Tag Archives: Curt Clark

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4

McGinnis-art-3

hong-kong-day-panorama

Bennett went over to stand beside Curtis and study the plans. God, it was good to be back in construction again! To be standing in a site office, shoulder to shoulder with the boss, looking over the plans. This, Bennett thought, is where I’ve been supposed to be, lo, these many years.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Looking at the plans, Curtis said, “We don’t have as much time as I’d hoped, Colin.”

“No, sir.”

“Them being here in Hong Kong, and in one of the tunnels, suggests they know far too much.”

“It’s that Mark Hennessy, sir,” Bennett said, meaning, there’s a bad employee, and here, sir, right here at your side, is a good employee.

Curtis said, “I suppose part of it is Mark, but not all of it, he didn’t know that much. I think it’s mostly George Manville, figuring things out. Why I didn’t get rid of him when I had my hands on him I’ll never know.”

“You thought he could still help you, sir.”

“Well, I was wrong about that,” Curtis said. “But it isn’t going to stop us, Colin.”

Us. “No, sir!”

It might be interesting, in fact, to stay here in Hong Kong, particularly if they didn’t after all manage to thwart Curtis. To stay at the Peninsula—switching to a Hong Kong view room, of course—to sit in a comfortable chair by the window, and to watch the towers across the way begin to tremble, to shudder, then to fall to their knees, window panes snapping out into the air like frightened hawks, walls dropping away, floors tilting, desks and filing cabinets and people sliding out into the world, then to feel the power ripple in this direction across the harbor, to see it come like a ghost in the water, to feel it tug at the landfill on this side, the buildings swaying, the yachts and junks and huge cargo ships all foundering and failing and staring with one last despairing gaze at the sky, then the harbor boiling, this very building bending down to kiss the sea…

What a spectacular sight. Who would want to look at anything else after that?

One of the things I’ve had to chronicle, as I’ve worked my way from 1960 to the present day, has been the decreasing diversity and quality of cover art for Mr. Westlake’s various efforts.  (Though Richard Stark, as ever, remains the outlier, and I’ll have the covers to prove it in the coming weeks.)

Hard Case Crime, which published this book, is one component in a much larger media corporation, headquartered in the U.K., so the American and British covers are identical.  If there are different covers for any foreign language editions thus far, they have eluded me.  As of the present time, I don’t believe that’s the case (translations take time).  So was I going to just keep posting the same cover image, four times in a row?

Then it occurred to me–wouldn’t Hard Case Crime have commissioned a few alternate takes, before settling on one? Charles Ardai confirmed they had considered a different cover, and his email came with an attachment.  When making the inquiry, I figured the most I’d get would be a somewhat different preliminary sketch from Paul Mann, who did the cover you’ve already seen, but Ardai said Mann nailed it the first time, so no need for a second.

Instead, I got what you see up top, and that’s from none other than Robert E. McGinnis.  Yowzah.

There could be no more obvious choice to illustrate a Westlake novel based on an idea for a Bond flick that never happened than the man of a thousand (or more) gorgeously lurid paperbacks.  McGinnis also provided iconic poster art for 007 back in the 60’s, and to make it even more perfect, he did some of his best work for the six Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels–including their reprint of The Hunter, (entitled Point Blank, because of the film version just coming out), where Parker looks like Sean Connery, and doesn’t resemble Lee Marvin a whit.

(Also, I’m pretty sure Westlake put a fondly irreverent caricature of McGinnis in Nobody’s Perfect.  And McGinnis seems to have depicted himself as Parker in his cover for The Black Ice Score.)

So this is what McGinnis came up with, when approached.  And it’s breathtaking.  It evokes the villain’s plan memorably, as well as one of the heroes of the piece.  And I can see why they still went with Mann. (McGinnis’s art won’t go to waste; it will be used for some other Hard Case offering, in the next year or two.)

His nifty noirish style has held up beautifully (as two recent art books featuring his work can attest).  His technique (at 91 years of age!) can hardly be improved upon.  And his take on the female protagonist here–well……..

Kim Baldur is not some pale protein-deficient red-headed art model in heels.  Nor would she be wearing a pink bikini, let alone green mascara.  At any time in her life, but least of all when Hong Kong is about to be turned into a malodorous mire.  She’s going to be the one upon whom it falls in the end to prevent this, and she should be dressed for the occasion, no?  And she should probably eat something first.  Though not too soon before she goes in the water.  Like cramps are her primary concern there.

Also, there are no exploding helicopters or hungry sharks in the book, nor does George ever get his hands on an assault rifle, but that’s quibbling.  Mann’s cover has Kim boldly brandishing a sidearm, when the only weapon she ever employs is a can of hairspray, and that’s quibbling too.  One’s license to kill may never come through, no matter how many applications you fill out, but artistic license is a thing.

So how much license do we grant Westlake here?  Obviously this isn’t meant as an exercise in gritty realism.  Nor is it meant to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Somewhere in-between.  Taking the kind of story where the hero is a smug sexy secret agent, and the villain is trying to take over the world from his secret base on an island or inside a volcano or whatever–and recast it.  Re-imagine it.

The heroes (plural) are still attractive enough, but one is a duly diligent engineering wonk, another an earnestly impulsive eco-warrior of a girl, and the third is not merely gay, but German!

The villain is an arrogant billionaire, and that’s nothing new, but he’s wealthy on paper only.  In debt up to his deceptively bland eyeballs, caught in a trap of his own making, and not at all interested in conquering the world.  He merely wants to retain his current standing in that world, maybe improve it a tad.

But to do this, he has to pull off a stupendous (and murderous) caper,  taking most of the gold reserves from the Bank of China, then destroying all evidence of his crime, by obliterating most of the city of Hong Kong.  The same city the People’s Republic unceremoniously evicted him from, not long after they took charge there, so let’s just say that there’s a certain synergistic aspect.  Well, it was the Chinese who said that Crisis = Opportunity, right?

And in the process of dealing with certain complications that sprang up along the way, he’s hired a disgraced ex-employee of his, a hulking man-monster of a Singaporean, to deal with those complications, with extreme prejudice.   He’s got other henchmen as well, but keeps faith only with himself.  He expects none of the others, heroes or henchmen, to make it to the end of the movie.  But he fully expects to be there at the end, the last man standing, and he gets his way. Spoiler alert? If you don’t want to know, better stop reading now.

The final part of this novel is the shortest,  15 chapters.   Westlake has been paring away at the cast to make this possible (some posthumous paring from Ardai as well).

The guilt-ridden Captain Zhang is dead.  The murderous Morgan Pallifer is dead.  The well-meaning but tunnel-visioned Jerry Diedrich is dead.  Colin Bennett’s arc effectively concluded in Part Three, and now he’s just Curtis’s servitor–in his creator’s mind, he might as well be dead.  Inspector Fairchild, though making himself useful here and there, isn’t going to be solving any mysteries, or making any arrests. The once intrepid Mark Hennessy is soon to be reduced to a shadow of his former spying self.  A new POV character is introduced, then even more abruptly taken out of play.

One key figure after another has fallen by the wayside in this story, until there are only–

FOUR:

Martin Ha lived on a comparatively quiet side street in the middle-class neighborhood called Hung Horn, southeast of Chatham Road, an area heavily populated by the city’s Chinese civil servants, in which group, dressed for his commute, he seemed barely likely to belong. Mounted on his bicycle, teetering slightly as he made the turn onto Ma Tau Wai Road, this slender knobby-kneed serious-expressioned man of about 40 looked as though he might be a rickshaw driver on his day off. He didn’t look like anybody important at all.

Ha rode his bike down Ma Tau Wai Road and right onto Wuhu Street and then left onto Gilles Avenue, all the while ignoring the usual press of traffic that raced and squealed and struggled all around him, the other bicyclists, the hurrying pedestrians, the taxis and trucks and double-decker buses and even, though this was off their normal grounds, the occasional bewildered tourist. Gilles Avenue led him at last to the new Hung Horn ferry pier. Until just a few years ago, where he now stood had been Hung Horn Bay, next to the main railway terminal, but the bay had been filled in just recently, to make more precious land, on which had been built the opulent new Harbour Plaza Hotel, five minutes from the railroad terminal and even closer to the ferry pier.

The ferry ran every ten minutes or so, and took only fifteen minutes to cross the harbor, and this was what Martin Ha loved. The view from the ferry. Out in front of him, across the sparkling water, Hong Kong Island gleamed and blazed in the sunshine, its glittering towers bunched together like the crowded upraised lancetips of some buried army. Behind him, almost as huge, almost as modern, almost as gleaming and sleek and new, clustered Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland extension, the gateway to China. In the old days, you could take the train from that railway terminal beside the ferry dock on Kowloon and travel all the way across Czarist Russia and all of Europe to Calais in France, and then board one more ferry, and be in England. The jet plane had changed all that, of course, but the sense of it was still there, the ribbon that tied two worlds together.

The opening of Part Four serves several purposes–first to introduce us to Martin Ha, a Hong Kong police inspector, who bicycles to the ferry every morning, looking like some minor bureaucrat, which is pretty much how he sees himself. He will be informed over the phone by a fellow officer in Singapore that there are some people who have just arrived in his town, with a story he needs to hear. A story that may alarm him somewhat, he is cautioned, and he finds himself hoping it is something out of the ordinary–he could do with some excitement.

It also introduces us to Hong Kong itself, which matters because we need to be reminded this is not merely an idea of a city–this is one of the world’s great gathering points, a hub of commerce and trade, the home and workplace of millions of people–and much of it used to be ocean.  And might be again.

Then it shows us Ha thinking to himself about his city, how much he understands of the world he lives in–and how little–we all take the stability of our daily existence a bit too much for granted at times. No matter how many times Life warns us not to do that.

The surprising thing, Ha thought, as he sat in the air-conditioned back of his official Vauxhall, feeling the slight forward tug of the Star Ferry taking him back across to Kowloon, was how little the city had changed. Everyone had thought the transition from British rule to Chinese rule would be fraught with problems, particularly political and social problems, everything but economic problems, but everyone as usual had been wrong.

In hindsight, it was easy to see why. For one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong had been ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, London. Then, for just a few years, there was an attempt to paste a democratic smile on this autocratic face, but the instant the pressure was released the smile fell off, and now Hong Kong was once again ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, Beijing. Nothing had changed.

Except, of course, for some of the gweilos living in Hong Kong, the expats as they called themselves, the Europeans and Americans, but mostly the British, who had done well by serving the far-off capital of London but couldn’t be expected to receive the same opportunity to batten off the far-off capital of Beijing.

The ones who belonged to the working class, the barmaids and jockeys and interior decorators, mostly took it in good part, vanished when their work permits expired—or shortly after, when they were found to be still on the premises—and were presumably now living much the same lives in Singapore or Macao or Manila or half a dozen other neon-lit centers of the Pacific Rim.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few Richard Curtises had also found the world shifting beneath their feet. The homes they’d enjoyed for so many years up on the Peaks, the steep hills in the middle of Hong Kong Island, behind and south of the main financial districts, they’d sold off to their Chinese counterparts, entrepreneurs who now made their comfortable livings in exactly the same way the Curtises used to do. Those who’d left had sold those mansions on the Peak before the real estate crash; not bad. And if they hadn’t gotten quite as much in the sale as they’d have liked, well, how much money did any one rich person really need?

(To which many a rich person would respond “How much is there?”  That’s how they got rich in the first place.)

But Martin Ha finds it hard to believe this Curtis, who he remembers well as a ‘corner-cutter,’ could really have such a profound grudge against Hong Kong, or that he’d risk everything on some crazy scheme to steal tons of gold from one of the most powerful nations on earth, to cover some bad debts.  (Might as well imagine he’d run for President of the United States.)

So he has lunch with these people, at a world class restaurant in Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotel (where we are briefly told that George and Kim have happily renewed their sexual relationship, and that’s the very last bit of sex you’ll get in this perhaps over-prim Bond pastiche).

He’s hoping to hear a diverting tale, but for all his calm complacency, he’s a thoroughgoing professional, and no fool.  He can tell they’re not hysterics, or cranks, and one of them is a police inspector from Australia, another the somber son of a wealthy German (not known for histrionics, okay one exception, but he was Austrian).

And one is an engineer, who keeps talking about something called a soliton.  And about the solid ground beneath them, which is not solid at all, and only recently ground.

Inspector Ha nodded at the windows. “Hong Kong Island has been added to and added to. The island used to end far back at Queens Road. Just about everything you’re looking at on the flats is reclaimed land.” They all looked at the gleaming towers, and Kim remembered the great bruise of water thundering at her from Kanowit. She suddenly felt cold.

George said, very quietly, “Inspector, you’re using the wrong word.”

“What word?” “Reclaimed,” George said. “Everyone likes to talk about reclaimed land. ‘The new airport is on reclaimed land.’ It’s a wonderfully solid word, but it is a distraction.”

Ha said, “From what?”

“The Dutch reclaim land,” George said. “They build dikes, and force the sea back, and the lands they find are called polders. They’re solid and real, the same lands they always were except they used to have water on them.”

He waved a hand toward the window. “That isn’t reclaimed. It’s landfill.”

Inspector Ha said, “Reclaimed is more…dignified.”

“But landfill is what it is,” George insisted. “Inherently unstable, never quite solid. And now I suppose you’ll tell me there are tunnels under there.”

Of course there are.  They are used for air conditioning in this very hot climate.  The landfill section of Hong Kong, which is most of Hong Kong, is networked with tunnels.  Many of which go right past underground bank vaults filled with gold ingots–also constructed in landfill.  Fifty feet under the surface of what isn’t really solid ground.

But for the soliton to work, these tunnels would have to be connected to each other, as they are presently not–and how might this be done?  By construction crews, working quietly beneath the surface of the city, using one of Hong Kong’s many active construction sites as a front.  And what business is Richard Curtis in?  And in what city did he formerly practice that profession?

What truly alarms Inspector Ha is Luther’s mention of Jackie Tian, a man he knows to be midway between a union bigwig and a gangster–a man of few scruples, who would know basically every qualified worker in town who might be persuaded to engage in such a nefarious venture, could easily arrange for such a project to be undertaken without arousing suspicion.  He informs his luncheon hosts that they have succeeded in alarming him.

Luther Rickendorf, the self-exiled gay scion of a wealthy old German family, has been a somewhat neglected character in the previous three sections of this novel.  He’s made his voice heard throughout, but he rarely speaks when he doesn’t have something significant to say.  He’s been happy to live in the shadow of his more outgoing American lover.  But now the shadow is alone, and wondering what to do with himself.

For Luther, the last few days had been muffled, without resonance, like a pistol shot in a padded room. Or as though his brain and all his senses were in that padded room. Nothing came through to him with much impact or clarity. It was as though he watched the world now on a television monitor, listened to it through a not-very-good sound system.

He still went through the motions. He thought about the problem of Richard Curtis, he took care of his own needs, he responded quite normally to Kim and George and the others, but it was all simple momentum, nothing else. He went through these motions because there was no way to stop them, short of death, and he didn’t much feel like death right now; it would simply be the state he was already in, intensified.

He supposed he grieved for Jerry, but even that was muffled. He couldn’t find in himself much enthusiasm for revenge or justice, though he continued to trudge along with the others in Curtis’s wake. What he was realizing, and even that slowly and without much force, was that in grieving for Jerry he was grieving for a part of himself. Jerry had been his id, the outward expression of all those emotions and instant reactions that Luther had never quite managed to feel or express on his own. Without Jerry, he was merely the cool and amiable somnambulist he used to be, but now with the added memory of there having been once a Jerry.

(That’s also Luther, in the second quote up top, half-wishing he could be there to see the destruction of Hong Kong, the fall of its towers. Maybe he should try moving to lower Manhattan.)

Jerry Diedrich’s reaction to the loss of the man he’d loved before Luther was to lose himself in grief, bitterness, and retribution, leading ultimately to his own destruction (though it must be said, if he hadn’t pursued his grudge with such stubborn fervor, Curtis would be facing no opposition at all now).

Luther, you should pardon the expression, is not such a drama queen.  He processes his feelings more quietly, less directly.  It seems to run in the family, this emotional stolidity.  His father, upon learning his tall blonde athletic son was attracted to men, expressed no anger, no disappointment–he simply indicated he would prefer Luther live out his alternative life away from Germany, has been willing to supply the funds to make this possible.  (It is, in fact, Rickendorf pater who is shouldering much of the bill for Luther and his friends to stay in Hong Kong, in some considerable comfort).  Luther has no strong feelings about any of that, either.  Or is it that he keeps his anger locked away against the day he’ll need it?

Inspector Ha arranges for them to tour the tunnels, and Luther lags behind, still in something of a fugue state, thinking about how he and Jerry will not be spending eternity together in his  family’s ancestral burial vault, as he’d once allowed himself to imagine.  He hears something.  He looks around, curious.  Then he looks up–and Colin Bennett drops down on him, swiftly renders him unconscious, drags him away.

Just bad timing, is all.  Bennett, attending to his duties, got caught by surprise when the tour group came through, concealed himself overhead, had to neutralize Luther once he was detected.  Curtis is angry at the foul-up.  Now he knows for sure Manville is alive, and has come to stop him, and Rickendorf’s disappearance will make Manville’s story all the more believable–but it can’t be helped.  And he can always use another worker to dig in the tunnels.  He wants this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Next chapter is from Mark Hennessy’s POV, and it is not a happy one.  Curtis found out he was Diedrich’s mole.  Instead of just firing Mark, blackballing him as he’d once done to Bennett, Curtis decided to take a more satisfying revenge–and get yet another worker for his tunnels.

I’ve been informed by Greg Tulonen that some of Mark’s development got cut out of the published book, but all I can say to what I’ve read is that I don’t find his transition satisfactory.  He’s been spying on his employer, and doing a good job of it.  He’s been told Curtis is planning something terrible, by people he trusts.  He knows Jerry Diedrich has disappeared, and what’s more, his disappearance is directly linked to a man Mark knows to be in Curtis’s employ, a man who has been trying to learn the identity of the spy.

Luther had begged him over the phone to come talk to the Singapore police, back up the story he and the others are telling, and he refused to even give that very honorable man permission to tell the police his name.   To out him, in effect.

That all being said, it’s very hard to believe somebody smart enough to do what he’s been doing for years, right under Curtis’s nose, is dumb enough not to smell a rat when Curtis abruptly says he wants Mark to come along on a business trip with him.  He decides he’s done his bit for the environment, for his friends, and now it’s time to focus on his career.  His career is about to take an unexpected turn.

He was in the cabin only a minute or two, laying out his possessions on the top bunk, deciding he’d sleep on the lower, when there was a sharp rap at the door. Expecting Curtis, he crossed to pull the door open, and the man from that day in Curtis’s office shouldered in, shoving the door out of the way, punching Mark very hard in the stomach.

Reeling, doubled over, bile in his throat, Mark felt panic and blank astonishment. The man he’d delivered the money for, the one who’d been following Jerry and Luther, who’d done something to Jerry, was here! In this room, shutting the door behind himself. And when Mark stared upward at him, mouth strained open, air all shoved out of him, the man punched him in the face.

Oh, Luther, tell them! Tell the police, force me to change my mind, convince me, make me stay in Singapore and tell the police what I know, make me stay, anywhere but here! Luther, let me not be here!

(Mind you, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that smart/stupid in this world.  Thinking they can play both sides, leaking things to the press, let’s say, while still defending their master in public, collecting their paychecks, padding their résumés, praying there isn’t a Colin Bennett in their future, or just assuming nothing like that could ever happen to them, that’s just in stories.  And history books.  I’m just saying Mark needed a bit more fleshing out for this twist to work.  I don’t know if he got it in the original manuscript, but he doesn’t here.)

Bennett takes Mark to Curtis, who casually remarks that since Mark’s spying cost him some time, he surely wouldn’t mind helping to make up for that by doing a bit of honest labor.  Every time Mark objects, Bennett hits him.  Hard.  He stops objecting.

What follows, once they get him into the tunnels, is a subterranean hellscape, rather like the one experienced by Rolf Malone in Anarchaos, after he was sold as a slave and sent to be worked to death in a mine.  He is beaten mercilessly, fed minimally, allowed little rest, and in no time at all the man he was before crumbles away to nothing, his will broken.  He doesn’t even known if it’s day or night up above.  Well, that’s one way to learn how the other half lives.

What our heroes have to learn is which construction site–out of dozens now active in Hong Kong–is being used to infiltrate the tunnels.  It would take too long to find out which is a dummy corporation.   They’re so dug in now that searching the known tunnels for subtle alterations would likewise take too long.

Manville has a hunch–he remembers Curtis’s story about how the Hong Kong construction firm he took over with his wife’s help was originally called Hoklo Construction–Hoklos being pirates who escaped punishment and achieved respectability by blending into society, once they’d made their pile.  Anybody could be a pirate, hiding in plain sight, was the point.  (I’m sure Westlake read or heard about this somewhere, but I think there’s a whole lot of people who’d object to this characterization.)

Inspector Ha makes a call, and no, there’s no Hoklo Construction, nothing that obvious–but there is a company called Xian Bing Shu–which means ‘rat pie.’  I’m not quite sure whose expense that’s supposed to be at, but it’ll do as a hint.

(Very Long Sidebar: Let me point out one gaping Hong Kong sized plot hole now, and get it out of the way.  Both sides in this struggle seem to be of the opinion that if Curtis pulls off his coup, there’ll be no one left in the world who knows about what Curtis did.  They’ll all be be entombed in mud and rubble, and no fingers will be pointing at Curtis from any direction, and he’ll be safe as houses.

Curtis is seen thinking to himself that he will gradually transform the gold reserves he steals into ‘impulses in cyberspace.’  So there is a well-developed internet.  We know there are cellphones, rarely as they are mentioned.  And the telephone is mentioned quite frequently, as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Ha and Tony Fairchild are high-ranking police officers with easy access to those higher up in the chain of command.   It is hard to imagine that a few calls have not been made to various concerned parties, in Beijing, Australia, and elsewhere.  Maybe emails.  If this story took place in the 19th century, there’d still be time to send a telegram, or a even a goddam letter.

And, lest we forget, there’s Wai Fung, an inspector of equivalent rank in Singapore, who heard the entire story from Manville and the others, referred it to Ha’s attention, and is still in Singapore, immune from Curtis’s machinations.  He was skeptical, but he wouldn’t be once he saw the news footage.

Andre Brevizin, the eminent Brisbane attorney, came to Hong Kong with Manville and the others in Westlake’s surviving draft, but he seems a thorough sort of person, who leaves notes and things–and in this edited down version of the story, he’s still back in Brisbane.

Let’s acknowledge that Curtis is not in an entirely rational frame of mind here, and doesn’t know how many people Manville has talked to.  Let’s acknowledge that there is no absolute proof Curtis intends to destroy every acre of Hong Kong built on landfill, although if he doesn’t, he’s got to split the loot with a lot of other people, any one of whom might someday spill the beans on him.

Let’s acknowledge that it would be impossible to evacuate an island city in the time they have left, that mass panic would ensue were they to publicly announce what they’ve learned, and that Beijing’s reaction to the news might be problematic.  Let’s also acknowledge that nobody in the story has a lot of time to weigh their actions, which is very much by the author’s design.

And acknowledging all that, I think this aspect of the story needed a lot more work, and that Curtis would have to be stark raving to think he’s going to get away with this–I mean, even if they can’t prove a thing, doesn’t Beijing have a few assassins on the payroll?  Curtis doesn’t seem to be that particular kind of crazy.

And let’s finally remind ourselves that Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is today seen by many as the best-written Bond novel, and at the time it came out, none other than Noel Coward found it less outlandish than the previous two, which he admitted wasn’t saying very much.  One must always make some allowances for the literary form being employed.  Back to the story at hand, still bloody gripping for all my cavils.)

Things start happening very quickly now.   Inspector Ha surrounds the fake construction site, demands the workmen open the gate, or he’ll knock it down.   The workmen respond by opening fire, and one of the first to die is Inspector Ha.  He never liked gunplay, and his prejudice was well-founded.  But the point being made is that when  you’re going to arrest a group of men who are in the process of stealing billions in gold from a powerful and ruthless totalitarian government with some truly horrible prisons, best not expect them to come along quietly.  We say farewell to Inspector Ha, a better man perhaps than his world deserves.  (We could use you in America right now, Inspector.)

Curtis is now on a boat in the harbor, waiting for a small remote-controlled cargo submarine to deliver him his pirate gold (I would assume he got this very Bondian gadget from the same place real-life drug lords do).  In touch with Bennett, he gives the order to go ahead with the operation, get the gold to him, then get out of the immediate area before the soliton hits.  They’ll meet up later to divide the spoils.  (The men all think, remember, that it’s only going to obliterate a small area.  In reality, Curtis will be the sole surviving heister.  George Uhl would be envious.)

And that would be game over, were it not for the fact that Luther Rickendorf’s legendary patience has finally run out.  And the berserker within him is finally released.

It was when the man hit Luther on the back of the head with a fist-size stone, when he felt the pain and a runnel of blood trickling down his neck, that he finally snapped out of the stupor he’d been in ever since Bennett had dropped on top of him in the water tunnel. He turned to look at the man who’d hit him, a short compact pugnacious Chinese, who gestured angrily at the pile of rubble in front of them, making it clear Luther was working too slowly. The man tossed the bloodied stone into the tram and glared at Luther, hands on hips. Luther lifted the shovel, turned, and hit him in the face with it.

That time he used the flat of the shovel, but in the melee that followed he used the edge; it made a very adequate lance, producing quite satisfactory gashes in arms and foreheads.

He somehow fights his way outside, bullets flying everywhere.  He gets to the bulldozer blocking the gate, and much like Manville with the pistol safety in Part One, extrapolates from past experience working with snowplows at ski resorts.  He gets the big machine going, smashing through the gate, then smashing into a bus–but the cops are in, and they’re pretty mad now.  These are somewhat shady hardhats, not seasoned heistmen (seasoned heistmen would have either run away or given up when the cops came knocking).  They don’t hold out very long.

But the submarine is out of the tunnel, into the harbor, under Curtis’s control, as he heads for open ocean  He’s still listening on the phone he told Bennett to leave off the hook when the police smash into his operations room and take Bennett prisoner.  He knows Manville is there, but he assumes it’s too late to stop the charges which have already been set–on a timer.  Like last time  With no failsafe.  Like last time.  And the charges are all under water.

There is confusion in the ranks, because the now-ranking officer on the scene was not told by the cautious Inspector Ha what they were trying to prevent here.  Between Fairchild’s experience with policemen, and Manville’s understanding of what lies Bennett has been fed, they get their answers–and Bennett finally comes to the numbed realization that he’s been used.  And Curtis, still listening in on the other line, hangs up.  He’s won.

The diver Curtis used is their captive, but how can they possibly explain to him what needs doing, and why, and then trust him not to just swim away into the harbor himself, which is honestly what any sane person would do right now, given a chance.  Who could be idealistic and foolhardy enough to dive into dark murky water, with less than half an hour remaining, on a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail?  And it has to be somebody certified as an expert diver, who will fit into the scuba gear of a rather small man.

Oh, you guessed.

Kim had never been so frightened in her life. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that great boulder of hard gray water rolling at her from Kanowit Island, surrounding her, submerging her, beating her into a rag doll.

She was now wearing the other diver’s wetsuit and goggles and headlamp and flippers and air tank, thanking heaven he was a small man so it more or less fit. She moved strongly through the black tunnels. The water filling the tunnels was clouded, already beginning to mix with dirt from the temporary cross-tunnels. In a little while, you wouldn’t be able to see down here at all. Of course, in a little while, there would be no down here.

The more she thought about the urgency of the job, the need for speed and efficiency, the more anxious she became. And she knew that could be fatal. She’d almost fallen down the ladder into the water, unable to control her feet in flippers on the ladder rungs. And she didn’t want to dive or fall into that water, because who knew what debris might be in there, to cut her or knock her out.

And now, when she should be concentrating on swimming forward, finding the bombs, defusing them, all she could think about was the destroyer wave off Kanowit Island, all she could do was feed her fear. George hadn’t wanted her to come down here. None of them had wanted her to do it, none of them would have asked her to risk her life to save theirs—to save everyone’s. But who else was there?

So it’s all come full circle from the start of the book, but this time it’s different.  She’s different.  She’s not some dumb kid who thinks she’s immortal anymore, she’s not just acting on impulse.  She knows what the stakes are, and she knows what she has to do.  She knows who she is.  She’s Kim Baldur, and she wants to save the world.  Or at least this one small piece of it.  And she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll die anyway.  Not idealism.  Not heroism.  Enlightened self-interest.  Could save us all if we let it.

So if you read this far, without reading the novel first, you have only yourself to blame.  That quote up top would indicate to me that Westlake at least considered having Curtis succeed in his plan, or partly succeed.  He had, after all, done at least three comparable stories before now, of men with vendettas against whole societies, and they were all to some extent successful, though one of them didn’t live to the end of the story.

It’s not made as clear as it might be, but in my estimation, he’d failed from the moment he tried to have Kim Baldur disposed of on his yacht, before she could wake up.  He’s lived much of his life under the illusion that he can control everything, manipulate everyone, and that led to a cascade error, one mistake leading to another, more and more people paying attention to him.

If he’d made a few less mistakes, he might have destroyed the city he feels betrayed him, destroyed many lives, caused global economic and political chaos–who’s to say he might not have triggered a nuclear exchange, the highest aspiration of many a Bond villain.

But in his mind, it’s all so simple.  He steals the gold, he kills everyone in his way, erases the home he can no longer call his own from existence, and he’s himself again.  He’s Richard Curtis, billionaire construction mogul and developer, working on projects like the Kanowit Island resort, and everyone respects him, or at least pretends to.

He’s perhaps a little like Parker–Beijing driving him forth, like St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland, set off a mental chain reaction, a button pushed inside his head, and he could never know a moment’s peace until the slight had been repaid in full.  What was it Parker said in Butcher’s Moon?  “I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.”  But even Parker didn’t mean that literally.  And Parker’s retribution only touched those who had directly offended him.  And Parker never pretended to be anything but a thief.

That’s the problem.  That’s why he fails.  That’s why the soliton won’t go off, and he will watch, in stunned disbelief, miles offshore, on a boat operated by a married couple who know he’s doing something criminal and they’re the getaway car.  The deadline expires, and the lights of Hong Kong keep glowing in the distance.  Mocking him.

He fails because he doesn’t know himself.  He doesn’t know that he can never be what he was before.  He’s a thief and a killer now, and what’s more he’s a thief and killer who doesn’t keep faith with his fellow thieves and killers.  Or with anyone, really.  He has no code, instinctive or otherwise. Without money, he’s nothing at all.

But he’s no quitter, give him that much.

It’s George, somehow. George Manville has done this to me. He should be dead, the man should be dead, and in any case he’s nothing but an unimaginative engineer, how can he stop me?

Curtis had always known this was a possibility, but he’d had to go forward anyway. His position was untenable and getting worse. He had to get out from under or go under, ruined, disgraced. So he’d had to make this gamble, and now he’d lost.

Thirty-seven minutes.

It wasn’t going to blow. George Manville, of all people, had beaten him. (He never even thought of Kim.)

But was this any worse than to fail the other way? To be sued, hounded, taken through bankruptcy courts, reviled by everyone who used to shake his hand and drink his liquor.  If things had worked out…

If things had worked out, he would have had all the money he needed to solve his problems, and he would not have had one breath of scandal to touch upon him. He would have had his revenge on the city that had tried to destroy him, and he would have continued to be Richard Curtis, owner of Curtis Construction and RC Structural, respected, accepted everywhere in the world.

Well, he had failed, and now that failure was behind him, and it was time to start again. He still had a very few trusted people—the Farrellys at Kennison, for instance—he could rely on. Richard Curtis would have to disappear forever, and gradually he would have to build up a new identity. He had lost a battle, that’s all, not the war.

To disappear meant totally, and that meant he had to start now. Defeat had made him tougher, more decisive. He knew what had to be done, and he wouldn’t shrink from doing it.

He shoots the couple, throws their bodies overboard.  He hadn’t intended to do this before, but now that everyone is going to know what he’s done, now that the world is going to be hunting him, he can no longer count on their discretion, their complicity in his crime, to keep them silent.  He’s truly alone now.  And he just made another mistake.

He’s planning on the fly, and he’s never been good at that (he thinks he is, which only makes it worse).  He can pilot the ship, but he can’t run the risk of being discovered with a submarine full of gold trailing him.  He’s got Mark Hennessy’s papers, that will do for a start.  But he’ll need money to start over.  He’ll need a small portion of the gold, to hide on the boat, and take with him.

He has to surface the sub, tether it to the boat, get on top of the sub, open the hatch, start putting the ingots onboard.  He removes the outer hatch, which drops into the sea–no big deal, he has to sink it to hide the evidence.  It’s not the kind you ride in, anyway.  He’s surprised at how heavy the bars are.  For a man who knows everything about money, he doesn’t know much about gold.

It’s not a one man job.  But there’s nobody left to help him.  His choice.

The rope! Curtis saw it was going to happen, and lunged, but too late. The ships made one more incremental turn away from one another, and the rope tying them together met the spinning propeller of the submarine, and the propeller neatly sliced through.

Immediately the ships lunged away from one another. Curtis saw the lights of Granjya rapidly recede. There were no lights on the submarine.

Dive into the sea? He couldn’t possibly hope to swim fast enough to catch up with Granjya. But if he stayed in the submarine, what then?

Granjya’s lights were fainter, they disappeared. Curtis was getting wet. As the waves ran over the submarine, water ran inside through the two open hatches.

He was in pitch blackness, in this small heaving boat on the surface of the sea. It was riding lower, taking on water faster. There was no light anywhere in the world, except far away to the north, far away, the cold white sheen of Hong Kong against the night sky. Curtis, standing in the hatchway on his gold ingots, his body moving with the roll of the submarine, kept his eyes on that far-off pale glow.

After a while, the lights were still there, but he was not.

It’s not a perfect book.  But that’s a perfect ending.

And we never find out (because this is Donald Westlake, master of the abrupt send-off), what happened with George and Kim’s romance.  Last we see of them, they’re laughing and kissing in sheer relief that it’s over and they’re alive.  They can’t know if they’re compatible or not, and neither can we, and in this sub-genre it doesn’t matter.  The sex will be amazing in the coming months, and that does.

We never learn whether Luther got over his heartbreak and his mental solitude, or if he ever went home.  Maybe Papa Rickendorf will reconsider his position on the gay thing, in light of his son’s valor under fire?  Nah, I don’t think so either.

We never learn whether Mark got over his trauma, or his shameful understanding that it’s his own fault for trusting a man he of all people knew could not be trusted.

And most of all we never learn how the world reacted to the news that one of its (supposedly) richest men was a shameless blackguard and fraud, utterly bereft of conscience or fellow feeling, willing to go to any lengths to keep what he felt was rightfully his.  I mean, who would have thought such a thing?  (Anyone who ever did business with him.)

It’s an inspired mess of a book.  Fascinating idea, some magnificent bits of writing, several memorable villains, and if the heroes are maybe a bit less convincing, well, that’s because Donald Westlake doesn’t believe in heroes. Never did.

But he did believe, I think, that we have to go on acting as if we believe in heroes–not the idealized heroes of fiction, no.  The ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, once they get going.  Once they realize the alternative to heroism is death.  Enlightened self-interest.

The most chilling thing in this book is its description of the falling towers in Hong Kong, that quote that I put up top.  Not just the caliber of the writing, but the fact that Westlake wrote this in the late 90’s.

And then he would have watched, in disbelief, as it happened before his eyes, not to some distant foreign capital, but to the city he knew and loved most intimately.  And the man who planned that was an engineer.  Of course.  Who came from wealth.  Of course.  Though his motives were quite different from Curtis’s, he was still, I’d imagine, trying to get back something he believed was rightfully his.

And who would want to see anything else after that?  (I’d assume if he had any idea of polishing up this novel and getting it published, that idea was yet another casualty of 9/11)

This novel is a somewhat ill-conducted cacophony of long neglected voices in Mr. Westlake’s head–Culver, Clark, maybe Coe (I think I can hear him in Luther’s head).  But most of all, Stark.  Who had just somehow resurrected himself, and exerted great influence here, but Stark is never fully Stark unless he’s writing about Parker.

And the three remaining Parker novels, published over a period of around four years, were all conceived and created in the post-9/11 era.  They are Stark’s reaction to that event, and what followed it.  They are far better than Forever And a Death, and they are, I’d argue, the last great books Westlake ever produced–not so much as individual volumes, but as a collective work of art.

And they are so much better than his other late work, I would argue, because Stark was the voice at the back of all Westlake’s many voices.  He was the core program, that kept on running strong, after the other more sophisticated softwares had started to fade.  He’s ready to share his code with us one last time.

And Parker is going to meet his two deadliest foes.  The Information Age.  And the Security State.

We’ll see how fast and how far he can run from them.

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver, Tucker Coe

Review: Anarchaos, Part 2

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Why is the element of crime so useful to the storyteller and such a magnet to the reader?  I’d like to try to answer that by borrowing from the classical description of theater: One character on a stage is a speech, two characters an argument, three characters drama.  The variant I would propose begins with society.  When  you have only society, you have predictability and order; life in an anthill.  When you have society and the individual, you have conflict, because the greater good of society is never exactly the same as the greater good of any one individual within it.  When you have society and a crime, you have a rent in the fabric, a distortion away from predictability and order; but to no effect, it’s merely disordered.  When you have all three, society and the individual and a crime, you have all the multiple possibilities of drama, plus all the multiple possibilities of free will; that is, life.  Society and crime are in unending opposition, but the individual is in a shifting relationship to the other two, depending on how this individual feels about this crime in this society.

That’s why there are detective stories about cops, but also detective stories about robbers; detective stories in which virtue is triumphant, and detective stories in which virtue is trampled in the dust; detective stories hinged on professional expertise, and detective stories  hinged on amateur brilliance; detective stories in which we root for the hero, and detective stories in which we root for the villain.

Donald Westlake–From the Introduction to Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Crime Fiction

He said “Are you very stupid, or very clever?  You present me with your mythic qualities, the slain brother, eternal questions, the unworldly view. You think if you show yourself to me as a saint you’ll impress me and I’ll stay away from you.”

I didn’t understand him, yet it did seem to be true that he was impressed by something.   He was getting more and more nervous.  I said “I’m not stupid, but I’m not clever either.  I came here, I came to this planet, I thought I was hard, I thought I was the strongest thing there was and it would all go my way, and nothing went my way.  I lost every fight.  I lost a hand.  I learned nothing and I’m sitting here a prisoner of a man I don’t know, caught up in some kind of problem I don’t understand.  You’re the one making the myths, the money myth, the golden fleece.  I don’t have what you want.”

From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark.  

If I gave the impression in Part 1 of this review that Westlake, by writing a highly critical opinion piece on the state of science fiction for the fanzine Xero, had completely alienated himself (so to speak) from the science fiction world, that may have been misleading.   He had some supportive mail–not, to be sure, from the influential people he’d attacked, but from younger writers, who felt just as oppressed by editorial expectations (and lousy pay-rates) as Westlake did.

Science Fiction was then, as it is now, a community of like-minded yet highly individualistic people, who shared a common passion.   And who often shared remarkably similar backgrounds. For example, Harlan Ellison’s life story is almost an alternate retelling of Westlake’s.   Born the year after Westlake, lower middle class family, didn’t finish college, got drafted into the military (the army in his case), lived in Greenwich Village, cranked out sleazy erotic paperbacks under pseudonyms to pay the bills, married repeatedly (though Ellison never managed to stay married very long), and wrote both science fiction and mystery.

As I said last time, there was nothing unusual about being a Mystery/SF switch-hitter back then.   You could win awards in both genres, and Ellison did (two Edgars, four Nebulas, eight Hugos).   He wasn’t the only one.   Westlake pretty much kissed any shot he ever had at a Hugo or a Nebula goodbye when Xero published his critique.  I don’t think it worried him much.

Ellison also contributed to Xero (so obviously he read Westlake’s polemic), and has said many highly complimentary things about Westlake over the years.  You don’t offend Harlan Freakin’ Ellison and escape unscathed, so it seems likely he admired Westlake’s chutzpah, and agreed with much of what he’d said. Ellison clearly didn’t agree that the only thing to do about the lousy state of SF was to go write in some other genre.  He went right on going to SF conventions and getting into fights, and we’re not just talking verbal disagreements here. Truth is, scrappy disputatious personalities have always been welcome in SF.   Westlake didn’t leave because there weren’t kindred spirits there.

Westlake wrote contemptuously of Robert P. Mills (called him a ‘journeyman incompetent’), who edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–but that magazine was founded by Westlake’s greatest early critical champion, Anthony Boucher (real name William Anthony Parker White–emphasis added, and hmm!).   And Boucher, equally at home in both genres, went right on championing Westlake in the New York Times, with ever-increasing enthusiasm.

Basically, he’d been attacking the system whereby it was decided who got published in the science fiction field, what they wrote, and how much they got paid.   And the only people much bothered by what he said were the people in charge of that system, and those loyal to them.   It’s unfortunate he went after Frederick Pohl, who hadn’t had a chance to prove himself as an editor yet, but Pohl was in authority, and we all know by now how Westlake tends to feel about authority figures.   Like John Cougar Mellencamp, except for the ‘authority always wins’ part. When reading him, you always have to allow for that.

So as I said in Part 1, Anarchaos is a reworking of Robert A. Heinlein’s Coventry–which is about a young man with anti-authoritarian and rather libertarian leanings, who is living in a liberal society set up after the overthrow of a religious dictatorship. He expressed his rebellion by punching somebody in the nose for insulting him. Instead of agreeing to accept psychological reconditioning (which sounds terrible, but basically it’s just talking to psychiatrists for a few weeks), he opts for exile to Coventry–an area of the U.S. that’s been cordoned off by a high-tech force field, where America sends those who can’t or won’t agree to certain basic standards of behavior.

He expects to find Libertarian Paradise there, but instead he finds three messy oppressive rival systems, which show no respect for his rights, rob him blind, and throw him in jail. He escapes with the help of a seeming criminal, named Fader, and it turns out the only people you can trust in Coventry are crooks–except in the end, Fader turns out to be a government agent keeping an eye on the Coventry crazies.

By that point, our hero has realized the error of his ways, and gone to warn America that the crazies are banding together to smash the barrier and take over–turns out their plan was never going to succeed, and his warning was unneeded, but he’s proven himself loyal, so his sentence is rescinded. He’s pondering joining the same secret service as Fader at the end.

This is a product of Heinlein’s early liberal period, but he republished it after he’d become much more conservative, so I think we can say it’s representative of his general philosophy throughout his life–he liked the idea of freedom from all constraint, but didn’t much care for the chaos and tyranny he saw in countries that didn’t have strong Democratic governments.

In other words, his politics were confused, and continue to confuse readers to this very day. This is why right after Starship Troopers, a novel that is still required reading in military academies, that said only those who served in the military should be citizens and order is to be prized above all, he published Stranger in a Strange Land, which became a sort of bible to the Free Love Movement, and the counterculture in general, and contained phrases like “Thou Art God.” Forget it Jake, it’s Heinlein-town.

Westlake would have read Coventry with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. There’s the germ of a good story in there, and a rather prescient message for Libertarians of all eras (“be careful what you ask for….”) but it’s buried under civics lectures, bad satire, and two dimensional characters. Nothing the protagonist does makes the slightest difference, and his late-day conversion is abrupt and poorly motivated. His rebellious nature is simplistically blamed on a controlling father (Heinlein believed in psychiatry–unlike Westlake). He goes from being an idiot who hates the government to an idiot who wants to spy for the government, with scarcely a moment’s pause.

Because Westlake mentions having written 20,000+ words of a science fiction novel in the piece he submitted to Xero sometime in 1961 (and certain things he says in that piece and its follow-up make it clear that’s the year he submitted it in), it seems likely he started work on Anarchaos sometime in ’60 or early ’61, at the dawn of his career as a crime novelist.   I’d love to know if he started it before or after 361 and The Hunter–it shares a very similar sensibility to both, but is closer to the former than the latter, not least in that it’s written in the first person.   This isn’t ‘Parker in Outer Space’–this protagonist will tell us what he’s thinking and feeling in great detail.

It’s more like 361‘s Ray Kelly in Outer Space, and just like Ray Kelly, this guy is out to avenge a murdered family member.   Like Ray Kelly, he pays a heavy price, both psychologically and physically. But unlike Ray Kelly, he’s got a whole planet to fight, and he has a much rougher time reaching his goal.   He’s actually telling us a lot more about his feelings than Kelly–Westlake hasn’t yet perfected the muted emotional responses he favored in his most hard-boiled work–so I’ll go out on a limb and say he started it before 361.   And maybe just after Killing Time–because aside from Coventry, it also bears a familial resemblance to Red Harvest.   Hammett meets Heinlein–ain’t that a trip?

Our hero, if you want to call him that (he wouldn’t care whether you did or not), is Rolf Malone–he tells us he just got out of prison on Earth for killing a man in a fit of rage.   He’s been plagued by a vicious temper all his life, and he’s got serious anti-social tendencies, but he’s always loved his older brother Gar, who looks enough like him to be his twin.  Gar has always been calm, easy-going, trusting–perhaps too trusting–there’s a strong sense that the two brothers were opposite sides of the same coin–each incomplete without the other.

Gar asked Rolf to come work with him on the planet Anarchaos, once he was released, and Rolf was all too happy to get away from Earth and make a fresh start.   Gar was exploring for mineral deposits, on behalf of a major corporation there.  But before Rolf could leave, he got word Gar had been murdered–the other half of his identity gone forever.  And every time I type the name ‘Rolf’ I see a Muppet dog playing piano, so from now on when I say ‘Malone’, I mean the protagonist, okay?

Malone decides that his only purpose in life is to find whoever killed Gar–he’s told this is a pointless quest–that Anarchaos itself killed his brother. One way you can know this is a very early Westlake novel is that he’s not a reluctant detective–he’s also not a professional one. He prepares himself for his journey, reading up on Anarchaos, a world with a dying red giant for a sun–and where, because the planet doesn’t spin on its axis, only half of it is livable (if you use the term loosely), and is bathed in a perpetual red glare. The other half is dark and cold. This dying sun’s name is ‘Hell.’ A good alternate title for this book would have been Planet of the Noir.

Malone opens his narrative with a line from a book he read about Anarchaos–“Those who see by the light of Hell are blind to evil.” Basically, we’re in a universe where interstellar travel is as fast and easy as a Mickey Spillane blonde, and humans have colonized a wide variety of worlds. Each is free to create its own culture and political system, under the overseeing authority of The Union Commission, which has very limited power to intervene. The only stricture is that each new world has to choose a system of government that has previously existed, if only in the imaginations of men.

Anarchaos was founded by nihilists, who chose Anarchism as their guiding principle, as imagined by Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, among others. It started out well enough, because the original founders of the colony had, in spite of themselves, absorbed Terran ideals of cooperation and human rights–but once a generation or two had been born and raised in this environment, living in the light of Hell, anarchy devolved into chaos (hence the name). Every man for himself. The planet is ruled by guilds, which are in turn ruled by offworld corporations, which intend to strip the planet bare of its rich mineral resources, and are pleased as punch at the total lack of regulations they find there. What a fantastic futuristic scenario! (that was irony, in case you missed it).

Most people are extremely poor, nobody respects anybody’s right to anything, there are no laws of any kind, slavery is legal and commonplace, murder is a perfectly normal way to resolve a dispute, and life, to coin a phrase, is nasty brutish and short–as is most of the citizenry, though that doesn’t really seem to be the word to describe them.

Malone knows all of this–in theory–but growing up in the far more placid law-abiding atmosphere of earth, and being a large powerful and aggressive man with little regard for law, has become accustomed to thinking of himself as an almost unstoppable force. He is going to challenge Anarchaos, and the system it abides under, and he’s quite ready to kill anyone who gets in his way.

He murders the driver who takes him to the city his brother was headquartered in–more or less proactively, before the driver can do it to him. He knows he can’t trust anybody on this world. And yet, he still fails to recognize just how bad things are there. In a sense, he’s almost enjoying Anarchaos–he can finally unleash his inner chaos. But the further he goes, the more he realizes that won’t be enough.

He gets what information he can from his brother’s employers, mainly from a cool blonde named Jenna, who works for ‘The Colonel’, the old man who runs this planetary branch of a multi-planetary corporation–she also has to sleep with the guy, because women’s rights–not an issue on Anarchaos. She had some kind of relationship with Gar on the side, and she ends up sleeping with Malone–because he asks her to. And a good time is had by all. It’s a science fiction version of a Mickey Spillane fantasy up to this point. A dream of absolute freedom, power, and sex.

Then the dream becomes a nightmare–Malone isn’t out on the street hunting for clues even a day before he’s ambushed, left for dead, and sold into slavery. He’s a slave for several years, mining some metal he doesn’t even know the name of–he forgets his own name after a while. He loses a hand. He completely loses his sense of self.

If a man is treated like an animal, he will become an animal. There is something inside every human being that craves mindlessness, that aches to give up the nagging responsibility of being a creature with a rational brain, that yearns to be merely instinct and appetite and blindness. Those who join a rioting mob have given in to this animality within themselves; alcoholics and drug addicts are perpetually in search for it.

Because the planet doesn’t rotate, wherever you are on the day side of Anarchaos, it is always the same time of day–morning, afternoon, or evening.

Without the solar rhythms of night and day it was impossible to keep hold of the passage of time, so that we lived our lives to a pattern we could not comprehend. We were awakened by shouts and the sun read evening. We ate gruel from a trough and then trotted into the mine, and behind us as we went the sun still read evening. We worked scraping out a vein of some pale metal through the interior of the mountain, and at a shouted order we put down our tools and trotted back to the compound along the damp cold tunnels, and when we emerged the sun said evening still. We ate again at the trough, and crowded into our shed, and closed our eyes against the light of the evening sun, and slept.

At first, I tried to keep hold of that within me which was rational and human, but it was impossible. My brain atrophied; in any realistic sense, I had ceased to exist.

Once he loses a hand to an infection, he’s given an indoor clerical job, that allows him to gradually come out of this mental torpor–during this time, he sees three company men, one of whom seems to recognize him. Then he finds a note some other slave left–“WE MUST UNITE”–it touches something buried inside of him. But slaves can’t form labor unions.  Resistance is truly futile here.  So he begins to plan his escape.

Having hitched a ride on a truck carrying minerals, he finds himself exhausted, in a barren environment, far from the nearest settlement. He’s going to die–but then a lone fur trapper who lives in the frozen twilight region between day and night finds him, takes him in, feeds him, tends to his wounds–and informs him that now he’s going to be the trapper’s slave. Even the Anarchaotians (actual word from the book) who most value their own liberty have no respect for anyone else’s. There are no good Samaritans here.

Malone knows he owes the trapper his life. There’s no real malice in the man–he’s not abusive, and he’ll treat Malone decently enough. The trapper doesn’t know any better than to think enslaving another human is perfectly okay–everybody does it. He can use the free labor, and maybe the company, but he’s already building a room to imprison the weakened Malone in, to make sure he never gets away.

Malone thinks to himself that if you want to be a true anarchist, Rousseau’s noble savage, utterly free of laws and limitations, this is the way–to live alone, relying on your own resourcefulness and strength–and dying alone, once your strength fails you. But if that was how the trapper wanted to live, he shouldn’t have tried to enslave someone else–not because it’s wrong, but because it’s inconsistent–a flaw in the pattern–he’s corrupted his identity, and in a Donald Westlake story, this is almost always a fatal error. Malone kills the trapper in his sleep, and uses his hairhorses (an Anarchaotian species used as pack animals) to head back to what passes for civilization on this godforsaken world.

Malone reaches a city, goes to the Union Commission outpost there, and identifies himself as a Terran citizen–but by this point in time, he looks like a native of Anarchaos, and they’re used to natives trying to escape their hellish world by telling tall tales–they feel no sympathy for them (the planet’s caustic atmosphere rubbing off a bit).

Malone, who long ago lost all track of time, tells the skeptical civil servant he’s been on Anarchaos four months–maybe six. But according to their records, Rolf Malone arrived four years ago, and vanished, and obviously he must be dead. The man claiming to be Malone fits the description of an escaped slave, and two familiar-looking men (the prototypical Westlakeian duo of sardonic hired killers we’ve seen in several books so far, though this might actually be their first appearance) arrive, pretending they’re going to take him back into bondage–Malone thinks they’re going to kill him.

But that isn’t their job–not yet–now that they know who he is, there’s someone who wants to talk to him. Turns out Gar Malone made a rich mineral strike before he was killed, but nobody knows exactly how to find it. So our Malone is taken to a ship on a frozen sea that belongs to a different corporation than the one his brother worked for–the same corporation that tried to kill him, then unknowingly enslaved him–and he sees the man who thought he recognized Malone at the mining camp–because he looks so much like his brother. They had him right in their grasp, and they didn’t even know it–they assumed their hit men had gotten the job done.

One thing we start to realize about these company men–they may be powerful and ruthless, but they’re not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. The ones who get sent to Anarchaos are the ones who screwed up badly somewhere else. They make a lot of mistakes. Organization men usually do. The man interrogating Malone, named Phail (damn, I never even noticed the pun before) has been a screw-up even by Anarchaotian standards.

And his biggest screw-up to date was to try and kill Malone–their top man (called The General–well, haven’t you ever heard of the military-industrial complex?) believes Malone might be able to help them crack a code in his brother’s journal–that would lead them to the mineral deposit he found. That Gar was working for The Colonel’s rival corporation at the time is entirely beside the point. Finders keepers.

Phail wants to break Malone before The General arrives, and he threatens to use a drug called ‘antizone’–that makes the person given it literally spill everything he knows–erasing his memory and higher consciousness in the process, rendering him a vegetable. And still shellshocked from everything he’s been through, Malone confounds and horrifies his captor by demanding he be given that drug immediately. He’s tired of being who he is–he wants to be nothing, forever. He wants to give up, but he doesn’t know how.

While I live I have a responsibility and a purpose and they require of me strengths I no longer possess. It is not permitted me to stop with the job undone, but I cannot go on. Antizone rescues me from this dilemma. I embrace antizone with the last of my will.

Alternatively, you could say he wants what Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist of Westlake’s novel Memory got inflicted upon him, and finally accepted. Seemingly, the idea of oblivion, of surrendering the burden of identity, was going through Westlake’s mind back around then. But this is a a very different sort of story, with a very different sort of hero, and much as he may want to forget everything that’s happened, Malone still has a functioning memory.

A sympathetic functionary shows him his brother’s notebook, to see if he can help decipher the coded entries–Malone leafs through it, and sees something written in plain English–a note Gar wrote to himself, saying that he has to give his brother another chance in life, after all the hard luck he’s had. He admired Rolf (there’s the piano playing Muppet dog again). He says Rolf has a gift that he lacks–the strength to make hard choices.

Remember what I said–these two brothers were two halves of the same divided self–and symbolically reunited with his lost half, Malone finds the strength to shake off his existential malaise, and renew his quest for justice. Which he begins by torturing the sympathetic functionary until he tells him the truth. Then he strangles the man with his one remaining hand. Then he strangles Phail–after making it clear he knows Phail was the one who murdered his brother, trying to get the secret of the mine’s location (which the functionary revealed under torture). Then he sets fire to the ship, and everyone onboard (including The General) and leaves by way of a small boat.

Is he done? Not by half. He docks at a remote fur-trading outpost, and there’s Jenna, waiting for him–word got out. The Colonel wants to talk to him too.  Malone makes like he knows how to decipher his brother’s code (he doesn’t, but it’s easy to lie to people who want to believe you). He kills The Colonel in his room, and tells Jenna they’ll get the wealth of Gar’s mineral strike together, and leave Anarchaos in style. He asks her to obtain a few items for him. She eagerly complies. He knows she has no feeling for him, or anyone else, but it’s all moot now. He realizes now what has to be done.

They make the circuit of all the major cities on Anarchaos–five in all–and in each he leaves a suitcase at the Union Commission building–and one at the spaceport in the city of Ni. He tells the UC rep that if a blonde woman comes looking for him, she’s not to be allowed in–Jenna is staying right where she is, unless she can find her own way out. He gets the next shuttle off the planet, making his way back to Earth.

What everybody told Malone from the start was that no one person murdered his brother–Anarchaos itself did. He didn’t find that answer satisfying, but now that he’s disposed of the actual murderer, he realizes they were right all along. Anarchaos murdered Gar Malone–so Anarchaos must die.

Each of the five suitcases contains a powerful bomb–enough to level each Union Commission building, and the spaceport, killing everyone inside, destroying all records, and the planet’s system of currency–you can’t have an economy without some form of government. No one will know Malone was responsible–they’ll assume it was the insanity of the planet itself, and the UC will finally be forced to act–to either take charge of things, ending the lawless society, bringing order to chaos–or to isolate the colony, starve it, make all commerce impossible. Either way–his brother is revenged.

He’s taken on an entire planet of criminals–and he’s won. He really was the hardest strongest thing there was. But only after he’d discovered the whole truth about who he was–only after he’d gazed into the abyss, and seen it gaze back at him. And only after he’d reclaimed the part of him that was Gar Malone.

And now he’ll have that second chance Gar promised him–on earth. He doesn’t think his temper will be a problem any more. And he knows now the value of human society, of law and order, of rules one may follow or break, but  never just ignore. Because without them, there is chaos. And there is no freedom in chaos. Nothing but evil in a world where people see by the light of Hell.

It’s a powerful piece of work. Not quite Westlake, not quite Stark, not quite Coe–Curt Clark, brief as his pseudonymous existence was, had a voice of his own. Because he’s a science fiction writer, and in science fiction, anything is possible. That’s both a strength and a weakness of the genre–sometimes writers need limitations to struggle against, just as humans need laws.

When Westlake wrote that polemic and sent it to the editors of Xero, he was setting off his own bomb–destroying not science fiction, but his connection to that community of stargazers, future-dwellers, alien seekers. He was going to stay home, on Earth, and work to understand the world he lived in, the times he inhabited, and the species he was born into, and that would be more than enough work for a lifetime. He would stick to earth-bound mysteries, and human crimes.

But in openly declaring his rejection of the established order of the genre he’d once thought he’d spend his life contributing to, he was being true to the spirit of that genre–which has always been about rebellion, questioning the way things are, seeking something new. And perhaps to honor the best of that tradition, he finished this book, and accepted whatever pittance Ace Books paid him, and he said little about the book in interviews later on.  It was a job he had to finish, is all.

Is Anarchaos really just a crime fiction novel dressed up in science fiction clothing? The influence of Hammett is far stronger than that of Heinlein here–yes, he got ideas from Heinlein, a starting point, but the spirit of the book comes from Hammett, a far better writer than Heinlein, and a better teacher to Westlake. The lone detective comes to a corrupt lawless place, and by playing one faction against the other, he brings down the whole rotting structure. The Interplanetary Op.

But this specific story Hammett could not have written–where the detective becomes a terrorist, slaughtering thousands of (relatively) innocent people, to end a system that enslaves and brutalizes millions. For that kind of ending–for this kind of story–you need science fiction. You need the freedom that genre gives its practitioners, the ability to say what needs be said, in a setting where people can accept it, and hopefully not take it too literally.

That passage I put up top, where Westlake tries to explain why crime can be so valuable to storytellers, applies to more than just crime fiction. That, I think, is why so many writers used to go back and forth between those genres, finding useful elements in both, and often creating fascinating hybrids of the two (Alfred Bester, who Westlake never mentioned in his polemic, was certainly writing hardboiled crime fiction just as much as SF with The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination). But it was only once he’d begun to fully grasp that relationship between society, crime, and the individual, that he could write this book–where the individual has to bring an entire society to justice for its crimes. For failing to be a society.   For not finding an acceptable balance between order and chaos.

So by combining what he intended to be with what he’d tried and failed to become, Donald Westlake succeeded just once in creating genuine, first-rate science fiction–and he substantially improved on an idea borrowed from the most successful science fiction writer of all time. And I think he got some satisfaction out of that. And probably just a few hundred dollars for the book, but money isn’t everything.

Try telling that to Parker, though. Back on present-day earth, with no siblings to avenge, he’s going to have his work cut out for him in our next book–the last novel Westlake published in 1967, and one of his best. Parker may not be taking on a whole planet–being held to more stringent laws of credibility–but how about the United States Air Force? And the field of psychoanalysis–which Robert A. Heinlein may have thought held the answers to everything, but Donald E. Westlake feels quite differently about it, and so does Richard Stark.

PS: I’m not entirely happy with any of the covers this book has gotten–none of them really capture the mixture of wealth and squalor, futurism and primitivism, that is Anarchaos. The recent reprint actually has somebody wearing a space helmet on the planet’s surface–even though it’s very clear Anarchaos has a breathable atmosphere. But for what it’s worth, the cover art for the French edition came closest to summing it up with one image. Which makes perfect sense. Vive la France!

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Anarchaos

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“You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled.  You are free to hold and express your esthetic opinions of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes.  You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish–there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon,  and death in the jungles of Venus–but you are not free to expose us to the violence of your nature.”

“Why make so much of it?”  MacKinnon protested contemptuously.  “You talk as if I had committed a murder–I simply punched a man in the nose for offending me outrageously.”

“I agree with your esthetic judgment of that individual,” the judge continued calmly,”and am personally rather gratified that you took a punch at him–but your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. You are a dangerous individual, David MacKinnon, a danger to all of us, for we can not predict what damage you may do next.  From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you as mad as the March Hare.

“You refuse treatment–therefore we withdraw our society from you, we cast you out, we divorce you.  To Coventry with you.”  He turned to the bailiff. “Take him away.”

From Coventry, by Robert A. Heinlein

The other two looked curiously at me as they left.  Once the door was closed behind them I said, “You can’t stop me either, you know.”

“I know that.   Mr. Malone, there are no tourists on Anarchaos.”

“There’s me.  I’m a tourist.”

“No.  Customs at Valhalla reported you carrying a surprising assortment of weapons, for which you had no believable explanation.”

He waited for me to say something, but I had nothing to say.  I sat there, and looked at him, and waited.

He grimaced and half turned away, and then turned back to glare at me again; I was beginning to anger him.  People get angry at what they don’t understand; they always have.

“You can’t beat these people, Malone.  You’re on their ground, playing by their rules.”

“No rules,” I said.  “There aren’t any rules here.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“No.  This is my first time off Earth.”

“You won’t tell me what it is?  Unofficially, I give you my word not to use whatever you tell me.”

“I have nothing to tell you.  I’m a tourist.”

He made a quick gesture;  anger, bafflement, defeat.  “Go on, then,”  he said.  “Kill yourself.”

“See you later,” I said, as I started for the door.

“No, you won’t,” he said after me.  “You’ll never make it back.”

From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark

Sometime in 1961, the editors of a shortlived but influential science fiction fanzine called Xero received from Donald Westlake what can only be described as a polemic.

In this brief pungent tirade, entitled Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You, and in a follow-up he wrote in response to the deluge of outraged, offended, and often just plain curious letters it provoked, Westlake definitively cut his ties to the genre, openly mocking many of its most influential figures at that time, such as John W. Campbell and Frederick Pohl, and saying in so many words that science fiction had little to offer an aspiring wordsmith in terms of money or creative expression.

It is still a painful thing to read–painful because it was patently unfair and hurtful to many of his fellow professionals–and because it was devastatingly (if one-sidedly) accurate in its assessment.  Westlake had said in print what most of his peers only said in private.   The old guard had to be pushed to one side.  Things needed to change (and eventually did).   But he wouldn’t be the one to change them–he was outta there.  That’s what you call making an exit–Westlake had not only left the space ship–he’d blown it up.

Along with his work in the crime genre (and in the ‘sleaze’ genre, which he was not at all eager to take credit for), Westlake had been writing science fiction  throughout the 1950’s, often under the sobriquet ‘Curt Clark’ (a rather pointed pun); mainly short stories submitted to an ever-dwindling number of magazines, as the genre (at least in its written form) declined in popularity, due to the the tastes of its primary audience of adolescent boys and young men shifting elsewhere–and as television and cheap paperbacks made the pulps increasingly irrelevant.

But Westlake was part of the generation that had made the ‘Golden Age’ possible–he’d spent much of his youth devouring science fiction stories–as well as mysteries.   It’s actually pretty rare to find a science fiction reader and/or author who hasn’t read Edgar Allan Poe and A. Conan Doyle (ancestors to both forms), and the later ‘hardboiled’ school also had a powerful influence.  Writers in one genre would often cross over to the other–for one thing, it was damned hard to make a decent living if you only wrote one kind of story.

For another, there were things you could say with science fiction that you couldn’t with mysteries–and vice versa.   And often, the two forms were blended with great imagination and creativity–I’d say Isaac Asimov’s two best novels as novels were The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun–set on a future earth, featuring a team of unlikely detectives–the agoraphobe Lige Baley and the robot R. Daneel Olivaw.   Asimov was, of course, a noted expert on Sherlock Holmes–and just about any other subject you can name–but this cross-pollination between the two genres had never raised the slightest eyebrow in either circle–the circles, in fact, heavily overlapped.

I don’t think this is true any longer, sadly–though Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory still quotes Sherlock Holmes as readily as Mr. Spock.  With few genre magazines to write for, most present-day genre writers have gone down Westlake’s path of specialization, just to survive.  The worlds of mystery and science fiction are no longer so easy to travel between, though science fiction and fantasy remain closely linked.

But even back then, most writers who crossed back and forth between the genres were known for one of them–if they were known at all.   In his polemic, Westlake referred to Jack Vance as a fellow escapee from science fiction, because he was writing mysteries at that point in time, but that was a misjudgment on Westlake’s part–Vance continued to write mostly science fiction, and is mostly remembered for that. Nobody will ever remember Isaac Asimov as a mystery novelist, or even as a nonfiction writer, in spite of his staggeringly voluminous output of nonfiction.

Nobody will remember Donald E. Westlake (under any name) as a science fiction writer, though truth be told, he found ways to contribute to that field well after he left it.  You don’t have to limit yourself, but to a certain extent, you do have to choose–or else posterity will choose for you, decide which stories defined you.  Westlake had made his choice–but why did he have to make it so loudly?

The answer many have come up with, with which I partly concur, is that he was intentionally severing his ties to that genre–as long as Campbell and Pohl and all the other lions he’d bearded in their dens were influential, he’d have a much harder time getting any science fiction published after this (according to Lawrence Block, Pohl never forgot or forgave what Westlake said about him).   Without the option of getting published in science fiction magazines, and knowing most book publishers in that field paid next to nothing, he could concentrate on writing mysteries.  But couldn’t he just quietly stop writing science fiction?  Or just write it here and there, as a useful sideline, the way Jack Vance wrote mysteries?

For all Westlake’s avowed contempt, science fiction still held a fascination for him–the unlimited possibilities of the genre have attracted many eminent ‘mainstream’ authors like George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, and Margaret Atwood, after all–but he was wasting valuable time and energy cranking out stories that had to be crafted to appeal to editors whose tastes and ideological eccentricities he increasingly deplored, and it was creating a sort of professional identity crisis. He had to focus his efforts on the mystery field, figure out what he could do there, build a reputation.

He’d be dealing with many tiresome formulaic constraints in that area as well (and would later write about them in terms only slightly less impolitic than the Xero polemic)–but overall, he’d be more free to express himself, and better able to support his growing family.   It wouldn’t have been necessary for most writers dealing with this kind of inner conflict to have expressed themselves this way, but it was necessary for him. His agent was aghast that he’d intentionally shut himself off from a whole market, but then again, this was the same agent that later told him not to write a comic crime novel that turned into his first genuine hit.

So this is all prologue, of course–and this will be a two-parter, of course–the first time I’ve ever begun writing a review knowing that I wouldn’t finish it in one installment. But here is where we spy my point, looming in the distance, like a futuristic city on a barbarian plain–in that manifesto he sent to Xero, Westlake wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t sour grapes–that he was having no trouble getting published elsewhere.

He said he’d sold three novels to Random House, and was working on a fourth–only two of which had been published so far–he didn’t name them, but clearly he’s referring to The Mercenaries and Killing Time. The third would be 361, which was published in 1962; the one he’s working on would be Killy.   Besides these hardcover mysteries for Random House, there was a completed novel aimed at the paperback market, then being considered by Dell–The Hunter?  The lack of a literary biography for Westlake can be irksome at times.

He also mentioned that in a desk drawer he had over twenty-thousand words of a science fiction novel that he thought was good, that would run to over forty-five thousand words if finished, but he would never finish it, because he had nowhere to sell it. He specifically ruled out Ace as a publisher because they didn’t publish books that long–either he was exaggerating, or something changed at Ace, because that’s who did eventually publish it, in 1967–I’m guessing Frederick Pohl didn’t read it.  But no doubt, that novel was Anarchaos.  Finish it he did, and it’s damned good.   But is it a science fiction novel?   We’ll talk about that next time.

In his article for Xero, Westlake was dismissive of everything else he’d written in the field–and as a lifelong science fiction fan, having read most of his SF stories (you can guess my generation by my refusal to use the hated ‘SciFi’), I have to agree with him in that assessment. It’s not bad, in the main, it’s just–average. Written to the market, which is what he was complaining about having to do–he sourly described how he’d written one character as a none-too-subtle caricature of John W. Campbell, and Campbell (never known for his sense of humor) had then insisted that character be turned into the hero of the piece.

He didn’t know how to be himself in that genre, and while part of the problem was the genre itself, another part, as Avram Davidson suggested in his response to Westlake’s polemic, was that Westlake was a mystery writer who had just wandered into science fiction by mistake.

In his response to the responses, Westlake didn’t take offense to that at all–he thought it was a fair point. He also said he’d given up Perry Mason for science fiction when he was fourteen years old.   He wasn’t in it just for the money (nobody with any sense ever went into print SF for money).   When he decided to be a full-time professional writer, his intention had been to write primarily science fiction, with mystery and crime fiction being the sideline. This had been an affair of the heart, and it was ending badly, as they so often do.

I think the deeper problem was that he was a novelist who’d started out writing short stories.  His early shorts in the mystery genre aren’t that impressive either, and well he knew it. But his early novels in that genre are remarkably good. Westlake realized more and more as he went on that he needed room to run, to explore an idea, create a world, build his characters.  It was easier for him to do this in the mystery genre, which was publishing a lot more novels, and paying a lot more for them. Westlake also wanted to write more about people than about ideas–science fiction tends to put ideas over people, though some authors in that genre have managed to do justice to both–very few were doing this at the start of the 1960’s–many more would be by the end of that decade.

He said the kind of book he’d like to write would be about somebody who (let’s say) suddenly found out he had the power to teleport, and instead of feeling empowered by this, would be frightened and confused and would have a hard time figuring out how to make it work for him (he wrote a version of that book much later, only it was about a burglar who accidentally became invisible). Emphasize the personal over the fantastical.  Inner space over outer space.

But science fiction was most often about being special, unique, above the common herd–small wonder the likes of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard would latch onto the conventions of the genre like parasites, use it as a springboard for their puerile empowerment fantasies, not to mention their self-seeking philosophical/religious meanderings. Today’s equivalent would be Orson Scott Card, or whoever writes those ‘Divergent’ books. The Hunger Games is science fiction, even if it’s not marketed as such (because it wouldn’t sell a tenth as well if it was).   Telepaths, mutants, secret organizations out to save and/or remake the world, cognoscenti of one kind or other–Westlake referred contemptuously to these types of characters as ‘Psupermen.’

It’s a valid component of the genre–basically that’s a big part of what Frank Herbert’s Dune is–but without anything deeper behind it, it becomes very tiresome and limiting and juvenile (often literally). Writing to the market–and getting swallowed up by it.  Herbert wouldn’t have written nearly so many Dune books if his wife hadn’t become seriously ill. And his heirs will never stop publishing more of them, until the vital original ideas of the first are buried under a dungheap of mediocrity and work-for-hire.

(Sidebar: Donald Westlake is not the only person who ever waxed polemical on the subject of science fiction. There’s a reason this is the genre Harlan Ellison is known for.)

So.   Let me point out one curious omission from Westlake’s two-part rant on the deficiencies of science fiction–Robert A. Heinlein.  Westlake refers to Asimov, Clarke,  Bradbury, and really all the most significant players at the time–all the people who had real influence and power in the field, the grand masters, the established elite (the wild and wacky up-and-comers like Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg are spared his withering gaze–and indeed, they were a big part of the next wave, that would at least partly invalidate Westlake’s critiques).

But not The Dean.  Quite possibly the most influential and enduringly popular SF author of all.  How can you write anything about science fiction in this period without mentioning Heinlein?   Well, that could be respect–maybe Heinlein meant a bit more to Westlake than the others.   Maybe he didn’t want to smash that particular idol.

But for all his remarkable achievements, doesn’t Heinlein embody the failings of science fiction as literature that so aggravated Westlake better than anyone else ever did?   His cardboard characterizations, his tendency to pontificate, his unfathomable narcissism (all his heroes are folksy idealized self-images–as bad as Campbell in this regard, if not worse).  And let us not forget his racism, which somehow got worse when he tried to address it, as in Farnham’s Freehold.

True, he was able to sell just about anything he wrote (he legendarily sold the very first story he ever submitted for publication–as Isaac Asimov once reminded aspiring writers discouraged by rejection notices, “He was Bob Heinlein.  You are only you.”).   He was not, like Asimov and Clark and Bradbury, spending more time writing other things besides science fiction–and he was just about to become more popular than ever, following the publication of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, each appealing strongly to opposite ends of the political spectrum, as they still do today.   Maybe Westlake thought mentioning him would weaken his argument that SF was not a commercially viable field for writers, that even the established masters were abandoning.   But somehow, I just don’t think that’s it.   He could have just said Heinlein was the exception that proved the rule.  So what else could it be?

One of Westlake’s earliest published stories saw print in Universe, in 1954 (so written not long after he turned twenty, right around the time he was in the Air Force)–entitled Or Give Me Death, it’s a prime example of how often science fiction veered over into pure fantasy, even in the heyday of the ‘hard’ stuff.  Westlake made fun of this kind of story in his polemic, saying that Ray Bradbury and all the ‘little Bradburys’ (Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) were writing ‘bad bigtime fantasy for television and Playboy’–for The Twilight Zone audience he means–and I’d bet good money he gave himself a swift savage psychic kick in the pants when it came out later how horribly ill Beaumont was.   With a bit of fleshing out, this story of Westlake’s could easily have served as the basis for a Twilight Zone script.   Except it’s much too conservative for Rod Serling’s tastes.

The story is about a doctor coming into a newspaper editor’s office with a whopper of a tall tale to tell–Patrick Henry, perhaps the most famous ‘Founding Father’ of the U.S. who never became President and was not Benjamin Franklin, had come to him for treatment–still alive, in the 1950’s.  He explained his survival as the result of somebody up there having a twisted sense of humor, taking his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech literally.  As long as there is liberty, there is no death for Patrick Henry.

But when the doctor met him, he’d been getting sicker and sicker, because liberty is being eroded–by things like Social Security.   Nothing wrong with government insurance, but it shouldn’t be mandatory.   Any time the state imposes something on the individual, Patrick Henry dies a little more.   Personal freedom is being chipped away, a piece at a time, by liberal do-gooders, who Henry perceives as “Tories” (yeah, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it?).

The doctor finishes his ripping yarn by saying that Patrick Henry just died.   Which means liberty itself is dead.   The editor says this is nonsense, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, and he’ll publish any damn story he wants–and right on cue, in come the men in suits to shut him down, end of story.

Basically it’s a long involved joke with a not very subtle twist ending–you can recognize the outlines of Westlake’s later comic stylings in it–there was never a time when he couldn’t write kvetchy.   Patrick Henry says stuff like “I can back up my statements with diseases.”  It’s surprisingly well-written–but as a story, it stinks.  It’s all one idea, and not a very original one at that–a lot of people were saying this back then.  Ayn Rand was getting famous doing this same shtik, only taking it seriously.  Of course, Ayn Rand ended up on Social Security and Medicare, which allowed her some measure of dignity and independence in her declining years, but why ruin a good argument with facts?

Now we should bear in mind, reading Westlake’s early science fiction and mystery, that he was intentionally writing to the market–reading what genre magazines were publishing, and aping the conventions he saw–so part of this is him identifying a streak of libertarianism in science fiction, and appealing to it–he thought the editor would buy it, and he was right.

But I think it’s also true that Westlake had a streak of libertarianism–if not downright anarchy–in his nature.   He reflexively resented and feared all forms of authority, particularly the kind that can arrest and interrogate you, as had happened to him a short time before he wrote this story.   His heroes are rebels against the established order in one way or another–sometimes by choice, sometimes by accident, sometimes by nature (like Parker)–but they are never well-oiled cogs in a machine.  They resist–they get out of step–they go their own way.   Or if they don’t, things turn out very badly for them.

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.  Says the guy who managed to avoid having a job with a boss for most of his adult life.   But of course, that’s what made him angriest about science fiction–that it couldn’t support him–so many of its practitioners had to take day jobs.   Frederick Pohl worked in advertising–he and Cyril Kornbluth turned that experience into The Space Merchants.  I’ve got a copy somewhere.  Fact is, Pohl distrusted authority as well.   It’s something that unites many who wrote science fiction–but in most cases, I wouldn’t call it a dislike of authority in general–rather a desire to be in authority–to reshape the world in their own idealized self-images–or, if you’re going the dystopian route, to imagine your own worst-case scenario, and give it flesh.   Oh Brave New World!

Heinlein was a prime example of this, but also a confusing one.   He had been very liberal in his early days as a writer–but after his second wife died, he married a third and final wife (now that does sound familiar), and it’s generally believed that she pulled him well to the right in his thinking (though not with regards to sexual morality, one area in which Heinlein would never conform to anyone’s expectations).   Only a few years after Westlake’s Patrick Henry story came out, Heinlein founded a small Patrick Henry League–and called on Americans who felt as he did to found more chapters across the country.   This was in response to groups pushing for nuclear disarmament, which Heinlein vehemently opposed.   So again, taking “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” a mite too literally.

Westlake would have known all about this–what was his reaction?   What did he think of Heinlein?   There’s no way in hell he hadn’t read most or all of Heinlein’s work, discussed it with peers, debated Heinlein’s controversial views.   His politics, such as they were, were also a mix of liberal and conservative and libertarian ideas–but he was a lot warier of trying to pontificate about them.   He understood the pitfalls, I think, far better than Heinlein did.  Politics can become a trap for a writer–he ends up trying to make people fit the ideas, instead of the other way around.   Actually, that’s a trap for all of us.  And we keep blundering back into it, left and right.

I have the cover for an edition of Heinlein’s story Coventry up top because I think Westlake used it as the model for Anarchaos.   And I think that’s why he didn’t mention Heinlein–he freely confessed in his polemic that he’d written to the specific tastes of editors like Campbell and Pohl, but had stoutly defended himself from the charge of copying them, or their styles.

But in this case, he’d written part of a novel, the nucleus of which was somebody else’s novel (novella, really), and that, I believe, is why he refrained from attacking The Dean–not so much out of respect, because a polemic is not respectful–but out of a sense of decency–and discretion.   He was taking a far more successful writer’s ideas and turning them inside-out and upside-down, without so much as a by-your-leave–and acknowledging his source would have been risky.  You never know what will make a fellow writer sue you for plagiarism.   Of course, this means he probably did still think on some level he was going to finish and publish that book.

Coventry is part of the Revolt in 2100 collection of stories, which fits into Heinlein’s Future History continuity, but it stands very well by itself.   It was originally published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, in 1940–Heinlein’s liberal period–then expanded and republished in book form in 1953–early in his conservative period, and not long before Westlake published that Patrick Henry story. Wikipedia has an admirable short synopsis here.   If you like, you can read the entire story as a PDF.   I got my copy of Revolt in 2100 off a table full of used books on 231st St. in The Bronx, just a few years back.

In the introduction to my edition, Henry Kuttner calls Heinlein a ‘romantic idealist’, says that what makes Heinlein a great writer is his understanding of people, and the fact that they are pretty much the same wherever (or whenever) you go.   He says you can’t be a good writer without this quality–but Westlake was saying in his polemic that science fiction writers, even the good ones, frequently did not show this quality enough.   Their characters were not that well drawn, and were treated more or less as incidental to the story–one thing he particularly hated was the way the protagonist in a story like Coventry (which of course he did not specifically mention) would end up not making much difference to the outcome.

Heinlein and Asimov in particular liked to write stories about social trends, which the main characters would be witness to, but not seriously impact in any way.   I assume they’d defend this by saying this is how history really works–the individual, with the exception of a few Great Men of Vision (Valentine Smith, Hari Seldon) can’t make much impact on history–true enough, but Westlake would say that he or she can still make an impact on his or her own personal story, which is what the writer should be most concerned with.

Tolstoy writes about people caught up in the turmoils of history, making no great individual impact on it, but he still writes as if every decision they make has profound and eternal consequences, because it’s all our actions combined that make history–not just the great men.    And because each human being is of consequence–each of us is a universe unto itself–an identity in the making–or unmaking.  And this is something science fiction too often ignored, with its stock characters, and its grand tableaus.

Coventry is aspiring to be more than this, and not quite succeeding.   Its protagonist is in a process of self-discovery, but a rather shallow and not terribly moving one.   He has a lesson to learn about his proper place in society–he starts out as a not-so-rugged individualist, who doesn’t understand that everything he values is the result of the collective efforts of many who came before–the kind of guy who’d read Ayn Rand and take it seriously–and ends up  contemplating joining the secret police patrolling Coventry, to make sure things don’t get too out of hand there.

He isn’t even allowed to be the hero of his own story.   Nothing he does makes any difference to the outcome–the only thing that’s changed at the end is his perspective–he’s now willing to be an organization man, a cog in a machine–and how do you think the romantic idealist that was Donald Westlake (and even more so, Richard Stark) felt about that?   It’s a fascinating story, and a deeply unsatisfying one.   I personally approve of its message–that individuals need to learn the value of social conventions, even when rebelling against them–but to me, it shows the limitations of Heinlein’s approach to storytelling.   People go to him for ideas–not for people.   His characters are more interesting than John W. Campbell’s ‘Psupermen’, but that’s not saying much.

King Lear was once described as “A magnificent soul trapped in a puerile intellect”–I’d argue Heinlein was the obverse of this.  So much intelligence, so little understanding.  That’s why ultimately, I turned away from him, looking for deeper expressions of the ideas and stories he helped pioneer, and finding them–in Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Octavia Butler, many others.  Science Fiction can and does create vital three-dimensional characters whose personal choices matter, even as they struggle in the context of a much larger picture they can only incrementally change, for better or worse.

But maybe I read more crime fiction now, because like Westlake, I’m looking for a smaller story–in which the outlines of the greater stories can still be perceived.  And in Anarchaos, somehow those two worlds–science fiction and crime fiction–come together more perfectly than anywhere else.  And only Donald Westlake could have done that.  And I’ll talk about how he did it in Part 2.   After writing almost 5,000 words of a book review and barely even mentioning the book.   Let us all collectively roll our eyes, and I’ll see you next week.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction