.   A necessary evil is, by definition, more necessary than evil.

So anyway, the Anguillans desperately needed ready capital to last out their stand-off with the Brits and St. Kitts–the latter of which had cut off all medical supplies (or supplies of any kind), and Her Majesty’s government, not recognizing Anguilla as an independent state, would only provide aid through St. Kitts.  The San Francisco Group really didn’t have much in the way of money, but they intimated that they did, or at least would.   The practicality of this organization can be gauged from the fact that their name derives from Kohr’s original goal of making San Francisco an independent city-state.  That did not work out as planned, you may be surprised to learn.  So Dr. Kohr’s ideas would be applied to Anguilla instead.

Dr. Kohr’s theories boiled down to a suggestion that Anguilla, having removed itself from St. Kitts, should now remove itself from the twentieth century.  Dr. Kohr is a fervent admirer of th Pennsylvania Amish; what he had in mind for Anguilla combined an Amish forswearing of machinery with a sort of feudalism-sans-barons.  He had no desire to make a profit out of the Anguillans–no, he wanted them to make a prophet out of him–which made him different from ost of the other people the Peacekeeping Committee met around that time.  They listened carefully to his suggestions before declining them with thanks.  Untroubled, Dr. Kohr went away to regroup his arguments and returned about a week later to start all over again.

He met some idealistic young Americans who were impressed by his ideas (::sigh::, of course they were), and they formed the San Francisco Group, which proceeded to try and create a currency for Anguilla, a flag with naked mermaids on it (it has dolphins on it now, fitting enough given that swimming with our cetacean siblings is a major attraction for tourists there now),  and many other ideas that could never possibly work in reality.

It must be said though, they did eventually raise some cash, and (somewhat grudgingly) give it to Anguilla, which spent it on various dull practical things like food and medicine, and that’s at least something, right?   The relationship between Anguilla and the Group eventually broke down entirely, with each accusing the other of bad faith, though as Westlake tells it, the real problem was mutual incomprehension.

See, Westlake himself says that the Anguillans practice something very close to Athenian direct Democracy–that’s what Kohr aspired to, so what was the problem?   That he was trying to impose his ideas on them–to reshape their identity into something that fitted a philosophical template in his head.

Everybody wanted the Anguillans to be something they weren’t.  The Brits wanted them to be part of St. Kitts and Nevis–they were all island wogs a few bloody miles apart, what’s the difference?  St. Kitts wanted them to accept permanent subordinate status, and whatever crumbs they might allow to fall Anguilla’s way from Her Majesty’s table.  The San Francisco Group wanted them to be some model city-state, with Dr. Kohr as their philosopher king.   America just wanted to be sure they wouldn’t turn commie like the Cubans.

But they just wanted to be themselves.  That was the one thing they all agreed upon, and they would accept no less.   And Westlake loves their guts for that.   He’s not even pretending to be objective about it.   He’s on Anguilla’s side, and all the other sides can go fuck themselves.  Anguilla for the Anguillans.

It took a small-scale military invasion by the British military (who were welcomed with open arms, and ended up having a lovely time there–absolutely nobody was killed as a result of Anguilla’s brief rebellion, which is a miracle in itself), but Anguilla won its victory.   Public opinion in the UK shifted their way, and Her Majesty’s government was forced to back down, and accept a compromise.   Technically, Angulla would remain part of the Federation with St. Kitts and Nevis, but it would go back to being directly governed as a crown colony (so their small but vital funding would no longer pass through Colonel Bradshaw’s sticky fingers).

I think they don’t even bother to pretend Anguilla is part of the St. Kitts Federation anymore.  Anguilla is, to this very day, ‘an internally self-governing overseas territory of the United Kingdom.’   They say heartfelt prayers for the Queen’s good health, have the Union Jack on their flag, and do exactly what they bloody well want, 99% of the time.   Hey, if you Brits had offered us that deal back in 1776–well, never mind.

And of course they still have problems.   Like for example, global warming–their island might be under water someday–just like the island I’m typing this on. There is apparently a problem with under-age sexual trafficking there, at least according to one source I found, but you know what I think Westlake would say to that?   He’d say they should see to it that the kids have something to sell besides their bodies.   God bless the child that’s got his own.

He spends a bit of time profiling Anguilla’s leaders during the crisis–and an admirable, if quirky bunch they were; Ronald Webster,  Peter Adams, Atlin Harrigan (the uncompromising publisher of Anguilla’s only newspaper, and how tickled Westlake must have been that he had an Irish name), and the just slightly Trump-ish (on an Anguillan scale) Jeremiah Gumbs, who being the richest Anguillan (actually living in New York., among the surprisingly large Anguillan immigrant community there), obviously comes off worst of the bunch, but he isn’t rich enough to fully trigger Westlake’s kneejerk hostility to the moneyed classes.  Still mainly sympathetic.

But the book isn’t about leaders, or followers–to him, the heroes of the piece are the Anguillans as a whole, who stuck to their guns (literally and figuratively, though they never did have many guns of the literal variety).  They may have chosen leaders, but they could never stomach a dictator.  They are the heroes of this book for the same reason anyone else in a Westlake book is a hero–for knowing who they are, and refusing to let anyone else define them.  Is Westlake, perhaps, also guilty of imposing his ideas and ideals on Anguilla?   Possibly. How the hell would I know?  If I ever get there, I’ll try to find out.  I suspect this is one time when the shoe fit pretty well.

You can’t hold a work of history to an overly high standard when it’s basically the only work in its field.  That being said, there’s a reason this isn’t one of his best-remembered books.   Lots of good writing in it–here’s a deliciously catty little aside–

After a summer as jampacked with incident as Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the fall and winter of 1967 passed with placid serenity on the island of Anguilla, as free from action as a Saul Bellow novel.

There are many other passages to savor, but the book as a whole is handicapped by its author’s lack of famliarity with this form of writing, and with the fact that he’s less interested in telling a good story than he is in telling the whole story, accurately and fairly.  Which is, after all, the most important thing for a book like this, not entertaining the masses.   Though Simon & Schuster might have disagreed.  Well, they and Westlake were on the verge of parting ways, anyhow.

This is a book to read if you 1)Are really interested in Caribbean politics and history, 2)Are interested in self-determination movements everywhere, or 3) Just have to read everything Donald E. Westlake ever wrote.   I fall into all three categories, and will thefore jealously guard my first edition to the last.  But perhaps, as my final years are upon me, and the New York City winters become too punishing for my aged bones, I shall take it with me to beautiful sunny Anguilla, and read it in the evening twilight, as the dolphins swim nearby.  And I hope to see a free and  happy people there.  Hopefully still above the waterline. Stay afloat, guys.  Don’t let those Kittitians keep you down.

But for the present time, here I remain, in New York City.   Setting of our next book, which for a change of pace is authored not by Donald E. Westlake but by the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.  Or so the cover of my first edition paperback says.  It bears a blurb from none other than Westlake himself–“I wish I had written this book!”    If you want to know why that is, this one you can get for Kindle, quite cheaply.   A surprisingly short read, for an airport novel.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go visit the restroom.  Who knows what adventures might await me there.

15 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Under An English Heaven