“Hair,” Dortmunder said. This was suddenly absolutely clear in his mind. “We find a descendant with black hair, we figure out a way to get a little buncha that hair, we give it to Little Feather, and when they come to take hair for the test, she gives them Moody hair.”
Kelp said, “John, I knew you’d do it. The Moody hair matches the Moody body, and Little Feather’s in.”
“If we can find an heir,” Dortmunder said.
Irwin laughed. “This is wonderful,” he said. “The absolute accuracy of DNA testing! First, we put in a wrong body to match our wrong heiress, then we get a wrong wrong body, and now we’re gonna get the wrong wrong hair. One switched sample is gonna get compared with another switched sample. Absolutely nothing in the test is kosher.”
Kelp said, “Irwin, that’s the kind of test we like.”
Murch said, “Whoops. You wanna plan it, and organize it, and do it, all this weekend?”
“No, I don’t want to do that,” Dortmunder said, “but that’s what we got.”
“Then,” Murch said, “I don’t know we got much.”
“Well, it could be that luck is with us,” Dortmunder told him. Then he stopped and looked around at everybody and said, “I can’t believe what I just heard me say.”
Kelp said, “I’m a little taken aback myself, John.”
This novel features both a con and a heist, and the con takes up a lot more time. The heist is merely there to shore up the con, and from conception to execution occupies eight chapters in a fifty chapter book, which I think is fairly unique for the series as a whole. I have this little suspicion that Westlake thought of the heist first, decided it wasn’t quite enough of an idea to hang a novel on, but too much for a short story, and the market for novellas was just not there anymore.
So he found a way to plug it in here, thus allowing him to tell a Dortmunder story about a con while still satisfying the need for a heist. And a damned clever way at that. I could be wrong, I often am.
Not that cons, of the short variety, are anything new to Dortmunder. In the first two novels, we see him going door to door, selling encyclopedias to housewives–he shows them some brochures, they give him a down-payment, and they never see him again, or the encyclopedias ever. He doesn’t like it, and he’s not good at it, but he feels like he has to make some kind of dishonest living, and it’s relatively low-risk. After Bank Shot, he abandoned the encyclopedia thing, and if there was no big heist to plan for the moment, stuck to simple burglary, which was never as simple as he hoped.
J.C. Taylor brought a bit of the grift back to the series, via her many mail order scams, and eventually her own fake country–but always in a strictly ancillary fashion. This would be the only novel in the series to feature a classic long con. Well, classic in the Dortmunder sense of the word, put it that way. Nothing succeeds as planned.
I don’t much like any of the covers I found for this novel (except maybe the Japanese edition I put up for Part 1), and for reasons perhaps a mental health specialist will explain to me someday, often feel obliged to find other images to go with the covers. It makes sense to me, and that’s all that really matters, right?
What you see up top is a photo of the current St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council (my, don’t they look fierce!), and below that is The Kittatinny House, a rambling old pile that once overlooked the Delaware River, on what is now part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Originally only accommodating 25 guests, it ended up as a super-swanky resort hotel that could sleep 250. In its final form, it burned to the ground in 1931.
I’d never heard of it before I started doing research for this review. I’d say it’s a fair bet that Westlake knew about it, and quite a few other bits and pieces of real history (some of it relating to the odd custom of House Museums and we’ll get back to that), all of which went into this Mulligan stew of alternate history he’s cooking up here. He usually knows more than his readers, and he always knows more than he’s saying. It’s annoying. Like my propensity for prologues.
Here’s the thing. I don’t really feel like doing an in-depth synopsis of this one. No percentage in it. So I’m going to revisit my old custom of titled subheadings, and see where that gets us. Hopefully somewhere under 7,000 words. We’ll see. Let’s start out with–
The Arraignment of Redcorn:
Little Feather uncrossed her arms and said, “You don’t act like you’re my lawyer, you act like you’re the other guy’s lawyer.” She pointed to the letter she’d sent. “I am Little Feather Redcorn,” she said. “My mother was Doeface Redcorn, my grandmother was Harriet Littlefoot Redcorn, my grandfather was Bearpaw Redcorn, who was lost at sea in the United States Navy in World War Two, and they were all Pottaknobbee, and I’m Pottaknobbee. I’m Pottaknobbee all the way back to my great-grandfather Joseph Redcorn, who fell off the Empire State Building.”
At that, Dawson blinked and said, “Are you trying to make fun–”
“He was working on it, when they were building it, he was up on top with a bunch of Mohawks. My mama told me the family always believed the Mohawks pushed him, so I believe it, too.”
Where we left things last time was that Little Feather had been hauled off to the local hoosegow, at the behest of Roger Fox and Frank Oglanda, who co-manage the reservation’s casino, are stealing from it on a regular basis, and thus don’t want anybody other than themselves looking at their overcooked books. They assume Little Feather’s a fake, but they’re not taking any chances. Scare her off, before this thing mushrooms. Only thing is, as we’ve already seen, Little Feather don’t scare easy.
She’s worried, sure. Nothing like this was supposed to happen, at least not this soon. But see, in her mind, she’s not really a fake. She’s a real Indian (says her mother was a full-blooded Choctee, and no that’s not a real tribe either, though it sounds like Choctaw), who has lived exactly the life she says she has, and so what if she doesn’t really belong to this specific tribe? Her ancestors got robbed by the whites just as much as any Pottaknobbees ever did, and she grew up just as poor. She’s not lying so much as badly stretching an inconvenient truth. Entirely possible she’s got some non-native ancestry as well, but you know what she’d say to that?
The secret to a good con is confidence, hence the name. She’s got so much confidence in herself, it doesn’t matter what name she goes by. She’s still the same person down beneath. Any name she goes by isn’t her real name, just like her forebears never called themselves Indians or Native Americans. She’s going to get her split, and she’s going to have the best house on the reservation, and as God is her witness–well, that’s a different book. Possibly different God as well, opinions differ.
So even though her public defender, Marjorie Dawson, a rather frumpy woman of around the same age as herself, acts at first as if her only job is to convince Little Feather to sign a statement admitting she lied, Little Feather’s strict adherence to that lie shakes Dawson’s own assurance, and makes her start to ask herself if this woman could be telling the truth. Believe in the lie enough, and others believe it too.
Then she’s brought up before another in a line of bored curmudgeonly judges we meet in the Dortmunder books, sick of the usual run of uninspired criminals they typically encounter in their daily grind. They need a little break in the routine, which Dortmunder & Co. will provide.
Judge T. Wallace Higbee had come to realize that what it was all about was stupidity. All through law school and through his years of private practice, he had believed that the subject was the law itself, but in the last twelve years, since, at the age of fifty-seven, he had been elected to the bench, he had come to realize that all the training and all the experience came down to this: It was his task in life to acknowledge and then to punish stupidity.
Joe Doakes steals a car, drives it to his girlfriend’s house, leaves the engine running while he goes inside to have a loud argument with his girlfriend, causing a neighbor to call the police, who arrived to quiet a domestic dispute but then leaves with a car thief, who eventually appears before Judge T. Wallace Higbee, who gives him two to five in Dannemora? For what? Car theft? No; stupidity.
Bobby Doakes, high on various illegal substances, decides he’s thirsty and needs a beer, but it’s four in the morning and the convenience store is closed, so he breaks in the back door, drinks several beers, falls asleep in the storeroom, is found there in the morning, and Judge Higbee gives him four to eight for stupidity.
Jane Doakes steals a neighbor’s checkbook, kites checks at a supermarket and a drugstore, doesn’t think about putting the checkbook back until two days later, by which time the neighbor has discovered the theft and reported it and is on watch, and catches Jane in the act. Two to five for stupidity.
Maybe, Judge Higbee told himself from time to time, maybe in big cities like New York and London there are criminal masterminds, geniuses of crime, and judges forced to shake their heads in admiration at the subtlety and brilliance of the felonious behaviors described to them while handing down their sentences. Maybe. But out here in the world, the only true crime, and it just keeps being committed over and over, is stupidity.
And after giving Little Feather a thorough grilling in his courtroom, Judge Higbee is grudgingly forced to acknowledge that she may be lying, but she’s not stupid (and therefore, in his private worldview, not guilty). And after a while, he begins to wonder if it’s actually Fox and Oglanda who have been stupid–done something they need to hide, and that’s why they’re so determined to get rid of this woman.
So not only does Fox’s and Oglanda’s preemptive strike fail–it backfires. Turns out there’s a memorial plaque at the reservation headquarters for Joseph Redcorn, that the Mohawks presented the tribes with (and which the tribes have always interpreted as guilty conscience because they pushed him). Even Guilderpost’s research never turned that up, but it provides some needed verisimilitude to back up the con.
Little Feather gets released on bail (she puts up her mobile home as collateral), and her co-conspirators arrange for her to stay in touch with them discreetly, knowing she’ll be watched. It’s mostly up to her now, and they just have to wait until somebody thinks to bring up DNA testing. Then they’re all set. They think. But this is a Dortmunder novel. It’s never going to be that simple. Which brings us to–
The Un-Busy Body:
“If I was them,” Dortmunder said, “and I’m in the spot they’re in, what do I do? And I’m beginning to think I know what I do.”
Tiny said, “What you did.”
Dortmundre nodded. “That’s what I’m thinking, Tiny.”
Kelp said, “They would, wouldn’t they?”
Dortmunder and Kelp and Tiny all nodded, not happy. Guilderpost and Irwin both looked baffled. Guilderpost said, “What do you mean?”
Dortmunder said, “What did we do, to make sure the DNA was a match?”
“You put grampa in there,” Little Feather said.
“So if I’m on the other side,” Dortmunder said, “what do I do?”
“No!” Guilderpost cried. “They wouldn’t dare!”
“I bet they would,” Dortmunder said.
Back when I reviewed the second of the Westlake crime comedies, The Busy Body (also the second ‘Nephew’ book, since before Dortmunder turned up, they were one and the same), I made a connection. I said that 1966 novel’s star-crossed mobbed-up protagonist, Aloysius Engel, was clearly a Dortmunder prototype. I hold to that claim now, and present this book as evidence. Westlake is revisiting ideas from The Busy Body here, but is turning them on their heads. He knows what he did. And what he’s doing now is returning to the scene of the crime. Namely a graveyard.
The joke this time is that once Little Feather’s grandfather goes into that grave in Queens, he stays there. It’s a bit unclear what happens to Joseph Redcorn, who was clearly just born unlucky, and stayed that way after the Mohawks pushed him. Once both sides have fully lawyered up, and the subject of DNA testing is raised by the other side, as Guilderpost anticipated, Dortmunder correctly anticipates what Fox and Oglanda will do–dig up the deceased Pottaknobbee they’re afraid might really be Little Feather’s grampa, and replace him with somebody she’s definitely not related to. Guilderpost’s aggrieved moral indignation at this suggestion is rather priceless.
So what can they do about it? Little Feather isn’t supposed to have anybody backing her up here, so they can’t guard the grave without tipping their hand. They could dig up the body–again–and then put it back in there–again–after the tribes have planted their own ringer, but Dortmunder feels like if you do grave-robbing not once but three times, it’s starting to become your job, and that’s not a career path he’s particularly interested in.
Tiny comes up with the answer–switch the headstones. So Little Feather’s grampa, who was posing as Joseph Redcorn, is now posing as one Burwick Moody, buried very nearby, under a very similar marker. He died about three years after Joseph Redcorn, on December 5th 1933.
“That’s the day Prohibition ended,” Dortmunder said.
Tiny looked at him. “You know stuff like that?”
“I like it when they repeal laws,” Dortmunder explained.
Worth mentioning. My favorite exchange of the book may actually be one that happens before that, as they make the long drive back down from the Adirondacks to Queens, in a stolen Jeep (with MD plates, naturally, because Kelp). Seems the jeep has some kind of built-in electronic compass (GPS is not mentioned). Tiny brings it up. Tiny notices things.
As Dortmunder looked, the S E changed to S. He looked out at the road, and it was curving to the right. “So now it’s south,” he said.
“You got it,” Tiny told him. “Comin down, that’s what I been doing back here. Watchin the letters. A whole lotta S. A little N back there when Kelp got confused on the Sprain.
“The signage stunk,” Kelp said.
Dortmunder looked at Kelp’s profile, gleaming like a Halloween mask in the dashboard lights. “Signage,” he said. “Is that a word?”
“Not for those pitiful markers they had back there,” Kelp said.
Dortmunder decided to go back to conversation number one, and said to Tiny, “And the numbers are the temperature, right? Outside the car.”
“You got it again,” Tiny told him.
Forgetting about signage, Dortmunder said to Kelp, “Did you know about that?”
“Did I know about what?”
“Southwest,” Tiny said.
“The car here, Dortmunder explained to Kelp,” it tells you which way you’re going, south, east, whatever, and what the temperature is outside. It’s up there.”
Kelp looked up there.
“Back on the road!” Dortmunder yelled.
Kelp steered around the truck he’d been going to smash into and said, “That’s not bad, is it?” The temperature outside, and which way you’re going.”
“Very useful,” Dortmunder suggested.
“A car like this,” Kelp said, “you could take this across deserts, jungles, trackless wastes.”
“Uh-huh,” Dortmunder said. “How many of these things do you suppose have been across deserts and jungles and trackless wastes?”
“Oh, two or three,” Kelp said, and took the exit, and Tiny said “South.”
So they can just switch the stones back again after the wrong body is dug up and replaced with another wrong body. Here’s the problem. The reason Aloysius Engel failed to find the body he was supposed to find in that earlier comedy of errors is that he’s a natural-born schlemiel. It seems schlemiel-dom is not a uniquely causasian thing. Well, that’s only fair, right?
The Native Nephew:
Benny Whitefish and his cousin Geerome Sycamore, and his other cousin Herbie Antelope loaded the coffin into the rented van and shut the doors. Then Geerome went behind the tombstone and threw up.
Benny was pleased that Geerome had thrown up, because it meant there was at least one person around here who was a bigger goofus than himself, but of course, since Uncle Roger had put him in charge of this mission, he had to say, in a manly kind of fashion, “That’s okay, Geerome, it could of happened to anybody. Don’t think a thing about it.”
Benny Whitefish is an actual nephew, of Roger Fox–Westlake’s not being at all subtle about this, and most people still miss the joke, I bet. We first meet him because he’s assigned to keep an eye on Little Feather, and being a horny young guy, that’s a job he can get into. He immediately takes a liking to her, and she immediately spots him as her tail, and as somebody she can twist around her clever card-dealing finger without half-trying.
So before you know it, he’s on her side, and is speaking up for her at the Tribal Council, which theoretically is how the tribe is supposed to govern itself, except that since all the money comes from the casino, all the real power is with Fox and Oglanda.
The Tribal Council functioned mostly like a zoning board. Back in the good old days, the Tribal Council had waged war against tribal enemies, had overseen the distribution of meat after a hunt, maintained religious orthodoxy (a combination of ancestor and tree worship at that time), punished adultery and theft and treason and other high crimes and misdemeanors, arranged executions, oversaw the torturing of captured enemies, conducted the young men of the tribe through the rites of manhood, and arranged marriages (most of which worked out pretty well). These days, the Tribal Council gave out building permits.
Tommy Dog was chairman of the Tribal Council for this quarter, he being a Kiota and the chairmanship alternating every quarter between the tribes, to be fair to everybody and to distribute the power and the glory equally, and because nobody else wanted the job.
Yeah, I’ve had those kinds of jobs too. Tommy Dog has no encouragment for poor Benny, since he has no power to question Roger and Frank, who control the purse strings. Or the wampum pouch strings, I dunno. As Tommy looks back at Benny, he thinks to himself he resembles those paintings of the Defeated Indian, head hung dejectedly. This is not a very PC book, it should go without saying, but in a comic universe, you’re at a disadvantage if you’re not funny. If everybody is absurd, nobody is absurd, right? Even playing field. Except it’s not, really. Not when it comes to Benny.
He and his buddies get caught at the graveyard with what is supposed to be Joseph Redcorn’s coffin, but isn’t. This is a major plot complication, needless to say, so Benny’s pulling his weight, storywise. What happened was, the groundskeeper there figured out there was too much going on at night, people prowling around who aren’t supposed to be there, so he called the cops, and Benny’s the one got fingered. So where that leaves things is that now they’re going to test Burwick Moody’s DNA, not Little Feather’s grampa’s (which in a weird way, means Benny’s mission succeeded, only his uncle doesn’t know it, and neither does Benny).
And since the coffin has now been removed from what Fox and Oglanda were insisting was sacred tribal burial ground, by members of the tribe who (their lawyer argues) were merely trying to return a member of their community to his proper place, they can’t use that as an excuse for not testing the remains.
More on that later–what happens now is that Benny and his cousins spend the night at Riker’s Island, and they’ve have probably found the Plains Indian Sundance ritual more relaxing. (Okay, I guess you can’t really say he didn’t earn his reward, but it’s more by way of suffering than actually doing stuff.)
Here’s the thing–Benny deserved a few more chapters. He’s not developed that much. By the end of the book, he’s shacked up with Little Feather, and that’s a grand and generous reward for any sub-protagonist. But unlike the other Westlake Nephews, Benny never gets to earn The Girl, make a grand heroic gesture. He never figures out what’s what, or who’s who; never has that insightful moment of self-realization that is the very heart of Nephewdom, and that’s basically because it’s a Dortmunder book. The Dortmunders ultimately replaced the Nephews in Westlake’s comic stylings; rendered them obsolescent. It’s not about Benny.
But think how much better the Nephew of Drowned Hopes made out, and he’s a total shit. The Nephew in Dancing Aztecs (where there is no dominating central protagonist) may be a total mama’s boy, but he’s a mama’s boy who wins. Did Benny have to be such a total nebbish? Did his subplot have to be so patronizing? Couldn’t he have counted coup just once? Points deducted from your score, Mr. Westlake. You could have given him a few more chapters.
Obviously the Native American hero of this book is a heroine. And given that Dortmunder himself was born in a town called Dead Indian, and is (I believe) the living embodiment of the Indian trickster figure Coyote, you could argue he himself is partly Indian (Dortmunder is partly everything, that’s part of his appeal). More than anything else, Benny’s another Westlake commentary on how guys under the age of 30 don’t really know themselves–Westlake remembers that form of naive listless hormone-addled identity confusion all too well.
But he’s a lot less sympathetic here. Maybe because he’s old and cranky now, has increasingly less patience with the stupidity of the young (there’s a reason Judge Higbee’s voice is so strong in this book, in spite of him being a fairly minor character). Happens to the best of us. But lest you lose patience with me, maybe we better move on from Benny Whitefish.
Truth is, Dortmunder has his own problems to worry about, and they are also problems with the book itself, that must be addressed and dealt with. This book isn’t about a heist. Aren’t all Dortmunder stories supposed to be about some kind of theft? Stealing bodies isn’t the same thing. Neither is conning people. Which leads us, quite naturally, to a question–
What Color is Dortmunder’s Parachute?:
“I mean,” Dortmunder said, “why am I in this place? I’m not a con artist. I’m not a grafter. I’m a thief. There’s nothing here to steal. We’re just riding Little Feather’s coattails–never mind, Tiny, you know what I mean–and we’re horning in on somebody else’s scam, and if they don’t manage to kill us–and you know, Tiny, that’s still Plan A they’ve got over there in their minds, and you can’t walk around with a hand grenade strapped on forever, for instance, you’re not even wearing it now–what do we get out of it?”
“What Color Is Your Parachute? is about job-hunting and career-changing, but it’s also about figuring out who you are as a person and what you want out of life.”
I always hated that book. Mainly because I associated it with having to look for a job. And that’s what Dortmunder is doing, all through this book. And he feels just the same way about it. Job-hunting sucks. Particularly when you already know what your real job is, but they ask you to do something else instead.
Case in point–Dortmunder critiques Guilderpost’s professional technique, with regards to how they stay in touch with Little Feather. This leads to a disagremeent within the makeshift gang–Tiny and Kelp say that John’s the planner, the organizer–Guilderpost is most offended, says that’s his job.
Dortmunder said, “That’s not what they mean. We do different things, Fitzroy, you and me. You figure out someplace where you can make people believe something’s true that isn’t true. Make them believe you got an old Dutch land grant screws up their title to their property. Make them believe maybe there is just one more Pottaknobbee alive in the world. That’s not what I do.”
“No, of course not,” Guilderpost said, and Irwin, sounding slight snotty, said, “I’ve been wondering about that, John. What is it that you do?”
“I figure out,” Dortmunder told him, “how to go into a place where I’m not supposed to be, and come back out again, without getting caught or having anything stick to me.”
“It’s like D day,” Kelp explained, “only like, you know, smaller.”
“We also go for quieter,” Dortmunder said.
So he can, in fact, make sound practical suggestions about how they can avoid falling under the scrutiny of the law–there’s a police tail on Little Feather as well, and much more professional than Benny’s (though Benny’s the one gets invited in for coffee). But that’s more like a consultancy gig, which hardly satisfies his need to work, and neither does switching headstones, and he’s still brooding about that later on, to May, before he heads back upstate again.
He starts off on his childhood at the orphanage of the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and how they had these cereal bowls with pictures of Looney Tunes characters on the bottom, and he usually got Elmer Fudd. May is confused, wonders if he’s saying he’d like her to find some of those bowls for him to eat his cereal out of.
“No,” he said, and slowly shook his head. Then he let go of the spoon–it didn’t drop; it remained angled into the gunk–and at least he looked up at May across the kitchen table and said, “What I want, I think, is, you know what I mean, some purpose in life.”
“You don’t have a purpose in life?”
“I usually got a purpose,” he said. “Usually, I kind of know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, but look at me now.”
“I know,” she agreed. “I’ve been looking at you, John. It’s this Anastasia thing, isn’t it?”
“I mean, what am I doing here?” he demanded. Slowly, the spoon eased downward. Silently, it touched the edge of the bowl. “There’s nothing for me to do,” he complained, “except sit around and wait for other people to scheme things out, and then all of a sudden Little Feather’s supposed to give me a hundred thousand large, and guess how much I believe that one.”
And then comes the bad news–the wheels have fallen off the con. Benny Whitefish’s blundered grave robbery has undone their succcessful grave robbery. They can’t pipe up and say “Hey, that’s not Little Feather’s grampa!” without revealing how they know that. And now Dortmunder’s very specific set of skills comes into play, at last–but how? What’s the job here? The grave is being closely guarded now. They can’t switch bodies again, or headstones–Burwick Moody’s grave is open now, so even if they could sneak in and switch the stones back again, it wouldn’t work.
But as you can see up top, there’s another solution. Dortmunder’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play–if you can’t change the DNA at one end, change it at the other. All they need to do is find a descendant of Burwick Moody with the same color hair as Little Feather, get some of that hair, and her own formidable skill set, honed at many a blackjack game, will allow her to present that hair as her own, and she gets her share of the casino. If the genes match, you must attach.
(Sidebar–I don’t know how advanced genetic testing was when this story takes place–or even when exactly this story takes place. Sometime in the 90’s, definitely. At what point in time would DNA testing show not only if such and such person was a close relation of yours, but whether or not the person tested was of Native American ancestry? I feel like I’ve done enough nit-picking for one review, so let’s just assume that all the court case requires, given that nobody contests the fact that it’s Joseph Redcorn in that grave, even though it isn’t, is to verify Little Feather is related to him.)
So off goes Fitzroy Guilderpost, to comb the internet for news of Burwick Moody’s present-day descendants. He comes back to the diner they’re meeting at, with good news and bad news–yes, there is a female descendant, named Viveca Quinlan. She has black hair. She lives not far away, in Pennsylvania. But the bad news is a lulu.
See, Burwick Moody’s sister married an artist, Russell Thurbush, of the Delaware River School, and you know better than to try and look that up online, right? There’s a Hudson River School, and there’s something called ‘Pennsylvania Impressionism’ (one somehow imagines Renoir and Monet rolling their eyes), and obviously I did not know better than to try and look it up online.
Russell Thurbush got himself a reputation, sold a lot of paintings to very rich people, invested his money wisely, and built himself a huge mansion by the Delaware Water Gap, which is now a House Museum, and I told you we’d get back to that. Well see, Viveca Quinlan lives with her two daughters in said Museum, or rather a section of it set aside for her family’s personal use, while tourists get to go through the rest, looking at old things. It’s a bit like being the First Lady, except you don’t get to be on Oprah.
So that’s it, right? The house is full of very valuable objets d’art and antiques, and there’s alarm systems, and guards, and all of that. No possible way to get in there and nab a few follicles from her hairbrush. Good idea, John, but forget it. Hey, why are you smiling? “At last,” Dortmunder said, “A job for me.” Because that’s what color his parachute is.
So that chapter leads to seven additional chapters of heist planning and executing, and it’s a pretty good heist, that goes amazingly smoothly, thanks to a blizzard, which is pretty funny, considering that I’m finishing and posting this review on Tuesday, March 14th (finally, an excuse to focus on the job they don’t pay me for). I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of it, read the book. Stan Murch gets dragooned into it, and there’s some great moments with him, and with his mom, and the usual hijinks at the OJ Bar and Grill, and I could do a section on all of that, but I’m almost to 5,000 words now, so maybe not.
What I do want to talk about is what you might call a bonus identity puzzle Mr. Westlake sneaks in here, Lagniappe upon Lagniappe You remember how Dortmunder rescued that nun quite literally imprisoned in an office tower serving as a metaphorical medieval castle? Well, there’s yet another imprisoned woman in this book. Her imprisonment is purely psychological in nature, but the castle itself is quite real, if more along Victorian lines, architecturally speaking. Dortmunder rescues her without ever knowing it. But somebody knows, and that leads us to–
The Mendaciously Majestic Munificence of Murch’s Mom ( AKA, Are you there, God? It’s me, ‘Margaret.’):
“There was a rustling sound downstairs,” Viveca said.
“Didn’t hear it,” Margaret said.
Viveca leaned close and dropped her voice. “It’s mice,” she confided.
Margaret looked interested. “Oh yeah?”
“In the winter,” Viveca said, “there’s just no way to keep them out, since there’s nobody ever down there.”
“Huh.” Margaret said. “Tell me about this husband of yours.”
“Be as frank as you want,” Margaret said, but then she shook her head and patted the air and said, “No, just a joke, I get it, the name is Frank. And Frank said he was leaving the house, not you.”
“Yes. And I know it’s true.”
“You want him back, you feel like shit, you–whoops, sorry, you really feel terrible all the time, and you can’t control your daughters because you don’t feel good enough about yourself, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. Have I got the story here?”
“Yes,” Viveca said. She felt humble in the presence of this wise older woman.
“Okay,” the wise older woman said, “I tell you what you do. Tomorrow, when you get your phone back, you call this Frank. You tell him, ‘Honey, rent a truck and come get us, all of us, we’re blowin this mausoleum.'”
“Oh dear,” Viveca said. “I don’t know, Margaret.”
“What you tell him is,” Margaret insisted, “this separation is over. Come on, Frank, rent a truck or hire a lawyer, because we’re either gettin back together or we’re gettin a divorce.”
You ever think about the people who live in house museums? Now most of them probably chose to do so–I used to work with a guy who got free rent that way for a while, he just had to be there during museum hours to let people in, and the rest of the time it was just him and Mr. Poe. Or was that a different house museum, I forget. The stories get jumbled together over time.
But imagine it’s your family’s house, or used to be–your famous ancestor’s legacy to posterity, and you’re supposed to safeguard it, but mainly that’s down to other people now, and you’re just a ghost yourself now, living in a house that isn’t really a home anymore?
That’s the situation Viveca Quinlan, last surviving adult relation of Burwick Moody and Russell Thurbush is, on the night of the blizzard, when Dortmunder & Co. arrive to do a bit of quiet thievery of the valuables downstairs, while Murch’s Mom (real name Gladys), posing as a traveler stranded in the snow, keeps everyone occupied, and obtains the needed hair sample from the bathroom, easy as pie.
And she needs to give the boys some time to browse through the gift shop, if you know what I mean, so she and Viveca and Viveca’s girls and the security guard all play Uno together, for hours, and there’s plenty of time in-between to talk, and she’s the type you just know you can confide in, and Viveca has been so lonely, as ghosts in decaying isolated Victorian piles tend to be, you’ve read the stories. This story involves a husband who decided he didn’t feel like being a ghost, and went back to New York to practice law, and there’s another woman, to which ‘Margaret’ merely says “Men.”
And obviously Murch’s Mom’s only real mission statement is to make sure nobody finds out there was ever a burglary going on there, but there’s more to her than that–we found that out in Drowned Hopes, same time we found out what her real first name was. So even while she’s hiding who she really is, she’s still showing her true colors. Anyway, just like her boy, she’s a born know-it-all, lives to hand out advice. Stan will start pontificating on the best route to take on the New York City thoroughfares at the drop of a hat. She’s giving a somewhat different type of navigational assistance here. Anybody can hit a dead-end. You just turn around and get back on the main road.
So by the time she’s ready to go, she’s saved a marriage, and possibly as many as four lives, and she never bothers to tell anybody about it, except to say she thinks maybe she did some good in there, when she gets picked up by the stolen snowplow they’re using for the heist. Stan just takes to mean they all made out like bandits, which is fine with her as well. Exeunt ‘Margaret.’
The narrator informs us that Viveca and her girls moved into her husband’s apartment two days later. When the volunteers returned in the spring, when the museum reopened, and noticed a few items missing here and there, they assumed Viveca had just taken them with her as keepsakes, or they’d been sold off by the foundation that runs the mansion, and so they said nothing about it to anybody, because it was none of their business.
(The stolen items end up with Arnie Albright, the fecklessly offensive fence, who gets his own minor subplot here, and who will take some time unloading the loot, but the gang will see a nice bit of cash. Eventually. Someday.)
The omniscient deity of this universe concludes the chapter, with great satisfaction–At last, the perfect crime. He might as well have added, I’m here, ‘Margaret.’
And that leave us nothing but–
A not entirely satisfactory conclusion, except for Benny Whitefish (lucky horse):
The DNA test proves beyond any doubt that Viveca Quinlan is related to Burwick Moody, though that’s not what the court decision will say. Roger and Frank have a little discussion about what will happen to to them once the tribes find out they’ve been cheated of tens of millions of dollars, and the general consensus is they’d be lucky to just get lynched on a street corner–if the mob goes with the traditional punishments, things could get really unpleasant.
Before that happens, however, there’s a cross to deal with. Dortmunder knew from the start that Fitzroy and Irwin wouldn’t be willing to pony up their hundred large apiece. There may be honor among thieves, but not among grifters–Jim Thompson could tell you that (Lawrence Block is a bit more on the fence about it).
But see, a grifter has to know his or her limitations–you’re supposed to win with the tools of your trade, namely lies. Not with guns, which is what Fitzroy and Irwin try–they figure they can follow Stan back to where the gang is dividing up the loot from their heist, surprise them, take them out hard with the Glock machine pistols they’ve acquired (mainly for Tiny’s sake, one assumes), and then they just need to make sure Little Feather doesn’t develop selective amnesia, like the real fake Anastasia.
And when the dust has settled RosenGabel and Guilderpost (I’m starting to lose count of how many ways Westlake found to reference that famed Shakespearean duo who thought they were the leads, and ended up relegated to a mere Stoppard play) are not dead, but they have been disarmed, and exiled, and frightened out of their wits, and left in a very poor position to ever make any claims on Little Feather’s good fortunes. One can’t really say they learned their lesson, but they still end up in detention.
As to the other nefarious duo in this book, it comes down to one last identity puzzle. Roger knows he’s a thief, and thieves have exit strategies–his is an offshore account in the Turks and Caicos Islands. He’s going to take the money and run. Frank says he can’t do that, his family is here, his home is here. He never really processed what he’d become, so he stays, and burns the books that prove he’s a thief.
And you remember Mr. Westlake had mentioned, in several previous stories, how casinos like to pump a bit of extra oxygen in there, to keep the suckers, I mean customers, lively and active and ready to lose more money at the tables? Well, turns out Silver Chasm Indian casino does that too. By the time Frank has finished rolling around in the snow outside, to put out his burning clothes, the casino is gone. With the wind.
So a while later, Little Feather comes downstate in her mobile home, which Kelp thoughtfully helps her hook up to the city power supply, and they all meet there one last time, to hear the bad news. There’s no casino. It will take a decade or more to get the money to rebuild it. She’s accepted as the last Pottaknobbee, the tribes will take care of her, she’s found a home of sorts (and does this mean she now has to spend a third of the year chairing the Tribal Council? Those meetings are going to get a lot more interesting).
So no hundred g’s apiece for the gang. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Benny Whitefish is now her official protector, and he’s brought in briefly, still not quite able to process his good fortune. And since he’s in the next room in a mobile home while she’s telling them the bad news, I’m going to assume he’s Nephew enough for Little Feather to have told him the whole unfiltered truth about who she is, and Nephew enough not to give a damn, as long as he gets to see her naked. Attaboy.
So that’s the first of the Final Five. It may well be, as Greg Tulonen thinks, the best of them as well. I’ll decide that as I work my way through the next four. I may have found any number of little flaws in it, but Westlake put so much into even his most ill-conceived efforts (which this is not), that it feels churlish to cavil and complain about that. Lagniappe isn’t about getting the very best. Lagniappe is about getting something extra.
And what we’ll be getting next time will be the last of my “Mr Westlake and (fill in name of decade here)” pieces. Because as I see it, this here is the last of his 90’s novels, whether it was written in ’99 or ’00. The next book in our queue was published in 2002, and it’s also a heist story–but not with Dortmunder. Or Parker. Or even Grofield. A new beginning, you might say. Cue Lord Tennyson. Yeah, I’ll explain that. Later. After we’ve dug ourselves out. Stan, could you loan us that snowplow? Aw c’mon, just for Lagniappe.
(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)