Tag Archives: Brian Garfield

Review: The Stepfather

Stepfather_1987JOHN LIST MONSTER

The story goes like this:  John Emil List, born 1925, raised a devout Lutheran, served in WWII, saw combat, spent some time in the military post-war, honorably discharged.  In 1971, he was living in a big rambling old house in New Jersey with his wife, three children, and elderly mother.  An accountant, he had been fired from his job as vice-president of a Jersey City bank a few years back, and had lost a number of less prestigious jobs since.  He even tried selling insurance, with little success.  His ambitions tended to outstrip his abilities.

He did not tell his family he was unemployed.  Instead, he left every morning as if he was going to work, often sitting at the local train station the entire day, reading the Wall Street Journal. He was mired in debt.  His marriage was deeply unhappy.  At some point in time, he decided there was no other option but to erase his existing life and begin a new one.

When he was ready, he murdered his family, one by one, laying all the bodies out in sleeping bags downstairs (except for his mother, who he said was too heavy to move from her upstairs room).  He used two guns, including one German-made pistol he’d brought home as a souvenir from the war (hmm–that rings a bell). He left various explanatory letters, including one to his minister, where he claimed he was doing this to save their souls–it particularly bothered him his daughter was planning to become an actress.   The text of this letter was not available to to the public until 1990.

He destroyed every photo of himself in the house, so the police couldn’t use them in wanted posters.  He arranged for the neighbors (with whom he and his family had little interaction) to think they were going on a trip together.  Weeks passed before the police were called and the bodies were found.  By that time,  nobody could find John List.  By that time, John List did not exist.  But the man who had been John List was still alive, and free, and remained so for many years to come. Most people figured he’d either killed himself out of remorse for his bloody deeds, or left the country.   They figured wrong either way.

Carol Lefcourt, editor at a publishing house, brought this story to Brian Garfield.  Some months back I reviewed his book Hopscotch.  That’s about a man who employs non-murderous methods to create a new life and identity for himself after spending many years as a CIA Agent.  That book’s protagonist also destroyed all photos of himself in his CIA file prior to going on the run–an idea Garfield might well have gotten from the List story.  Lefcourt thought he might be interested in basing a novel on the story of John List, as Robert Bloch had based Psycho on the all-too-real story of Ed Gein.

The difference being, of course, that by the time Bloch started writing that book, people knew what had happened to Ed Gein–he’d been caught.  Nobody knew what had happened to John List.  Because of the timing of his disappearance, some people even thought he’d been D.B. Cooper (I thought that was Don Draper, I mean Dick Whitman, oh never mind).

Garfield considered the story, decided he was never going to write a book about it, but he was starting to produce movies (I would imagine the huge success of the film based on his novel Death Wish had something to do with that), and he was, of course, a close friend and admirer of Donald Westlake, with whom he had collaborated on a comic western novel that I have also reviewed here.  Small world.

He gave the story to Westlake, and said if he wanted to write a screenplay about it–not a factual rendering of the little that was known about John List (quite a few well-researched books about him now, none at the time), but a fictional story inspired by it.  Garfield’s production company would pay him for it, possibly make a movie of it, and whatever happened, he’d have a lot of say over the finished product.

Garfield and Lefcourt would both get story credit–their precise contributions are difficult to determine, based on available information.  There wouldn’t have been any movie without them, but Westlake was, as he himself put it, ‘the main writer.’  Very rare for there to be just one writer working on any film–this film came closer than most.

The idea of creative control was probably what most piqued Westlake’s interest. Nobody could change the script without his approval.  Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.  Joseph Ruben, later known for Sleeping With the Enemy, would be the director, but this, for the first (and last) time in Westlake’s now twenty-year old relationship with Hollywood, would be a movie where the writer was holding the reins, at least as far as the story was concerned.

But there would have been other things that attracted him to this project.  The murders had, after all, taken place in Union County, Northern New Jersey, not far from where Westlake himself lived with his family for a number of years. Also not far from where a certain fictional heist man lived for a number of years. And the name of the town List had lived in?  Westfield.  Cue theme from The Twilight Zone.

So Westlake started work on the screenplay sometime in the mid-70’s–right around Watergate–and the industry being what it is, the actual movie wasn’t shot until the Mid-80’s.  Many studios passed on it until finally Jay Benson, a producer at ITC, decided he wanted to make it, partly on the strength of Westlake’s involvement.  He was a fan of Westlake’s mystery  novels.  I mentioned it’s a small world, right?

It was shot in 1985, released in 1987.  It got solid critical notices for this kind of film, particularly for the acting.  It got a tiny release and did miniscule box office. Biggest name in the cast was Shelley Hack, former Charlie’s Angel, who had just proven she could act in The King of Comedy, the film that more or less blocked publication of Westlake’s novel The Comedy Is Finished until after his death (man, it really is a small world–entertainment, I mean).

But over time The Stepfather became a cult classic, and had a vigorous post box office life on home video (just then becoming a thing).  Nobody lost money on it. It had been shot very cheaply in Vancouver, where making Hollywood-funded movies and TV shows was also just then becoming a thing.

So there were several sequels, that neither Westlake nor anybody else from the first picture worked on, other than the brilliant Terry O’Quinn, unknown before now, TV stardom still in his future–they even replaced him for the third film.  The sequels really made no sense on any level, given the way the first movie ended for the title character. He’s a scary guy and all, but he doesn’t wear a William Shatner mask.

But you see, the rule in Hollywood is that if you are a creepy psycho who cuts people up with various sharp implements (the real John List had used guns, because this is America), you will come back in movie after movie, they don’t care if the original writing and production talent is involved, and they did this to Alfred Freakin’ Hitchcock, so of course they’d do it to Donald Everlovin’ Westlake.

And when the sequels are done, almost as a matter of protocol, they’ll remake the original movie, most often with absolutely nobody from the original film (even actors!), and it will stink to high heaven, and that remake was released the year after Westlake died (to general mourning), and then the remake died at the box office (to no discernible mourning at all).   It did not become a cult classic, or any other kind of classic.  Didn’t even get a Razzie nomination.   It opened in 2,734 theaters, to the original’s 148.

But in anticipation of the remake’s release, the original movie was re-released on home video, and the DVD has a nice making-of featurette with interview clips from Brian Garfield, Joe Ruben, and cinematographer John W. Lindley. Westlake could not participate, being deceased and all.   Interesting as that making-of featurette is, it does not contain any insights from the man everybody (except maybe Joe Ruben) agrees was the dominant creative voice on that project.

But Westlake had been interviewed, years before, by a man named Patrick McGilligan, for a book about screenwriters of the 70’s and 80’s.  This was one of the films they discussed.  And so he did get to share with us some of the ideas and influences that went into his screenplay for this film that was being made before anybody other than John List knew what happened to John List after he erased his family and vanished from the face of the earth.

And as he told McGilligan, he was drawing (not for the first time, or the last) upon his often painful memories of his parents, and especially his father, Albert.  A man he loved very deeply, but not always an easy man to understand.  A man who kept secrets, some of them to his grave.

The story did connect with me in a very strange way.  At one point during the Depression, my father lost his job and didn’t tell my mother that he had lost his job, and spent several weeks leaving the house every day as though going to work–but actually looking for work and not finding any.  On Fridays he would take money out of his savings account and bring it home as though it were his salary.  One day a woman friend of my mother’s blew his cover.  My mother and father always had trouble comprehending each other.  As far as my mother was concerned, the marriage was a partnership and she had been frozen out.

This guy in the clipping had done the same thing: either quit, or been fired from, his Wall Street job, and then for the next several weeks, he did the same thing my father did, except in his case it led to murder.  I found that a little spooky.  I decided not to turn away from that idea, but to take a look at how people had different viewpoints of what their communal experiences are.

As we’ve seen before, Westlake tended to focus on the underlying essentials of a story when doing research, and often botched the details of real life events that inspired his stories, because they weren’t significant for his purposes–and to be fair, the available newspaper accounts of List’s crime when he was writing had botched quite a few details as well.  List does not seem to have worked on Wall Street, and if he did, it wasn’t for very long.

Westlake probably did little more than read existing newspaper accounts about the murder.  It’s not ‘True Crime’ he’s writing here.  It’s a psychological thriller with a bit of a horror hook–a kind of story he’d done once before–Pity Him Afterwards.  About an escaped mental patient who steals the identity of a young actor he murdered, and keeps right on murdering.

Westlake’s characterization of the story he told doesn’t sound very scary, does it?  The movie most certainly is–still, it’s very different from what came before it, or afterwards, in this specific sub-genre.

Norman Bates, in Hitchcock’s 1960 film (faithful to Robert Bloch’s novel in most important respects),  is so attached to his identity as mama’s boy/motel proprietor/taxidermist, so rooted to the scene of his original crime, he can’t leave it for any reason, or admit that he’s killed his mother and stuffed her (spoiler alert).  He can’t stop being Norman Bates, wouldn’t even know how.  But finally his other identity, created to protect his original identity from the truth, kills him to protect itself.

The Honeymoon Killers, a decade later, was a more or less accurate account of a real life pair of multiple murderers, moved forward considerably in time, and told as a tragic love story, which is what the two real-life Lonely Hearts Killers had insisted it was all the way to the electric chair, so maybe they’d have liked it.   (The French absolutely loved it.)

About a year before The Stepfather, Michael Mann’s Manhunter,  the first film to feature Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, was more of a procedural story about a cop trying to catch a killer while dealing with his own inner demons, but did spend some time getting into the head of the killer himself.  It didn’t really succeed very well.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  All the psycho-babble in the world won’t make him anything more than an oddly sympathetic Frankenstein’s monster without the neck bolts.  Personally, I think Karloff’s take was better, but it’s not a bad movie.  Lector’s barely even in it.

And a few years after The Stepfather, Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, and the All Powerful and Oddly Urbane Serial Killer was well and truly a thing in our popular culture, and still is, and personally I think Freddy Krueger is more fun, at least when Robert Englund is playing him.  But a nice gig for Sir Anthony.  I do not acknowledge any other actor in that role.  (I also prefer Julianne Moore’s Clarice to Jodie Foster’s, sue me.)

So now we have movies like this all the time, but back then they were far and few between, and they didn’t tend to get us into the pattern killer’s head very much, or very well.  The story may acknowledge, at times, that the killer is human, has feelings–but not like us.   The killer must be some kind of social misfit, unable to have long-term relationships, live a normal life.  Not a family man, a scout troop leader, a regular church-goer. Certainly not vice-president of a bank.  But John List had been all of these things.   If he was putting up a front, it was a damned convincing one.  You had to look very closely to see the cracks in the picture.

So as he burrowed into the head of this monster, while creating his own somewhat different monster, Westlake had to ask himself the obvious question–“If I had done what John List did, what would I do next?”  And the answer, to him (and perhaps to Garfield before him) was obvious.  “I’d pick up right where I left off.”   Create a new identity.  Change his appearance. Find work.  Find a woman.   Make a new family.  Make a new life.  Fresh start.  It’ll work out better this time.

There are no second acts in American lives, Mr. Fitzgerald?   Says you.  American life is nothing but second acts, and third acts, and there’d be fourth and fifth acts if we took better care of ourselves.   The play may not be much, but we don’t ring down the curtain just because the first act was a dud.  The show must go on.

List would never kill himself, because he wouldn’t really believe he’d done anything wrong (he would later say it was because he was afraid of going to hell for the sin of suicide, and I can imagine a dark chuckle emanating from Mr. Westlake when he read that).  He wouldn’t leave the country, because there’s no better country to reinvent yourself in. That’s the jumping off point for the script. And gee, maybe a good jumping off point for me to review the movie, huh?   Since there’s a perfectly good synopsis on Wikipedia, I can mainly skip that part of it.

The Stepfather opens with a man standing in his bathroom, covered in blood.  He’s cutting his hair, shaving off his beard, shedding  his eyeglasses in favor of contacts, putting on a nicer suit of clothes.  When it’s done, he looks at himself in the mirror, well-pleased with his new appearance.  He walks calmly downstairs, past the butchered bodies of several people, some of them small children.  His family.  Or they used to be.  He seems completely unaffected by this.  He takes a ferry to a new city, smiling happily to himself.  Whatever just happened did not happen to him.

Next we meet Susan (Shelley Hack), married to Jerry Blake–the man we saw take shape in the bathroom mirror.  About a year has passed.   Susan is a widow, with a beautiful 16 year old daughter Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), who has predictably failed to accept her new stepfather.  He gives her a sweet little dog, who she instantly adores.  But nothing can change her mind about Jerry.  Something’s not right about him.  Kids, huh?

Westlake didn’t mention this to Patrick McGilligan, but in fact he was having problems with his own stepdaughter, as Brian Garfield mentions on the DVD.  Being a father of four boys with two previous wives, who had married a woman with three children of her own, he’d been variously successful in establishing relationships with her kids, and as someone who had  problems connecting with his own father, this clearly bothered him a great deal.

We saw some indications of this in A Likely Story, the protagonist of which is guilty that he did such a lousy job connecting with his girlfriend’s very young and insecure daughter.  But that relationship ends before the book does.  Westlake’s relationship with Abby Adams would last the rest of his life, and therefore, so did his relationship with her daughter, Katharine.  Whose name came up on some Westlake-related blogs, some time back, in relation to her thankfully brief disappearance.

The stepdaughter in the film actually rather strikingly resembles the description of Tom Diskant’s own daughter by his first wife in A Likely Story.  Dark-haired, feisty, competitive. And the story of this film rather strikingly resembles Hitchcock’s favorite of his own movies, Shadow of a Doubt, except that Jerry’s not Stephanie’s favorite uncle, or her favorite anybody.  All the same.  The film is much more about her relationship with Jerry than it is about anything else.  She’s the one he’s trying to convince here, and she’s the one sniffing out clues, smelling a rat.

His interest in her isn’t precisely sexual–he mainly seems to have very little interest in sex, except as a means of convincing single women with young children to marry him.  He wants Stephanie to remain pre-sexual, basically forever–like any father, really, but much much worse.  He’s infuriated to the brink of violence by her innocently kissing a friend from school, a young man named Paul (a name Westlake often used for male protagonists –the author is present in more than one form here).

Not sure how much Westlake knew about John List’s troubled relationship with his own daughter, about the same age as Stephanie when she died, and to all accounts a very attractive and somewhat flirtatious young woman–who confided to a teacher that she was afraid her father would murder her.

Stephanie is seeing a psychiatrist in the film, due to some behavioral problems in school.   She confides her own suspicions about her stepfather to him, and he arranges to meet Jerry, posing as a potential client.   This goes about as well for the psychiatrist as it does for Martin Balsalm in Psycho.   There are just some professions you do not want to be working in when Donald Westlake is writing the story.

Perhaps the least successful subplot in the film–but also one of the most necessary in terms of establishing a backstory–involves Jim Ogilvie, the brother of the woman Jerry murdered just before the film’s opening, along with everyone else in the house at the time.  Jim had been away in Europe when the killings occurred, and has become obsessed with finding his sister’s murderer.

He has a theory that ‘Henry Morrison’ (Westlake’s homage to his literary agent) didn’t move very far away when he disappeared, and is living a perfectly normal life with another woman, probably one with children.  And he’s supported in this theory by what the detective on the case tells him–that Henry Morrison didn’t exist.  That this was just another manufactured alias–there’s no telling how many identities this man has had, or how many families he’s destroyed along the way.  The detective also says that if it was his sister, he’d kill the guy himself–if he could find him.

Stephen Shellen, who plays Jim, does a perfectly creditable job in the role, but just isn’t that compelling–his obsession feels like a youthful whim.  Maybe that’s intended–Jim seems not to know himself or his capabilities very well, often a fatal flaw in a Westlake character.  He’s there to fill in details about the killer’s past, his m.o., to represent Jerry’s past catching up with him.  He plays a fairly important role in the finale, though not at all the one he’d hoped for.   Much like the role Scatman Crothers played in The Shining.   He provides what you might call the machina ex deus.  Bit thankless, but such is the life of a supporting character in this type of film.

But there’s no point taking issue with Shellen’s performance, or anyone else’s in this film–how many actors would ever look good compared to Terry O’Quinn?  Westlake was absolutely taken aback at how stunningly perfect O’Quinn was in the role of Jerry–this kind of casting magic had never really happened with anything he’d been involved with before (that it was a fellow Irish American bringing his creature to life was a nice bit of lagniappe).

O’Quinn somehow makes you like Jerry, even after you know what he’s done, and to whom.  He makes you believe he could just walk into the lives of these (invariably attractive) women, and yet never quite fit in there, always some part of his unfinished personality sticking out, making him dissatisfied, until he has to pull out the eraser, start from a blank slate again.

And the true climax of the film isn’t when he turns violent again–it’s just before–when he makes a critical error, forgets who he’s pretending to be for just a heartbeat–O’Quinn captures that moment of identity confusion in a way that’s both chilling and heart-rending.  “Wait a minute–who am I here?”  Well, we all ask that question of ourselves sometimes.  But we don’t usually follow it up with murder.

Shelley Hack does her job exactly right, not a false note in her performance, but Susan is mainly there to be conned, then terrorized.  Not much depth to the character.  No, the only two performances really worth talking about are O’Quinn’s and Schoelen’s–a few years older than her character at the time, she found something in herself I’m not sure she found again in any other role–a mixture of toughness, intelligence, humor and sensitivity that makes you root hard for Stephanie–not exactly the ‘final girl’ of your typical slasher (which this was never meant to be).

Rather more, as I said, a modern take on Teresa Wright’s Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.  Not that good, of course, but amazingly close for someone working on a low-budget horror film shot over 40 days in Vancouver.   (Though the shower scene she does is more out of Psycho, and probably not strictly necessary to the story.  Appreciated nonetheless, Ms. Schoelen–gratuitous female nudity in films is one of the very few things about the 1980’s I remember fondly).

This is not, as the cinematographer mentions in the DVD, a dialogue-driven film.  There are a number of nicely rendered lines, but Westlake was much more interested in just telling the story visually, with the utmost of economy, and he had all the allies he needed for that–and he proved to be a willing collaborator on set.  Ruben suggested to him that the character’s backstory of parental abuse as a boy be eliminated–he readily agreed–maybe that was in the story treatment he’d been given, and he never liked it to start with.  John List had a somewhat troubled childhood, with a very strict father, but there was nothing there that really explained what he became.

Westlake didn’t write a lot about the childhoods of his characters.  We never found out anything about Parker’s early life, only slightly more about Dortmunder’s.  We find out who we are not in our earliest experiences, but in how we responded to them.  Two different people with the same precise background could be poles apart.  Personality–or in some cases, the lack thereof–is a mystery that no one has ever been able to solve.

A nice little story on that making-of featurette gives you an idea of what a good working experience this was for Westlake–the producer, Jay Benson, relates how Westlake wasn’t happy with the scene where Jerry corners Stephanie in the bathroom–she’s trapped in there, and the locked door won’t keep him out long–so she’s dead.   How can she credibly escape?  Benson had a rather neat solution to the problem, and instead of bristling at someone impinging on his script control, sticking his oar in, Westlake accepted the suggestion happily, wrote it in, and it still works.  Well, probably didn’t hurt that Benson had presumably already mentioned to him several times how much he loved Westlake’s novels.   There were many difficulties involved in making this film (mainly weather-related), but serious professional conflicts or misunderstandings–apparently not among them.

Another detail I didn’t get from the featurette–the images below are from the storyboards for the movie.  Snipped them from a site hawking an original copy of the script.  (Six hundred bucks is way out of my price range–I’m not that interested.  It’s not like Westlake drew the pictures.)

Probably my main nitpick is the score, composed by Patrick Moraz–which isn’t bad.  But it’s a synthesizer score, and while I suppose that does kind of fit the artificiality of Jerry Blake and the world he’s constructed for himself, that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to listen to.   At least John Carpenter would stick a little piano in here and there, some throbby bass lines.  You were expecting maybe Bernard Herrmann conducting a studio string ensemble?    Psycho was considered a very low-budget film for its time, but times had changed, the studio system was dead, standards had fallen.   The score doesn’t quite work, but it’s not a major problem.

(Reportedly, Jerry was supposed to whistle The Way We Were at key moments, but they couldn’t afford the rights–they had to substitute Camptown Races.  That works just fine.  Somehow I don’t see Jerry as a Streisand fan, though his ability to selectively suppress memories is precisely the point of the character–maybe a bit too on the nose?)

I guess my only remaining observation would be Westlake’s treatment of the dog–here’s the thing.  During the course of that one bloody day in his life, John List seems to have killed the family dog, Tinkerbelle.  Westlake doubtless read about that in the papers.  Nobody really knows why.  Did List think the dog was also on the path to a sinful life, and had to be killed to avoid the flames of dog hell?   Unlikely.  Nor could the dog ever bear witness against him.

Not sure anybody ever asked List why he did that (there were so many other questions to ask by then), but I suppose he might have said that Tinkerbelle would have starved to death by herself, and he was sparing her that–more pragmatically, if he’d let her go, neighbors might have brought her back, and discovered the murder scene before he’d completed his disappearing act.  That’s what he might have said, but I’d say the real reason was that he wanted to destroy every last vestige of his old life.   His family, wife, mother, children, pets–merely extensions of his public persona, with no right to exist apart from him.  I wish this kind of attitude, and the behavior that ensued from it, was unique to John List, but we all know that isn’t true.

There’s a scene where Jerry Blake looks up and sees the dog he gave Stephanie, an appealing little terrier mix, looking at him–he’s just beaten his wife unconscious and left her in the basement.   He’s picking out a knife to butcher her and Stephanie with, and his thoughts are accordingly dark.  The dog is scared.   Jerry speaks reassuringly, beckons the dog to him, knife in one hand–it comes to him, whimpering softly, uncertain. He caresses it gently, comfortingly, still holding the knife.  Then he lets it go.

Contrary to popular opinion, dogs really don’t know or care who’s good or evil–that isn’t relevant to them.  They sense emotions, positive or negative, nurturing or potentially dangerous–not character.  The dog comes because right at that moment, Jerry’s completely forgotten about what he just did, and is giving off genuinely affectionate vibes.   And feeling that way, he has no desire to hurt the dog, so the dog isn’t scared of him, does not perceive him as a threat, licks his face, scampers off to greet Stephanie at the door, not sensing any danger now. Jerry returns to the job at hand.

Aside from cunningly defeating the audience’s expectations here, Westlake is obeying certain  rules of popular storytelling–he knows damned well you don’t kill a cute little dog in a movie unless it’s a really important plot point (like motivating Spencer Tracy to wreak terrible vengeance in Fury).   He’s had his little joke.  He’s also conveyed something about the deeply compartmentalized nature of his killer. His emotions towards canine-kind remain mixed.   I note with some disquiet that the dog does not seem to be present in the final scene, where Susan and Stephanie get rid of the bird house Jerry built for the back yard.  It’s not only dangerous psychotics who might want to get rid of anything that brings up unpleasant memories.

The Stepfather opened in January of 1987, and as I mentioned already, very few people went to see it in a theater.  One of those who did was myself.   Plenty of seats in the auditorium, as I recall.  I didn’t know any of the actors in the cast other  than Shelley Hack, and I wasn’t particularly a fan of hers, though I thought she was good in The King of Comedy.  I didn’t know from Joseph Ruben, had never heard of John List (and the film wasn’t promoted as being inspired by that then-forgotten story, anyway). I’d read some favorable reviews, was in the mood for a good bit of horror, and I went.  I thought it was a pretty decent film at the time.  I never watched it again until I got the DVD so I could write this review.

I didn’t notice Donald Westlake’s name in the credits while sitting there in the dark, and would not have experienced even the slightest tingle of recognition if I had noticed the writer’s name.  It would be nearly a quarter-century later that I would first pick up a book of his and read it.  This was my first encounter with him, and as is so often the case with first encounters that ultimately prove fateful, I failed to perceive any significance in it.  Like pretty nearly everyone else who has seen that film, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on enduring themes and interests of its screenwriter, even if I’d tried.   And now I can, or so I flatter myself.  You learn as you go.

Unless, of course, your life is devoted to not learning as you go.  Unless you’re stuck in the same place, living out variations of the same sad story, over and over, forever, and no matter how many times you leave your old life behind, it keeps coming back for you.

John List was found and arrested less than two years after The Stepfather came out.  I don’t know if he also went to see it during its brief run, but I rather think not.   He had relocated several times since then, married a woman he met through his church, and according to Brian Garfield, might have been having financial and relationship problems once more–Garfield implies he might have actually started fresh again, maybe even killing his second wife as well, if he hadn’t been found.  I don’t know if that’s true.  I think probably everybody reaches a point in life where he or she decides it’s too late to start over.  Even mad killers.

The point of Westlake’s story wasn’t to say “This might be what happened to John List,” even though some of it actually did.  It was Westlake’s take on what might drive a man to do something like that–the conflict that exists in most people between the lives they imagined for themselves and the lives they have.

‘Jerry Blake’ is putting up a front, always, trying to embody the American Dream he was raised with (though he hints his childhood was anything but perfect)–he seems considerably more successful in his work life than John List was, effortlessly excelling at any field that requires some level of salesmanship (and as we know, for a salesman, there’s no rock bottom to the life–I would certainly know, since that’s what my father was, but thankfully, that was never all he was).

It isn’t financial failure, or personal unhappiness that drives Jerry to murder.  It’s that he can’t accept anything less than perfection, and perfection always remains somewhere just out of reach, as it does for everyone else, but he can’t see that–he can only see the surface of things, envying the happy families he sells houses to, wanting to somehow Stepford-ize himself and each new family, always falling short.

Since he doesn’t know himself, he can’t know anyone else, can’t empathize with the failings of his adopted family members, extend them forgiveness for having (as he sees it) failed him.   How did he start down this path?  How do most of us, subject to the same social pressures, the same mass-manufactured media imagery, avoid it?   Do we really want to know the answer?   Who do we see in the mirror every morning?  Who are we here?

It’s a good story, and a good film.  It makes a solid point without belaboring it nearly as much as I have.   Of all the screenplays Westlake worked on that became movies, it’s second only to one, and serves in some ways as a prototype for it–but I think its significance goes well beyond that.

Because here and there we can see hints of the old Westlake coming back to the surface.  The more focused, less playful writer who gave us Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, 361, Killy.  Since there’s no narrator here, and dialogue isn’t the point, he’s free to focus entirely on story and character, and perhaps begin to rediscover parts of himself he’d put aside for a while in the comfortable middle part of his life.  Parts that would be useful to him in future projects.  Parts that might, in time, lead him back to the best of his old work, and forward to the dark masterpiece only he could have written.

And since I miss that kind of Westlake book as much as anyone, I’m going to put off reviewing the rather neat little exercise in farce that would technically come next in our queue, in favor of an article delving back into the origins of an earlier criminal protagonist of Westlake’s who would have made very short work of Jerry Blake and all his Rockwell-esque aliases, had they ever been unfortunate enough to cross him in some way.  You know who I mean.  But do you know how many cunningly scavenged bits and pieces went into the making of him?  I think I’m just starting to get an idea.

I almost forgot to mention–John List died in prison in March of 2008–about nine months before Westlake died in Mexico. Just another strange little detail that makes you wonder who writes this stuff.  Just FYI, I didn’t plan to finish this one on Friday the 13th.  I mean, that’s not even the right franchise.

It can be strange, doing this blog–disorienting, because from week to week, I’m constantly forced to shift gears, as Westlake himself so often did, changing styles, subjects, emphases, the basic tonal quality of his work–while still somehow maintaining an underlying unity to it all.  It’s certainly been a challenge to convey all this, in the midst of living my own life, with its own confusions and cross-currents.

Anyway I certainly hope to see you all at the dog run clean-up next week–what?  What did I say?  Who am I here?  Fred?  Fred Fitch.  That’s right.  Care for a song?  They probably couldn’t have gotten the rights to this one for the movie either–hard to whistle, anyway.


Filed under Donald Westlake screenplays

Review: Hopscotch


“Our kind has been on this planet for perhaps two million years,” Yaskov said, “and during all but one percent of that period, we lived as hunters.  The hunting way of life is the only one natural to man.  The one most rewarding.  It was your way of life but your government took it away from you.  I offer to return it to you.”

“It’s self-destructive lunacy, is what it is.”

“Well my dear Miles, you can’t lead our kind of life and expect to live forever.  But at least we can be alive for a time.”

“It’s all computers now.   World War Three will be known as the Paperkrieg.  There’s no need for my kind of toy gladiator any more.  We’re as obsolete as fur-trapping explorers.”

“It’s hardly gone that far, old friend.  Otherwise, why should I be making you this offer?”

“Because you can’t face obsolescence–you won’t acknowledge it the way I’ve done.  You’re as redundant as I am–you just don’t know it yet.”  Kendig smiled meaninglessly.  “We’ve seven’d out.  All of us.”

“I don’t know the expression, but you make it sound clear enough.”

“It’s to do with a dice game.”

This is going to be one of my shorter reviews, and it could be argued that I’m violating the mission statement of this blog by posting it at all.  The book being reviewed here was not written by Donald E. Westlake, but rather by his longtime friend, Brian Garfield.   Nor can I pretend to any great familiarity with Garfield’s work.  What happened was, Garfield and Westlake co-wrote the last book I reviewed here, and I felt like I needed to read some Garfield as part of my background research, and this novel was easily available to me, and I kind of wanted to read it anyhow.

What I learned, upon reading it, is that 1)Garfield is a hell of a writer (I’m hardly the first to reach this conclusion) and 2)He was, at least in this instance, very powerfully influenced by Westlake, and specifically by what Westlake wrote as Richard Stark.   And he wasn’t shy about tacitly admitting that in the book itself.   I should perhaps mention that this is the book that won Garfield the Edgar Award for best mystery novel, even though it’s a spy thriller, but we discussed that little oddity of the Edgars when I was reviewing God Save The Mark.

I knew the story going in, or thought I did–I went to see Hopscotch (the movie) shortly after it premiered in 1980, liked it so much I went to see it twice.  It’s long been a favorite of mine.  It’s right at the tail-end of Walter Matthau’s career as a leading man (he was 60 when it came out); probably the last picture he made where he was the unquestioned star, the story entirely about his character, even though Glenda Jackson has a memorable supporting role, and there’s a great cast overall, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, etc.  Neat little flick, and you can watch it for free on Hulu, for the price of sitting through a few bad commercials.

And going in with such strongly positive memories of the film, I was amazed at how quickly the book supplanted it in my loyalties.  It’s not that the film’s script (co-written by Garfield) tells such a different story–most major elements of the plot are there, in altered form–but the approach to it is light-hearted, comic, almost innocent–a sort of espionage quadrille.  Which is what they figured they could sell to a mainstream movie audience looking for a nice Matthau comedy, with a bit of a romance hook between him and Jackson (since they’d just done a romantic comedy together a few years before).

The book is none of those things.  It truly is written in the spirit of Richard Stark (as reinterpreted by Brian Garfield) and to the extent there’s any humor in it, it’s very black indeed.  It’s not a quadrille, so much as a tango–a dance of life and death.  It’s romantic all right, but in the same spirit as the Parker novels.  Not at all what Hollywood means by romance.

The film’s score is full of Mozart, with a bit of Rossini mixed in (Matthau, a lifelong fan of Wolfgang Amadeus, can even whistle some of his compositions like a crazed canary), but a score for the novel would be rather more Wagnerian, I think–Götterdämmerung.  Or even better, some delta blues, or New Orleans jazz, the kind they play at funerals– a fair bit of  the story is set in the American South.  Or maybe music would just get in the way.   Because to the extent this novel’s protagonist resembles a Richard Stark protagonist, it sure as hell isn’t Alan Grofield.  He’s not hearing any movie score in his head.

He does go see a movie in the course of the story, though–The Outfit, with Robert Duvall.  He’s just killing some time in the theater, as we sometimes see Parker do on a job; not really interested in the film–he walks out after an hour, as the story is building to its climax, so nobody will notice him leaving–he’s got to use the bathroom to put on a disguise, That’s a very obvious tip of the hat to Stark.  As is his later briefly adopting the alias of Jules Parker.  That’s almost too obvious.

The protagonist’s name is Miles Kendig, and he used to work for the CIA.   He was good–quite possibly the best, though like any good intelligence man, he drew as little attention to himself as possible, which meant that relatively few people knew how good he really was.  Just a handful of fellow pros.   And even they may underestimate him at times.

On a mission to the Balkans, he was badly wounded, nearly killed.  Once he recovered, the higher-ups decided he was past his prime, over the hill (he’s 53 when we first meet him).  They wouldn’t put him in the field anymore–he could ride a desk for a while, if he wanted, or take retirement.  He took the desk–just long enough to expunge his personnel records–when he leaves, they don’t even have a photograph of him, and because of his low profile, only a few people at the Agency could pull him out of a line-up.  He’s a self-made tabula rasa.

As the book opens, he’s retired, playing high stakes poker in Paris, not caring if he wins or loses, and so of course he wins big, as he has before.  The glamorous sophisticated 40-ish European woman who was his primary opponent in the game (Jeanne Moreau, maybe?) picks him up afterwards, and he reluctantly allows himself to be seduced (he’s no fashion plate, he’s mainly not interested, and women are drawn to him like flies to honey–sound familiar?).

He’s also dabbled in fast cars, and other things people to do distract themselves from a purposeless existence.  He’s got money, adventure, sex, freedom, and his health.  And he’s terminally bored.  Without his work, something has died inside him.  He’s trying to find a reason go to on living, and failing, badly.

Then a former adversary of his, a Russian spymaster named Yaskov, makes the proposition referred to in the passage from the novel I kicked this review off with–come work for us–we see your value, even if those fools do not.  And he can’t do it.  Even though the illusions of conventional patriotism have largely been destroyed in him, he can’t go over to the other side.  It’s not who he is.  And since he wouldn’t believe in what he was doing, he’d just be working for the sake of working, going through the motions.  It wouldn’t fix what’s broken in him.

But as he mulls it over, an alternative presents itself.  He can’t ply his trade for his own country anymore, or for any other country, but he can still ply it for himself.  He can issue a challenge–the name of the game is Catch Me If You Can (or Hopscotch, if you prefer).  But first he needs the appropriate bait.  So he starts work on a book.  A book about what he knows.  And he starts sending out pages–to publishers, and to spy agencies.  The pages are full of some very direct and telling hints of what the book’s content will be.

He knows a lot.  More than anyone realized.  This is something the book explains much better than the film–a field agent typically only knows what’s relevant to his work–that way he can only tell so much if he’s captured and tortured.  In the movie, Kendig quit immediately after his boss told him to sit behind a desk (movie plot shorthand)–in the novel, he took that desk job long enough to read a whole lot of very interesting top secret files–and Miles Kendig never forgets anything he reads.

So when his bosses find out what he’s got in mind, various carefully worded threats are issued, which Kendig merely laughs at.  Because what he wants is for them to come after him, with the purpose of killing him.  And by evading them, through the methodical application of a lifetime of training, he can prove he’s the best there is at what he does, and slip the shackles of existential ennui.

Actually revealing the secrets to the world–many of which are explosive in nature, political assassinations and so forth–is not his primary goal.  He isn’t Edward Snowden.  He doesn’t think he can bring about a better freer more transparent world, nor does he have any interest in being lauded as a whistleblower, or put on any Nobel short lists.  He just wants to stop feeling dead inside.  He’s been the hunter for most of his life–now he’ll try being the hunted.

The CIA assigns Kendig’s best pupil, Joe Cutter, to track him down.  Joe picks Leonard Ross, a younger agent, to assist him, since Ross at least knows what Kendig looks like.   Cutter doesn’t like what Kendig is doing, but he understands it, better than anyone else (they’ll be forcing him out too, one of these days).  He isn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of killing his teacher, but he’ll do as he’s ordered.   And Kendig goes out of his way to provoke Cutter, wanting to make sure his protégé gives the job his all.

Now I’d normally launch into a detailed synopsis here, going over the plot with a fine-toothed comb, leaking spoilers all over the carpet, possibly stretching it out into a two-parter, but this is The Westlake Review, not The Garfield Gazette.  I greatly admire this book, but my point is how Garfield, who in a sense became Westlake’s protégé, absorbed the lessons he learned from Westlake’s novels, particularly the Parker novels, and applied them to his own quite distinct purposes.  Not that Stark is the only influence here–there’s a character named Joe Tobin–an FBI agent, called into the hunt when Kendig goes to ground in Georgia to write his book.  Kendig’s deep depression that he’s trying to shake off, along with his nagging conscience, do seem more reminiscent of Tucker Coe than Richard Stark.

There’s also a CIA man named Glenn Follett, and that’s about as glaringly obvious a reference to Ken Follett as one could imagine–except that when this book came out, the internationally best-selling author of espionage thrillers hadn’t had a best seller yet–he’d published only two novels, both quite recently, and wasn’t very well known at all.   Clearly Garfield had him pegged as a comer, and felt like tipping his hat–and yet, we’re left in no doubt that Glenn Follett, though a capable man, is not in the same league as ‘Jules Parker’–there’s a lot of little inside references like this, and you’re not always quite sure what they mean, but they mean something, that’s for damn certain.   As with Westlake, the inside jokes are there for those able to appreciate them.

The book switches back and forth between chapters from Kendig’s perspective, watching him play his deadly game with deadly calm, moving around, creating false identities, laying false trails for the hunters, always a few steps ahead of the hounds–and chapters from the perspective of Cutter and Ross and the other people hunting Kendig.  Including Yaskov, because once the Soviets realize how much information Kendig has, they’re desperate to lay hands on him–and then, once they realize that he’s compromising them almost as much as the Americans, they just want him dead as much as the CIA does.

And this, of course, is very Starkian as well, but Stark didn’t invent the idea of switching perspectives in fiction (don’t ask me who did).  The book isn’t broken up into four parts–it’s not that direct an homage.  The idea is the same, though–to contrast Kendig’s mentality with that of his pursuers.  Only Cutter and Yaskov (and eventually Ross) come close to fully understanding him, but because they’re all organization men–cogs in a machine, whether they like it or not–they can’t ever fully understand a man who has decided to cut all ties, be totally free.  One does get the feeling they envy him, though.

Yaskov, the wily old Russian, who Cutter observes would have just as happily been a czarist spy if he’d been born a few generations sooner (what difference, really?), arranges a meet with Cutter and Ross, to swap intel on Kendig–and makes this rather trenchant remark to Cutter, that as you might imagine, perked my ears right up–

“Kendig and I are among the last of the old wolves,” Yaskov said, “but perhaps there’s still hope.  I’m told you conform to the breed more than most of our colleagues.”

Hmm.   I wonder sometimes about conversations Westlake had with his closest comrades about the nature of Parker, and what might have been said in these discussions.   Or left unsaid, while remaining implicit.

I’m barely giving the flavor of the book–most of the major plot points made it into the film, but in very altered form–the way they play out in the book is so different as to constitute an entirely different story, and there are some fascinating things that didn’t get into the film at all–like Kendig finding a double of himself, a down on his luck American, and paying him to impersonate Kendig, for a hefty fee–which the man does with considerable pleasure, and surprising skill.

The ploy doesn’t really fool Cutter, who knows Kendig too well, but resources are still expended to track the impostor down on an ocean liner.  I suspect the point of that episode isn’t to display Kendig’s resourcefulness, but to make a very Westlakeian comment about identity.  The double–a secret sharer, you might say–had lost himself in the wake of a bad marriage, and now, by pretending to be a fugitive secret agent, seems to have rediscovered his own agency in life.

Kendig doesn’t kill one person in this novel (he doesn’t even like to carry a gun), and goes out of his way to make sure no one is killed because of him.  That is not much like Parker, or even Grofield.  And this is Garfield’s variation on the theme–Kendig isn’t really a wolf in human form, you see.  He’s very much a man, who had to become like a wolf, to do his job.  We learn about his forlorn search for his long-lost father, who died poor and alone just before Kendig located him–the experience left lasting scars, that impacted all the choices he made afterwards, and he begins to understand that as the story builds to its conclusion.

Kendig has very understandable human goals and aspirations, and a very human form of melancholia, and yet at the end, he seems ready to really live again, maybe even love, without the stimulus of having trained killers on his trail night and day.  But for that to happen, he has to shake those killers once and for all, and maybe you should read the book.  Or you can watch the movie, which has its own unique pleasures to impart (and a character who isn’t in the book at all–a rather kick-ass London-based publisher named–I kid you not–Parker Westlake). But seriously–read the book first.   I wish I had.

Garfield has Cutter think to himself at one point that he’s glad he played poker with Kendig–it’s his opinion that there’s no better way to understand your rival.  Or your friend.  And in writing this book, Garfield proved he understood them both very well.  His old poker buddy, Donald E. Westlake–and his rival, Richard Stark.  (I don’t think Garfield ever really did much in the comic caper area after Gangway!, though he was perhaps taking a few pointers when co-writing the script for the film adaptation–and he and Westlake would later collaborate on a film, but that one is decidedly not a comedy).

Garfield’s interest in espionage and those who practice that dark art continues to this very day, not always in the form of fiction   He’s got a new book out about Richard Meinertzhagen, a legendary adventurer, who may have been an even more legendary con artist.  I hope to get around to it soon.

But now, I have to prepare myself for what may be the biggest challenge of my book-blogging career to date.   Miles Kendig, as I have already mentioned, is not so terribly hard to understand.  But Parker is, and our next book–the 16th Parker novel, and the last to appear in print for a very long time–is just one identity puzzle after another–frequently reviewed, but never in any great depth, that I can see.  I must warn you in advance, I have no idea how long this one is going to go–I very much doubt a two-parter will suffice, and I would not rule out a four-parter.  We’ll play the hand we’re dealt, and see how the cards stack up.

And now a little music to set the mood.  I was thinking about Bad Moon Rising, but that’s a bit too on the nose, don’t you think?

Any Rory Gallagher fans in the house?  He was always a million miles away from all the rest.


Filed under Brian Garfield, Hopscotch, Parker Novels

Review: Gangway!

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Gabe had a window seat on the train, but there hadn’t been anything to see for three thousand miles.

There had been green days: grass flats, fourteen Indians riding around the train in warbonnets chasing five spavined buffalo.  There had been brown days: the occasional yokel on a horse and at intervals an excuse for a town–a few tottering shacks, buckboard wagons, tall idiots festooned with huge revolvers and silly hats.

He remembered the curl of Twill’s lip.  “West of the Hudson River, it’s all horse manure.”

A wise observation, that.  It smelled that way–even Chicago.  Especially Chicago, stinking to high heaven of beef carcasses.  It was only a thousand miles after Chicago that you started to remember the place with a certain wistful fondness.  It wasn’t a city, but at least by God it was trying.

Don Westlake had a blinding-fast mind. He always seemed to have on the tip of his tongue the sort of wonderful witty rejoinders that occur to most of us a day or two too late. In 1970 we got the idea that it would be amusing to try combining our strengths in a Western comedy novel. We wrote Gangway!, and it turned out to be quite funny, I think. Henry sold it and it did fairly well. But our ambitions to sell it as a basis for a movie didn’t work out. And we’d done it in a silly way—each of us would write a draft, then turn it over to the other, who’d rewrite the whole thing and give it back. It was about four times as much work as either of us would have put in individually on a book. So we didn’t try that again. But it was fun, and we got to know each other’s working styles.

Brian Garfield, speaking to Levi Stahl.

They really did meet at a poker game, in 1965.   That’s what Brian Garfield said in this interview, and I see no reason to doubt him.  I’ve already spoken about the enduring friendship between Westlake and Lawrence Block, but there was yet another great literary bromance in Westlake’s life that stretched across the decades, and that was with this guy, born about six years after Westlake, in 1939.  My significant other, seeing his name on a book I was reading, asked if he might have inspired Alan Grofield.  The similarity in the names is an interesting coincidence, as are the parallels in the relationships (Parker to Grofield, Westlake to Garfield)–even the age difference is similar–but since Grofield first appeared in 1964, probably not.   Too bad.

The game depicted in the above photo from the back cover of this book took place some years later, in 1972, when Garfield was hard at work on the book most people remember him for now, Death Wish.  Arguably more famous than anything Westlake ever wrote, but that’s at least partly because of the Charles Bronson movie (screenplay by Wendell Mayes, who wrote a whole lot of better movies, but a nice bonus to get such a solid pro adapting you).

Garfield was born in New York City, like Westlake himself, but grew up in Arizona, about as far from upstate New York in climate and culture as you can get in this country.   While Westlake got his start writing a mix of science fiction, mystery, and pseudo-porn, Garfield wrote mysteries and westerns–a lot more westerns than mysteries in the early days–over forty novels in that genre, many of the early ones under pseudonyms.

As a mature author, his wheelhouse would eventually turn out to be a mixture of crime and thriller/suspense, sometimes with a touch of espionage, but his roots were in the horse opera.  His first published novel was a western published under his own name, entitled Range Justice, and came out in 1960, same year as The Mercenaries, Westlake’s first novel under his own name, but that’s a mite deceptive–Westlake had a big jump on Garfield, professionally speaking.  Garfield would be catching up fast over the next decade or so.

Westlake was not a westerns guy.  Like any American kid born in the first seven decades of the 20th century, he knew the genre–you couldn’t avoid it, any more than you could baseball.  He wasn’t much interested in writing for it.   He wasn’t that much interested in the west most of the time, if you get right down to it.  He’d write stories set out west–Parker novels, for example, or novels about Hollywood–but in most cases, the setting was more or less incidental to the story, though always keenly observed.

Westlake was more about the city than the country, and if he wrote about the country, it was the way city people tend to do–somewhere you escape to, quiet and bucolic, a good place to relax (or hide out)–but still adjacent to the city, so you can get back to civilization quickly when you need it, and you will.

So according to Garfield, this book was written around 1970 (at least that’s when they had the idea), and their mutual agent, Henry Morrison (who also attended those poker games), got it published at M. Evans & Co., a few years later.  It was right around 1970 (with the pseudonymous political thriller Ex Officio) that M. Evans had started its ten-novel run with Westlake (and one two-novella collection we’ll be getting to soon enough).   All the subsequent books he produced for them were published under his own name, and no two are alike, or really much like anything he did before or since.   But this collaborative effort was unusual even by the standards of his work for M. Evans.

Is it a true western?  I’ve seen people suggest otherwise.  I think they’re right as far as they go–the western novel is a fairly rigid form, perhaps the most conservative of all genres, and I don’t just mean politically.  There are certain elements that have to be present, that the readership demands, and if they aren’t there, it isn’t a western–but the form is a lot less rigorously classicist in its other mediums, such as film and television, which is how most people have enjoyed it.

I think this book, set in 1874, in boom town San Francisco, falls very neatly into the comedy western genre that had become overwhelmingly prevalent in Hollywood films during the late 60’s/early 70’s (presumably there were a lot of books as well, but I wouldn’t know), as the western movie genre began to die out, along with the TV western.  In fact, I would suspect Garfield and Westlake were thinking at least party about this 1969 release, and how they might improve upon it–


(Fun film.  Very lightweight stuff, but still worth renting, or catching on late-night cable–Ossie Davis has a memorable role as a two-fisted wisecracking blacksmith, Clint Walker is sturdy enough, and Angie Dickinson is as you’d expect, only more so, because the S&P people were loosening up on sex a bit.  Burt Reynolds is Burt Reynolds, as always, and what’s wrong with that?).

And as Garfield tells us in the interview, they weren’t just writing a novel together for a few bucks–they were hoping to sell it to Hollywood–trying to latch onto a trend.  Seems like they were a bit too far behind the curve–Hollywood was rapidly losing interest in westerns, comedic or otherwise.  But if they had sold the novel to the movies, that’s what the movie would have been sold as, no question.   So yeah, it’s a western.  It’s just not a standard ‘oater’, with the sixgun shoot-outs, the cowpokes, the schoolmarms, and the wide open prairie.  It’s what you might call a sub-genre–‘the dude goes west’.  Been a lot of those.

And it’s a comic caper to boot.   Westlake was just then becoming the supreme master of those, with The Hot Rock.  But this, sadly, is a lot closer to his first comic caper, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   It’s actually not that bad.   Enjoyable light reading, if approached with limited expectations.  It’s a long way from the best work either man was capable of–when writing a novel, two heads are not necessarily better than one.

To be sure, there have been great writing duos in the mystery genre–“Ellery Queen” was actually the team of cousins Fred Dannay and Manfred Lee.  The mystery novels of “Wade Miller” and “Whit Masterson” were written by the team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller.  Two people who work together often in this way can achieve a sort of synergy, each doing what he or she is best at, and the results can be impressive.  But much more often, you get something written by committee.  Prose fiction is not a team sport.

Westlake and Lawrence Block had co-written a few sleaze books, mainly alternating chapters, each getting to use his own distinctive style, make up the plot as they went along, each reacting to the other’s choices–Westlake and Garfield both worked on all the chapters in this one, going for consistency in tone.  Which makes it damned hard to know who is responsible for what.

You can make educated guesses, but here’s the thing–each man was well-familar with the work of the other, and Garfield in particular was very influenced by Westlake, so even if you see something that strikes you as very much a Westlake plot twist, or a Westlake character, or a Westlake gag–could just be Garfield channeling Westlake. Less likely it would be the other way around, since Garfield’s style was still evolving at this point, but Westlake would have tried to make his stuff match-up with Garfield’s, and might have deferred to him more since Garfield knew this genre (and the geographic region it’s set in) so much better.

Westlake must have read some western novels, as well as gone to movies–in that faux interview of himself and his pseudonyms that I’ve referenced many times here, he makes a rather disparaging reference to Dirty Dingus Magee, and in the context of the discussion, it seems like he means the novel The Ballad of Dingus Magee, by David Markson, not the Frank Sinatra film based on it, even though he uses the movie title.  The two may have gotten mixed up in his mind.

He had a pronounced aversion to genre writing that got too self-consciously joky and gimmick-laden–as you can see from last week’s book, if he wrote a sustained parody, it was probably going to be of something he didn’t like.  So his intention here is not parodic, not even satiric–he’s going to try and craft an urban western farce, similar in tone and effect to his popular ‘Nephew’ books, with a protagonist who has much in common with Aloysius Engel of The Busy Body, and (less fortunately) Kelly Bram Nicholas IV of Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   I don’t consider this a Nephew story, because certain key elements are missing, but you could argue this picks up where The Busy Body left off–a confirmed New Yorker forced to go west–only it’s the old west.

Westlake would have gone into this venture with mixed emotions–liking the idea of working with a friend whose abilities he respected; curious to see what he could do with a form he wasn’t experienced in; thinking maybe they’d score a nice payday in Tinseltown before the western movie’s last great decadent era came to a close.   It would be different, at least.

But at the same time he’d be thinking he was too far out of his element–collaborating on a novel, something he’d only done a few times before, never producing results that were much to his liking–said book being set not only in a place he didn’t know well, but in a different time–a period piece.   Westlake wrote in the moment–very rarely does he ever tell a story that isn’t set in the exact time it was composed in.  He seemed to need that sense of immediacy to spur him on to greatness.

And I often seem to need to devote even more set-up time to the books I’m not that wild about.   Weird, huh?  Let’s try a very brief synopsis here, before this thing gets out of control.

Gabe Beauchamps, a French-American tough from Manhattan’s notorious Hell’s Kitchen district (where I lived for a time, and it lived down to its rep), is sourly gazing at the California landscape from the train.  His former employer, a crooked political boss named Patrick Twill (Tweed was already taken) has kicked him out of New York for life, because of one minor screw-up (he muscled a pushcart vendor related to a local bigwig).  He’s been given a choice of San Francisco or death.  He’s reluctantly chosen the former.

(Sidebar: Why is Gabe French-American?  We’re told Twill, more of a political boss than a crimelord–the implication being that the difference was largely academic at the time–needed a Frenchman to keep the locals in line.  Either Westlake or Garfield had apparently read somewhere that Hell’s Kitchen used to be a French nabe.  Maybe it was once.  But it’s 1874, about two decades since the famine-stricken Irish came pouring off the ships into New York; there were certainly many powerful Irish street gangs in Hell’s Kitchen by then, so I don’t buy it.  I can’t find any reference to a strong French presence in Hell’s Kitchen at all–there’s a few good French restaurants there, but they don’t go back that far.

Westlake would have been in charge of the New York stuff, and he probably skimped a bit on the research, as he sometimes did–found some obscure reference to French people in Hell’s Kitchen that appealed to him, and ran with it.  Gabe doesn’t even seem to speak any French.  His temperament seems more Gaelic than Gallic to me–but he does like to cherchez la femme.   I suspect Westlake just wanted to remind us that New York’s ethnic make-up is always changing–he’d probably heard the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen bars, complaining about those damn Puerto Ricans.  And the beat goes on.)

Gabe has an endearing and rather Nephew-esque little quirk–he gets seasick–doesn’t have to be on the actual sea–being on any kind of a boat on any kind of water will turn the trick (this would be a good sight gag for a movie).  So he’s not happy when he finds out the railroad doesn’t go all the way to San Francisco yet, and he’s got to take a riverboat the rest of the way from Sacramento.   And he does have to, because Twill says he’s going to get whacked (or whatever term they used then) if he doesn’t turn up there on schedule.

So on the boat, Gabe meets the lovely Evangeline Kemp, 24 years of age to Gabe’s 28, blonde, petite, perky as all hell, and a talented pickpocket to boot.  That’s just one of her skills–she’s an extremely versatile petty thief in petticoats.  I think you can guess how they meet (you’ve seen this movie before).   Having gotten the preliminary jostling and jousting out of the way, they fall head over heels (well, Gabe is more like head over boat railing for a while there), and she being a native San Franciscan–the very first generation, in fact–and as bigotedly proud of her birthplace as Gabe is of Gotham (he’d never even left Manhattan before now, because water), there’s lots of bi-coastal bickering going on all through the book.

Gabe likes Vangie (as he insists on calling her) quite a lot, and intends to keep her–they bed down together in a purloined hotel room, shortly after getting off the boat (which would never happen to a true Westlake nephew).  But Vangie’s undeniable charms aside, Gabe sees San Francisco as  ‘a lumpy Newark.’   It is not, in fact, quite the urbane laid-back little burg it reputedly is today (I’ve never had the pleasure), but rather a rough-hewn rollicking good-time town, that’s already burned to the ground twice, and maintains a very efficient fire department that keeps nearly running the protagonists down on the street.

I’d say that’s the real pleasure of the book–the way we’re shown San Francisco in embryo, and the authors keep showing us hints of the city it is inexorably becoming–just as you might look at old photos of someone as a child, and see hints of the adult.  And of course some things about a city remain constant from the start–

They moved into a narrow street, getting jostled.  Something like grey smoke began to drift down off the rooftops, obscuring their view of things. “What’s going on?  Something on fire?”

“Shh!”  Vangie clapped a finger to Gabe’s mouth.  “Don’t say fire around here.  Ever.  Unless you mean it.”

“But that stuff–”

“That’s just the fog coming in.”

It was coming in mighty fast.  He could hardly see the end of the street, only a block away.  “This happen often?”

Defensively she said, “From time to time.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Well,” she said reluctantly, “Maybe once or twice a day.”

“A day?”

“We don’t mind it.”

Every day?”

“You get used to it.”

“All year round?”

She said desperately, “We like the fog.”

“All right then, tell me this.  Does it ever get any warmer around here?”

“Once in a while.  From time to time.”

“You mean once or twice a day?”

“Well, maybe once or twice a year.”  She added quickly, “But it never gets much colder than this either.”

“I don’t see how it hardly could.”  He shook his head.  “And you call this a city.”

Just the same at least there was life teeming around them.  The narrow street was overflowing with toughs, brassy girls, and drunken sailors.  Among the buildings Gabe could see, two out of three were Melodeons and Saloons.  The rest were whorehouses, opium dens, Cheap John clothing stores, ship-chandlers, and the kind of boardinghouses where you kept your boots on when you went to bed to make sure nobody stole them.  It was a neighborhood not altogether unlike Hell’s Kitchen; even if it was a pretty limp imitation, it did show some promise.

One very big hint of San Francisco’s future comes when the newly minted couple meet an old friend of Gabe’s from the old neighborhood, one Francis Calhoun.  Who is gay.  And is not once referred to as such, partly because Westlake never uses that term to refer to same-sex oriented persons, for reasons nobody seems to have ever inquired of him (I think the language maven in him resented a very old multi-purpose word being made useless for any purpose save one).

But absolutely nobody, Francis included, would be using the word ‘gay’ that way in 1874–Westlake is perhaps taking a certain satisfaction in not needing any term at all for Francis, because it’s over fifteen years until the dawn of the ‘Gay 90’s’–to the extent the word has any sexual connotation at all at this time, it’s heterosexual–nobody will be using ‘gay’ to refer to men like Francis for at least another half century or so.  They had lots of very impolite terms for homosexuals back then, but not one of them gets employed here.  Okay, one sailor insinuates that Francis is ‘fruity’, but Francis retorts by bringing up certain well-known habits of sailors, and that shuts him up good.

Francis corresponds pretty neatly to the usual fictional (and sometimes actual) tropes regarding gay men, but can it be a true stereotype if it’s just in its formative period?  He’s got a knack for decorating, he works in the theater (if you call music halls theater), is rather good-tempered, a bid timid, loyal to a fault.  Gabe was one of the few neighborhood boys who didn’t treat him badly back in the day, so he sees Gabe as a friend–and understands him pretty well.  He’s clearly leading a fairly active social life, and let’s just say he’s not alone out there, but he is, in his own decidedly un-rugged way, a pioneer.

Vangie, unlike the oblivious Gabe (can’t even grasp the concept of not liking girls) sizes Francis up at a glance, and treats him a mite frostily at first, but then realizes a man who knows about fashion and can be your friend without wanting to fuck you isn’t such a bad thing after all–well, that meme had to start somewhere, didn’t it?

Also in the mix is Ittzy Herz, who is a either a good luck charm or a jinx, depending on your interpretation–bad things never happen to him, but they frequently happen to people who try to do him harm, or just happen to be standing in the wrong place when he passes–he’s not consciously making anything happen, it just does.  Like a guy fires a gun at him point blank, and the guy’s friend, who was standing over to one side, falls down wounded, and the shooter gets dragged off to jail for attempted murder.   Gabe quickly decides that Ittzy will be useful to his plan.

Oh did I forget to mention the plan? Gabe intends to rob the U.S. Mint in San Francisco, the existence of which he did not learn about until he got there.  It does not seem he has any experience at this kind of thing–he was basically a ward heeler for Boss Twill, an enforcer; tough and resourceful and more than willing to break a few laws, or a few heads, but not a guy who robs banks or payrolls, and as we’ve seen, his sex drive isn’t cyclical.  He’s no Parker.   He’s a bit more like Dortmunder (maybe the way Dortmunder was before he’d spent a few years in prison), but he’s an amateur at this, a beginner–with the corresponding beginner’s luck, that Vangie keeps warning him is going to run out.

And as a non-pro, he refuses to process that this job is too damn risky, the mint being less of a bank than an impregnable fortress, bristling with armed guards.  Never mind all that.  He needs the gold to go back to New York in style, replace Boss Twill, and rule over his rightful kingdom in splendor forevermore (with Vangie at his side, though she’s not too enthused about leaving San Fran).  He needs the gold, therefore there must be a way to get at it, and then get away clean.  He just needs to figure out what that is.   Call him a proto-heister.

Vangie is opposed to the whole insane venture–she just wants Gabe to settle down with her in ‘the Paris of the West’ as she calls it (Gabe retorts that New York is the New York of the world).  She keeps thinking he’ll realize it’s a dumb idea, so she waits around for light to dawn.  He’s not what you’d call handsome, she’s actually supporting him by plying her various larcenous trades, and he keeps telling her the city she adores is a fog-covered collection of shacks compared to his majestic Manhattan, the only place any civilized being would ever want to live.  And she just keeps trudging loyally at his side, only pausing occasionally for a bout of lovemaking.

They haven’t even known each other a week.  This is the part of the story that’s hardest to understand.  But then love always is.  I’ve seen more unlikely couples on the streets of New York.  Not a lot more unlikely, mind you.

Gabe decides they need a ship to transport the gold, once they’ve swiped it, and Francis directs them to a rather woebegone sea captain name of Flagway.  He has a sad story to tell of having been shanghaied many years before, taken from his father and their apothecary shop in Baltimore as a boy, and no matter how many times he tried to get a ship back home, it always ended up going somewhere else.  He finally ended up as captain of a ship that technically belongs to the Paraguayan navy (yes, Paraguay is a landlocked country–it would take too long to explain).  But with no crew, and no money, he’s just sitting on the dock of the bay.  Watchin’ the tide roll away.  Hey, catchy!

Captain Flagway is no thief, but Gabe explains to him that the money in the mint is the property of all U.S. citizens, and they’re merely distributing it.   The captain, who has witnessed many horrible acts during his time at sea, makes it clear to Gabe that he wants to play no part in any violence.

“No, no,” Gabe said.  “you wouldn’t have to.”

“Not hold a gun,” the captain went on, “or stab anybody.”

Francis and Vangie both looked a trifle green.  Gabe, patting the air in a calming manner said, “No no, not at all.  Definitely not.”

“I couldn’t strangle anybody with my bare hands,” the captain explained earnestly.  “Or cut them apart with an ax, or bury them in wet cement, or drown them in the sewer, or—-”

Francis and Vangie kept learning farther and farther away, out of the conversation.  Gabe too was looking green by now, and his voice was somewhat loud and shrill when he said, “Nothing like that.  I promise you, Captain.  You don’t have to go on; I understand the kind of thing you’re talking about.  It won’t be anything like that at all.”

“Well, that’s good, the captain said.

Ittzy said “We just want your boat.”

“That’s fine,” the captain said.  He felt great relief.  “Then I wouldn’t have to throttle anybody or—-“

Garfield may, for all I know, have written some heist stories before this.  Maybe some western bank hold-ups or like that.  Nothing like this, I bet.  Westlake was the specialist in this area, though at the time he and Garfield were writing this, he was still learning how to make a heist funny and believable at the same time.

And he hasn’t quite figured out how to do that yet, not reliably, anyhow.  Without going into detail, I can tell you that Gabe’s hastily worked-out, extremely contrived, and inexplicably successful (Vangie is dumbfounded) theft of all the gold from the San Francisco mint, which ends with them settling down in San Francisco and selling the gold back to the government, a few ingots at a time is–well–a mite hard to swallow.  You aren’t really supposed to believe it, just go with it.  It was going to be a Hollywood comedy western, remember.  Those are not, by their nature, supposed to be realistic.

But then I think about it, and I realize that of course Hollywood didn’t buy this book–they get away with it.  They rob the U.S. mint, and nobody gets killed, and they all get rich, and live happily ever after.  Now you remember that Burt Reynolds movie I mentioned?  You know what happens in that one?  They take gold that was already stolen from the Denver mint by somebody else and put it back.   I can almost imagine Westlake’s disgusted expression as he sat in the theater, but that’s how the movies tend to do it.  You steal from bad people, or you get caught, or you get killed, or you fail to get the money, or you put the money back.  Those are the options.  That’s what Vangie (a movie heroine if ever there was one) keeps trying to tell Gabe, but Gabe somehow knows he’s in a different kind of story, and soldiers on.

And that isn’t the point, of course.  There have been two themes in the book–one is luck–good and bad.  Bad luck brought Gabe to San Francisco, but because Gabe was smart enough to get Ittzy involved, Ittzy’s weird mojo can be used to explain their remarkable Rube Goldberg-esque good fortune.  It’s a pretty threadbare explanation, but it’s there.  In future, with Dortmunder, Westlake will learn to balance good and bad luck, give with one hand and take with the other, so the karmic balance is maintained, and the story can continue.

But see, there’s another theme, and it’s the old one–identity.  Gabe saw himself as a New Yorker, born and bred, immutable in his resolve to remain a Gothamite forever.  All through the book, his only thought was to get back east.  But at the end, having come back to terra firma in a ship laden with treasure, approaching San Francisco from the west instead of the east, his attitude has changed.  He sees the potential now.  This is where the action is, so this is where Gabe Beauchamps must be.  The dude from the east is a true westerner now, heart and soul.   If they actually had a baseball team there, he’d root for them (and when that team finally showed up, guess which city they hailed from?).  His loyalties have changed.

And that’s as should be–identity has to adapt to changing circumstances.  It’s no good to think of yourself as a New Yorker if you’re not in New York.  When you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in–particularly when it comes with a girl like Vangie into the bargain.   And this, of course, is the pioneer spirit, as well as the true immigrant experience.  This is the spirit that made America, and remade it, over and over again, and may it ever be so.  Home is where the heart is.

At the end, he’s looking across San Francisco Bay at Marin County, and saying he’s going to use his gold to buy land there.  They tell him he’s crazy, nobody wants that land, you can’t get to it.  He says they’ll build a bridge someday.  Vangie and Francis say it’s impossible.   They’re young–with a bit of luck, they’ll all be around another fifty-three years or so.

So that’s the book, and I like it well enough, but Garfield was right–it was too much work for the rather light-weight results they got.  I don’t know who deserves the credit for what works, or the blame for what doesn’t, but I do know both of them were capable of much better–doesn’t mean they wasted their time.  In fact, one of the scenes in this book reminds me a lot of a much better scene in Bank Shot–with much less happy results.

Garfield was right about something else he said in that interview– “It’s a mistake to write a book with one eye on the movies—you end up with a bad book that won’t get filmed.”  Or at least a book that could have been a whole lot better.   The two writers remained fast friends, but concentrated on writing their own books, some of which became good movies (Garfield was luckier in that regard), and next week I’m actually going to do a quickie review of one of Garfield’s novels (also published by M. Evans & Co), that was turned into a film I’ve long loved–published a few years after Gangway!, in 1975.

Next up in the Westlake queue is Butcher’s Moon, you see–that’s going to be a big one, and I need some time to prepare.  And having read this book of Garfield’s, just to familiarize myself with his style, I found to my surprise that I was reading the best Richard Stark novel I’d ever encountered that was not written by Richard Stark.   In fact, it might be better than at least a few of the books that were written by Stark (but not Butcher’s Moon).  Anyway, get out some chalk, draw some numbers on the pavement, and rehearse that old schoolyard chant–

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Schlemiel! Schlimazel!
Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!

Get it?

One of Friday’s Forgotten Books.


Filed under Brian Garfield, Donald Westlake novels, Gangway!