Tag Archives: Dashiell Hammett

Review: The Duplicate Keys, Part 4: The Crafty Coens Try the Hat On for Size

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Tom Reagan: Don’t think so hard, Eddie. You might sprain something.

Eddie Dane: Except you ain’t. I get you, smart guy. I know what you are. Straight as a corkscrew. Mr. Inside-Outski, like some goddamn Bolshevik picking up his orders from Yegg Central. You think you’re so goddamn smart. You join up with Johnny Caspar, you bump Bernie Bernbaum. Up is down. Black is white. Well, I think you’re half smart. I think you were straight with your frail, I think you were queer with Johnny Caspar… and I think you’d sooner join a ladies’ league than gun a guy down. Then I hear from these two geniuses they never even saw this rub-out take place.

Frankie: Boss said to have him do it. He didn’t say nothing about…

Eddie Dane: Shut up! Or maybe you still got too many teeth. Everyone is so goddamn smart. Well, we’ll go out to Miller’s Crossing… and we’ll see who’s smart.

Ned Beaumont leaned forward. Muscles tightened in his lean face. The wrapper of his cigar broke between his fingers with a thin crackling sound. He asked irritably: “Did you understood what I said?”

Madvig nodded slowly.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“He was killed.”

“All right,” Madvig said. “Do you want me to get hysterical about it?”

Ned Beaumont sat up straight in his chair and asked: “Shall I call the police?”

Madvig raised his eyebrows a little. “Don’t they know it?”

Ned Beaumont was looking steadily at the blond man. He replied: “There was nobody around when I saw him. I wanted to see you before I did anything. Is it all right for me to say I found him?”

Madvig’s eyebrows came down. “Why not?” he asked blankly.

Ned Beaumont rose, took two steps towards the telephone, halted, and faced the blond man again. He spoke with slow emphasis: “His hat wasn’t there.”

“He won’t need it now.” Then Madvig scowled and said: “You’re a God-damned fool, Ned.”

Ned Beaumont said, “One of us is,” and went to the telephone.

‘We weren’t thinking so much of gangster pictures, just novels,’ Joel says of the influences on Miller’s Crossing.  The prime influence was Dashiell Hammett, whose work Joel says uses the gangster genre as a vehicle to talk about people.  ‘In Hammett, the plot is like  big jigsaw puzzle that can be seen in the background.  It may make some internal sense, but the momentum of the characters is more important.’  The production notes for Miller’s Crossing acknowledge the influence of Hammett’s 1929 noel Red Harvest (the one that gave Blood Simple its title) on the Coen’s script.  However, there is no mention of another Hammett novel, 1931’s The Glass Key, whose central character, Ned Beaumont, is the right-hand man of Paul Madvig, the boss of a corrupt city….The similarities between The Glass Key and Miller’s Crossing have sometimes been overstated: some have suggested that the Hammett estate could have sued for plagiarism.  It isn’t the same story, but a number of similar characters are present and the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig is very similar to that between Tom and Leo.

From Coen Brothers, by Eddie Robson.  (Emphasis added.)

Tom: Friendship’s got nothing to do with it.

Leo: The hell you say. You do anything to help your
friends. Just like you do anything to kick your
enemies.

Tom: Wrong, Leo. You do things for a reason.

Caspar: We all know you you can be useful to us, a smart kid such as yaself, the man who walks behind the man, who whispers in his ear.

…Nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.

So what’s the rumpus?

After I got interested in Westlake through the Parker novels, I read The Mercenaries. I knew it wasn’t close to his best work, nor was it typical of most of his output, which could be attributed to it being his first real attempt at a book he’d want his name on. Killing Time, his second crime novel, was likewise a bit of an outlier, but I knew why that was. He was rewriting Red Harvest, making a new story out of it, with a different point. I’d read that, so wasn’t hard to spot.  I’ll be rereading it pretty soon.  Still seeking the screenplay adaptation Westlake did of it years later.  I think of funny things to do.

As I read my way through other crime fictioneers (Parker proved to be a bit of a gateway thug), I would stumble across some earlier book that told the same basic story as The Mercenaries.  “Ah-hah!” says I, “I’ve found his influence!”

But then I’d find another.  And yet another.  Ranging from 1949 through 1960.  Mob novels about a fixer and his boss, usually tragic in nature.  And with the exception of Rabe, from authors who didn’t write much about organized crime. Was this some kind of nervous condition they went through?  St. Valentine’s Day Dance?

I read The Glass Key recently, because I got interested in exploring Hammett as a way of understanding his aptest pupil.  And it worked–because that was the influence, on Westlake and all the others who wrote some version of this story.  (Hammett being the ultimate gateway thug.)

But while registering its influence on all these other mystery writers I liked, I didn’t think The Glass Key was all that good.  Except for the parts that are great, naturally.  Great dialogue, great atmosphere, great premise–it pulls you in–then pushes you away.  Too many red herrings.  Too many dead end plot threads.  Too much that doesn’t work, obscuring all the things that do.  And, as I said a while ago, the female characters in particular are weak.  Contrary to what some critics have said, Hammett could write great women.  This time, he didn’t.

My significant other just read it herself, after recently devouring the Op stories and novels, the way she once devoured the Parker novels, and with the same enthusiasm.  I never told her my reaction, she didn’t read my review, and she came to the same conclusion.  Without the need to bloviate incessantly about it. Her talents lie elsewhere.

All the pieces are there for a great novel, maybe Hammett’s best, as he sometimes claimed it was–but it doesn’t hang together right. Hammett had found something new, something important, but for whatever reason,  he never had a firm grip on the material.  It got away from him, like a fedora blown into the woods.  It’s his worst novel.  And perhaps his most surreptitiously imitated. Why is that?

Funny thing–Ned Beaumont, going by the book, sounds a lot like Hammett  himself in his 30’s, when he was working as a private cop.  Tall, dark, thin, mustached, physically a bit frail, temperamentally a bit fey, but still tough, determined, relentless, sardonic–and observant–about clues, and about people.  Loyal to the crew he worked for, yet troubled about it, finally walking away from it, never to return.

Hammett looked nothing at all like The Continental Op or Sam Spade, superior protagonists in superior novels.  Nick Charles does resemble Hammett a bit, but an older sadder wiser Hammett (married to an urbane young heiress he based on Lillian Hellman), who has lost his life’s work, and can’t get over it.  And Hammett created nothing of note after he wrote The Thin Man. Life tragically imitating art.

I got the notion lodged in my noggin that there had to be a reason there were all these books that were based on The Glass Key, yet diverging from it on crucial points.  And my answer to this mystery was that these writers liked the story, and its confusing criminal combatant, but saw problems with both, and as a creative (and commercial) exercise, set about trying to make them come out right.  To fix the fixer.  (Implicit puns are such a joy; why do I keep spoiling the fun by making them explicit?)

So having worked my way through all the duplicate keys I knew of in book form, I knew it was time to get to the one that wasn’t a book.  The one that some of  my comments sections regulars have been raving about for years, and when I made faintly unenthused remarks, based on bits and pieces I’d seen while channel-flipping, demanded I give it a fair trial before I hung it.

I watched the DVD.  Jury’s in.  I was wrong.  Miller’s Crossing is a great film, that richly deserves its avid cult following.

But you don’t need me to tell you that.  That isn’t the mission statement here. I could probably grow old(er) and gray(er) pouring over books and online articles about Miller’s Crossing.  It’s that kind of movie.  But this is not a blog about movies, unless they in some way impinge on Westlake.  The Coens are over-analyzed.  He isn’t.

I’m am neither going to review Miller’s Crossing, nor synopsize it.  It’s been done.  To death, even.  (There will, needless to say, be major plot spoilers because that’s how Freddie rolls.)

But I am interested in comparing and contrasting it to all the duplicate keys that came before, and most of all the Master Key.  Because make no mistake, this is a movie that is, in every sense–in the very best sense–a remix of a book.  Hammett’s book.  Just that book.  No other.  Oh there’s a few other tips of the hat to other things Hammett wrote, but The Glass Key is the only source worth mentioning.  Chopped up into pieces,  rearranged, retooled, remastered, and edited down into a story that works far better than Hammett’s.  You heard me.  They fixed the fixer.

That opening scene everybody thinks is a reference to the opening of The Godfather?  It’s a reference to the scene where Madvig and Shad O’Rory face off, disguised as a reference to The Godfather.  Later in the film, Tom talks to a guy named Shad on the phone, and says about Leo’s hitting Caspar’s club “It’ll mean killing” just like Shad says at the meeting, only it’s bunched in with a lot of other words.  (But still spoken in a deadly soft lilting brogue–that interestingly, the Coens didn’t want Byrne to use, but he talked them into it.)

That closing scene everybody thinks is an  homage to the The Third Man?  That’s a deliberate inversion of the concluding scene from The Glass Key, and I’m not convinced Joel Coen even thought about Carol Reed when shooting it.  (Possible Reed was thinking of Hammett while making The Third Man.  That film does, after all, have a quixotic American pulp fiction author as its detective/hero, and is about a doomed friendship.)

Obviously the Coen style, the Coen ethos, is different, and any Prohibition-era gangster story told decades after Prohibition is going to be a lot more self-conscious and artsy, the tropes all fossilized, exaggerated (that was my main beef with the film before, but in retrospect, I must admit–they make it work for them.)

Like all the key makers before them, they’re out to improve, not imitate.  I don’t claim it’s the same story.  Even deliberate plagiarists never write the same exact story.  That’s not how plagiarism works.  That being said, if the Coens ever had been dumb enough to say “Yeah, we got a lot of ideas from The Glass Key, what of it?” they would have been leaving themselves open to a lawsuit from Hammett’s heirs, whoever they were in 1990.  It’s that close.  It’s that blatant.  It’s that unapologetic.

It’s that respectful–they didn’t have to name Bernie Bernbaum after Bernie Despain, to name just one example out of seeming hundreds.  They didn’t have to keep referring to hats (the word hat appears at least 70 times in Hammett’s book, and in the title of a key chapter).

It’s an honest caper they’re pulling here.  Barely a scene passes without some reference to the source material.  They want you to know.  They want you to know they want you to know.  But they know that cineastes, amateur and pro alike, will assume they’re doing movie homages, even when they say they’re basing this entirely on novels. And will take them at their word when they say the Hammett novel they drew on was Red Harvest.  

The way plagiarism law works, you almost need a written confession to get a conviction.  Why else would Westlake call Dig My Grave Deep ‘a second rate gloss’ of The Glass Key, but never once mention his first novel, The Mercenaries, was glossy and glassy itself?  Because nobody could sue Peter Rabe on the basis of another man’s opinion, however well-informed.  It has to come from the horse’s mouth.  Far as I know, that’s the only time Westlake ever mentioned The Glass Key.  I’d say there was some encoded self-criticism there.  His hand points one way, his eyes another.

Far as those production notes mentioned up top go, Red Harvest is a red herring.  That’s a movie homage, all right–to Kurosawa, avowing with a straight face (I can’t very well say inscrutable) that he didn’t base Yojimbo on Red Harvest, but was somewhat drawing upon a different Hammett novel.  One guess which Hammett novel he said that was. (And somewhere, Sergio Leone grinned to himself, and maybe said something about sauces, geese, and ganders, only in Italian.)

Those cute Coen bastards.  They inverted that too.  They think they’re so damn smart.  Well, I guess they are at that.  But let’s to go out to Miller’s Crossing and find out why they’re so smart.

Miller’s Crossing, like The Glass Key, is mainly about a friendship between two men that irreparably breaks down, but for better-defined reasons, and in a larger social context.  Tom Reagan has been working for Leo O’Bannon for an undefined period of time, during Prohibition, and as in Hammett’s book, what they do straddles the line between corrupt politics and outright gangsterism (which wasn’t so uncommon during Prohibition–at one point Tom makes the toast “To Volstead.”)  Ned Beaumont has only known and worked with Paul Madvig a year.  Which simultaneously makes the depth of the relationship less believable, and its ending less tragic.

There’s no sweet silver-haired mother for Leo.  There’s no vengeful suicidal daughter.  There’s no pretense he could have been what he is so long without having anyone killed, though he only does it as a last resort, mainly in self-defense.  There’s a murder mystery, but Leo’s not a suspect, and it’s peripheral–a small detail in the larger mosaic, that gets solved (by Tom) almost as an afterthought, and nobody really cares.  There’s no upcoming election to worry about, and all of these absences take a lot of unneeded stress off the narrative, free it up, give it more focus, though it does ramble some.

There is a subordinate gangster looking to move up at Leo’s expense, but he’s Italian, and isn’t improbably knocked off by one of his own flunkies (the flunkies had better watch out for him).  And that works better than the subplot involving the upstart Shad O’Rory challenging Madvig (who is no Irishman, but succeeded one, his mentor).

See, Prohibition gangsterism was a true multi-cultural endeavor–everybody was in on it.  But the Italians were the ones moving in, and up.  Taking over.  Creating a national organization, where only Italians were welcome at the very top.

The Irish, independents to the core, were mainly just holding on in various local redoubts, with that stubborn streak for which we are so justly noted–a prolonged rearguard action that went on for generations (reportedly still going on in Boston).

So it works better that you’ve got two Irishmen–one either American-born or got off the boat a long ways back–and another who was raised in the sod (I tell a lie, Byrne’s no culchie and neither’s Tom).  Tom showed up just in time to see the end of Irish dominance in the rackets.  He can’t stop it, but he can slow it down some.  Leo is his friend, but even more, his chieftain, and when an Irishman gives you that kind of loyalty, it’s to the death.  Of somebody.  Possibly a lot of somebodies.

This is key to the story–and the answer to the mystery of what Hammett was getting at to begin with.  Friendships, and most of all deep friendships, are breakable, because they’re based on the compatibility of two personalities, and personalities, most of all complex ones, never stop evolving.  If one friend changes too much, the friendship ends.  But loyalty–that runs deeper.  In some people.

Leo’s in love all right, but not with the silly swooning scion of some sappy supercilious Senator–no social climber Leo.  No, his cap is set for Verna, a delectable dark-haired adventuress, played by a young Marcia Gay Harden, and while she’s the only female character of note in the piece, let me just say–that’s some piece. “Drop dead” is her leitmotif, and she plays it to perfection.  If you don’t like her, you can lump her.  (Or she you, watch the right hook.)

She’s in love with Tom, which matches up nicely with Hammett, but she’s willing to settle for Leo, and the security he can give her.  Tom’s in love with her, but what’s that got to do with the price of hooch?  Trouble is, she comes with heavy baggage, namely her brother.

Bernie Bernbaum is the most important character in the film, other than Tom–much more significant than his bookie namesake in The Glass Key (who vanishes from the plot early on).  Infinitely more twisted and treacherous.  Also Jewish (maybe even practicing, since there’s a rabbi at the end).  Honestly, if two Jews hadn’t made this movie, I’d call Bernie a stereotype, though a damned complex one (and you know, stereotypes are usually dumbed-down, for the benefit of those that go for them).  Played by an Italian, but you know, Brooklyn’s an ethnicity all to itself, and Turturro speaks the lingo like a native, because he is.

But pivotal though he is, you don’t see much of him, and you never see him at all when Tom’s not around.  Do we see him with his sister, who loves and protects him?  With any of his co-conspirators/lovers?  Schmoozing any of the local power-brokers?  Enjoying the local nightlife?  Nyet.

With one brief exception (just so we’ll know he’s not a figment), we only see him alone with Tom, exchanging sardonicisms, matching wits.  A secret sharer, except Bernie’s not much for sharing (though he will tell you things you didn’t need to know, like the time his sister taught him about sex).

Begging for his life in the film’s most famous scene, he makes a lot of the affinities between them.  Both gamblers, though only Bernie makes a living at it.  Neither is a natural-born killer, a tough guy.  There’s different kinds of toughness, we should remember–it’s not always about how hard you hit.  The other hoods in the film are all masters of violence, Leo, Caspar, The Dane.  Tom can’t dish it out for beans, but boy can he take it.  Bernie’s not tough at all, but chutzpah like you wouldn’t believe.

Point is, he and Tom make their living by brains alone.  By manipulating others, by bending the truth, seeing the angles, spotting opportunities, exploiting weaknesses.  The difference–and it’s crucial–is that Bernie’s only loyal to himself.  And he assumes Tom’s the same way.  People without loyalty figure it’s only for rubes, and he knows Tom’s no rube. So it makes sense the final confrontation is between Tom and Bernie, and their parallel yet diverging outlooks.  And ends with a twist even the most twisted guy in the movie can’t see coming.

What makes sense to me is that Bernie is Tom’s doppelganger–a repository of fascinating yet repellent qualities in Ned Beaumont, that the Cohens wanted to make use of, but couldn’t put in a guy who is, after all, the hero of a major motion picture.  That’s why Verna is drawn to Tom, as she has been in the past to her brother–that’s why she can’t kill Tom, even when she thinks Tom killed Bernie.  That’s equally why Tom is drawn to and yet wary of Verna.  She’s more dangerous to him than any of the tough guys, because she’s the ultimate temptation.

By killing Bernie (you remember I warned you about the spoilers) Tom’s not committing murder, but killing the dark half of his own soul.  Winning the battle to be himself without all the moral compromises.  He loses Verna, but that’s a price he’s ready to pay.  At the end, he’s walking away from this poisoned town (yeah, there’s some Red Harvest there) clean and unencumbered–free at last.

Ned Beaumont is a very twisted person, for all his loyalty and guts.  One problem with The Glass Key is that the book can’t seem to make up its mind about him.  He does some despicable things in the course of his story, and they don’t seem to bother him that much.    Not that he’d admit it if they did.

Yeah, that’s true of the Op, and Sam Spade, maybe even Nick Charles, but Ned’s a different order of heel–and yet he’s the hero.  It’s a norm-shattering conception–the genesis of the modern crime novel, one might argue, with its frequently amoral protagonists, its jarring twists and turns–but Hammett couldn’t commit to it enough to make it work.  Because, we may suppose, he was getting so close to his own demons there that he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger on his own doppelganger.  (Or, if you want to go full Dorian Gray, slash the picture.)

I reread The Glass Key this past week, and I liked it a bit more, understood it better, having worked my way through all these variations on its themes. But I still ended up feeling that Hammett never achieved anywhere near the full potential latent there.

I’d suspect the Cohens could have easily enough gotten the rights to do another film based directly on it–why didn’t they?  I mean, they remade The Ladykillers as a southern gothic, and True Grit as a somewhat more faithful adaptation of the original novel (that somehow doesn’t work for me like the original).  They’ve never been afraid to do that kind of thing.  (In the case of The Ladykillers, they should have been, as some things simply can’t be improved upon.)

Why not here?  Because the original couldn’t be fixed.  Not in its original form. But it could be remixed.  Broken into its component elements, melted down, recast into a new form, where the same basic points could be made more cleanly, without all the irrelevant detritus of a daring concept gone wrong.  The key didn’t break in the lock this time.

I’d say Westlake reworked Hammett even better across his career (much better), but not in The Mercenaries, which was his first attempt, and maybe a bit too concerned with rejecting the very idea of Ned Beaumont–reminding us that the guys who fix things for criminal bosses (the Cohens and the Kellys, if you know what I mean) aren’t people we need waste many tears on, and don’t think I’m not seeing the stark truth in that lately.

It was impossible for Westlake, the Poet of the Independents, to identify with an organization man–however, even the most independent filmmakers have to be organization men and women to some extent–they all have studio bosses who sign their checks, and they can’t do their work without a whole lot of collaboration, often with people they don’t like or even trust much (and for good reason).  So makes sense they’d bond more with the story, have a better sense of how to get it across.

And as happens far too rarely in the movies (and Hollywood movies at that), all the pieces came together–as much by happenstance as by design.  The perfect casting picks just happened, even when they weren’t the original picks.  Little flaws in the early screenplay drafts were ironed out.  Everybody helped everybody else.  Nothing was left in the end but what needed to be there. Nothing was explained too much.  Leaving us to find our own explanations, which is what I’m doing here, and I think I’ve done it enough now.  You don’t need me for that.  Explain it yourself.

A story that had been told and retold, never quite achieving its ideal form, was finally told right.  And could blow away into the woods, its purpose achieved.  No more about it. (Except maybe in the comments section.)

51dbc-cryyy2bmiller

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake short stories, Parker Novels

Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 3–Smashing Mercenary Cuties

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Another interesting new and young writer is Donald E. Westlake whose THE MERCENARIES (Random, $2.95) is substantial and effective–if the publisher’s “the first new direction in the tough mystery since Hammett” remains mysterious.  Clay is a troubleshooter for what he does not like to call The Syndicate–an efficient, likable, understandable young man who arranges everything including, when need be, murders.  When a syndicate newcomer is framed for killing a blonde, it’s Clay’s job to turn detective, to find and eventually to execute the real killer. Despite a few (probably necessary but regrettable) concessions to conventional morality, this is a largely excellent job of sustained narrative and observation within the framework of a self-consistent world, alien to law and convention.  (And don’t tell me Hammett didn’t do just that in “The Glass Key.”)

Anthony Boucher, from the Criminals at Large column, New York Times, August 7th, 1960. 

“Clay. Don’t tell me to don’t be silly. I know, I know, you’re fine with me, you’re a nice guy and we have a good time together, but—then you can turn around and be so cold-blooded, talk about giving somebody an accident when what you really mean is you’re going to go out and commit cold-blooded murder, and it’s just as though it doesn’t really mean a thing to you at all. There just isn’t any feeling there, any emotion. And that scares me, Clay. With me, you show feeling. One of those two faces has to be false. I’m just scared it’s the face you show me.”

“You can’t feel pity for a guy you’re supposed to kill, Ella,” I said. “Or you couldn’t do it.”

“Do you want to feel pity?”

“I can’t. That’s all there is to it, I can’t. I don’t dare to.”

“You don’t have to kill, Clay.”

“I do what I’m told,” I said. “I’m Ed’s boy, he’s my boss, he says do, I do.”

“Why? Clay, you’re smart, you don’t have to be Ed’s boy. You could be anybody’s boy. You could even be your own boy, if you worked at it.”

“I don’t want to be my own boy.”

“What’s Ed to you, Clay?” she asked me.

I lay there through a long silence, my head in her lap, her fingers soothing on my temples. What was Ed to me? “All right,” I said. “I’ll tell you a story.”

The question that nags at me is why.

Of course Westlake would start by imitating Hammett.  Hammett meant more to him than maybe any other writer, certainly any other mystery writer.  His second crime novel was a revisionist take on Red Harvest, a book he revisited over and over again across his career.  His first major series protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Spade, huge hands, animal magnetism, and all (though Parker has many literary forebears, as I’ve noted elsewhere).  His second major series protagonist, Mitch Tobin, was a re-imagined Nick Charles, with the emotional problems only implied in The Thin Man made much more explicit, worked out in greater detail across five novels.

The Op stories, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man–those all resonate across many Westlake books (maybe all of them).  He returned to that well over and over.  I’m not sure I see any strong influence from The Glass Key, in any book other than this, the first he wrote under his own name (The Fugitive PigeonThe Busy Body?  Maybe a touch, but neither of those guys qualifies as a fixer.  Butcher’s Moon has a mobbed up cop who might qualify, but there’s no close relationship between him and the crime boss, for obvious reasons.  There’s a mob fixer in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, and that book is clearly a variation on this one, but it’s not about the fixer, or his relationship with his boss–it’s about a disgraced police detective solving a mystery for them.)

The final duplicate key–the last I know of.  Recognized as such at the time among cognoscenti–it wasn’t meant to be a secret, what he was doing here (both books begin with the protagonist having a confused conversation with a stutterer who is begging a favor from their mutual boss).

That capsule Boucher review up top is prima facie evidence of this recognition.  Though I wonder if even Boucher recognized that The Mercenaries, as it was then called, was not homage so much as revolt.  More than in any other story of his that derived from Hammett, Westlake was saying here that Hammett got it wrong.  And he was drawing obliquely upon his own past experiences (that no critic knew anything about then) to say this.  And I would say that all the other duplicate keys are evidence that he was not the only one who thought Hammett got it wrong.  Or at least that there was room for improvement there.

But why?  The very first novel bearing his name.  For Random House.  In hardcover.  Maybe the most significant career choice he ever made.  What would that book be about?  He chose to make it a rewrite of The Glass Key.  Which he knew had been rewritten multiple times in the past few decades.  And none of those rewrites were bestsellers (as the original had been).   Most had vanished without a ripple. And the writers who produced them were all damn good.  What made him think he could do better?  Better, perhaps, than Hammett himself? On his first try?

Before we proceed, let’s recap:

The Glass Key: A beautifully written book with a murky repetitive plot and sketchy motivations.  Ned Beaumont loves Paul Madvig like a brother, is loved in return, his loyalty seemingly unbreakable.  He executes his job as fixer with polished efficiency, even though he’s only been in this town about a year.  And just as mysteriously as it manifested itself, his loyalty to Madvig disappears, replaced by a very unconvincing romance with the society gal Madvig has been so unwise as to fall for.  He leaves town with her, no better or worse off than he was before, having cleared Madvig of murder by solving a mystery–shoring up Madvig’s power base before leaving, but leaving his friend a broken man, desolate and alone.  Ned never kills anybody, though he indirectly causes a few deaths.

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit:  A marginal duplicate. Cain tries not to get too close to the original, but his influence is clear.  Ben Grace double crosses his boss (no love lost on either side) first chance he gets, takes charge of the organization, makes mistakes, pays the price, but he’s not bitching about it, goes out on his own terms.  With Ben, it’s all about the girls–who happen to be sisters, which is where he really goes wrong, because that’s how James M. Cain rolls.  Not a terrible book, but not what Cain did best, though he does add some interesting details about the way organized crime ties into politics (and the police force), and makes money primarily by entertaining the masses with illicit (or semi-licit) pleasures, such as pinball machines.  Ben kills once, in self-defense.

Devil On Two Sticks: Wade Miller went back to the original idea of a mobster’s consigliere assigned to solve a mystery–in this case plug a leak.  Find a mole, then whack said mole. Steven Beck feels no loyalty to his boss, nor the boss to him, but Beck is all about the job, doing it better than anyone else–he’s described as more machine than man by a lawyer working for the outfit, gifted with an ability to switch off his emotions, that fails him in the end.  He’s likewise been doing this job for a suspiciously short time–just came up out of nowhere, no backstory, no explanation of how he got into this line of work.  Again, a woman (the lawyer’s daughter)  is the reason his Machiavellian machinations don’t work out as planned, but he leaves under his own steam, alone, having made a moral choice–that means violating his professional ethics.  (Note: In the fifth Max Thursday novel published the year after this, it’s revealed that Beck’s boss and his entire organization got taken down by the law not long after Beck split for parts unknown, though Beck isn’t referenced in that book.)  Beck takes out a few rival hoods who plan to kill him, and accepts the job of killing the mole once he finds him without complaint.  It just doesn’t go that way in the end.

Dig My Grave Deep:  Daniel Port feels a deep (if irritable) loyalty to his mentor and boss Stoker, who wants him to stay and take over once he dies, but is willing to kill Port if he tries to leave, which he’s trying to do for the entire book.  Port feels a deeper loyalty to himself–he’s supremely good at his job, doesn’t really know how to do anything else, but he doesn’t think the job is worth doing, or worth the price you pay for doing it.  He meets a girl (predictable, ain’t it?), who he’d like to leave town with, and she’s good with that, but he gets cheated of his happy ending, perhaps because Rabe (or the publisher) wanted more books about Port, which wasn’t necessarily a good idea.  More useful details on the kinds of things a guy in this position might do to interfere in what is depicted as an utterly corrupt local government.  But on his way out, he provides one of the few honest people left in town with all the ammunition he’ll need to clean it up.  Port can be brutal, but like Beaumont, he doesn’t kill anyone, even if sometimes his choices lead to deaths.

Kill The Boss Goodbye: Maybe the best of these books as a book, but Rabe cunningly reverses the polarity, making it much more about the boss than the flunky.  Cripp, the Beaumont proxy, has never really had an identity of his own, in spite of some extraordinary gifts–his withered leg is symbolic of a withered soul.  His employer and friend, Tom Fell, has had a breakdown, and as a friend, his duty should be to get Fell the professional help he needs.  As his aide de camp, it’s Cripp’s duty to get Fell back to the trenches before a conniving subordinate takes over.  Fell rises to the challenge, then falls before his own maddened hubris.  Cripp presumably falls with him.  We never find out, because it was never really about him–he was just along for the ride, because that’s his karma.  There’s a woman, Fell’s wife, who is the only thing holding Fell together–she’s not the cause of his downfall (that would be Fell himself, hence the name), but in the end, her love isn’t enough to save him either.  Cripp would probably kill for Fell, but it never comes up.  Horse-racing isn’t that violent.

Murder Me For Nickels:  The first of these books to be written in the first person.  Also the first (and only) to approach the material humorously, and therefore does not feature a single dead body, though it makes up for that lack with lots of lusty guilt-free extramarital sex.  (One might wish this approach were more prevalent in the genre.)   Jack St. Louis feels both loyalty and friendship towards Walter Lippit, but he still puts himself first in a pinch, seducing Lippit’s girlfriend (and she him), maintaining a business of his own on the side–he nearly goes down because of the girlfriend’s wounded pique, but she’s also the one who intervenes on his behalf.  When they become a couple, there’s no real hard feelings in either direction, but (in keeping with the original) the friendship and partnership with Lippit is over.  Probably goes into greater detail about what somebody like this does on a daily basis than any of the other books, but you don’t need to corrupt a whole lot of people to have a jukebox monopoly in a small town.  Jack’s a brawler, but he never even thinks about killing anyone.  (He hates guns, and as a general rule, none of these guys makes a habit of carrying one.)

We know for a fact Westlake read The Glass Key, and all three Rabe novels (the last one probably after he penned his own duplicate, also in the first person).  Seems likely he’d have at least scanned Cain’s novel–very influential crime novelist who didn’t write all that many crime novels (and this one got turned into a movie full of red-hot redheads).

The question mark is Devil On Two Sticks, since I don’t know that Westlake ever mentioned Wade Miller.  The marked similarities between that book and this one we’re looking at now could be coincidence, but it would be a lot of coincidences.  I’m pretty sure he’d come across it.  There’s talk in that book about the organization moving into narcotics, and Beck’s against it.  This bush league California syndicate is connected to the Mafia (never mentioned by name), but other than a few lower-ranking guys of Mexican or Filipino ancestry, it’s seemingly all WASPs.  They meet at the boss’ house for cocktails and light sophisticated conversation.  The Sopranos it ain’t.

Westlake’s goal wasn’t documentary realism (unlikely an Italian American mobster in Gotham is going to have some upstater named George Clayton as his second-in-command, though I suppose stranger things have happened).  But one decision he made early on was that it would be set in a real city–New York–and that organized crime would be depicted as Italian-run, and up to its neck in the heroin trade (which is a prime mover in the story–their supplier is in Europe, and if they lose that connection, they lose their power–and then their lives.)

This is a noir whodunnit with an organized crime angle, written for Random House’s hardcover mystery imprint. Which means there’s going to be a corpus delecti at the center of the story, and we’re going to spend most of the book finding out how it got there, and the solution to that puzzle will be the denouement.  Since this is Westlake, it won’t be the real point of the story.  The point is identity, like I said the last time I reviewed it.  But that’s not saying the half of it.

My original review, which I just reread, covered the bases pretty well, considering.  I even caught the similarity between Clay and Daniel Port, since I’d read a lot of Peter Rabe novels by then–but I hadn’t read The Glass Key, the template from which all these books came.  The Master Key.  And for somebody trying to understand where Westlake is going with this, a skeleton key.

So no point in a synopsis here.  Let’s talk about what makes this duplicate different from all that came before.

The setting is New York City–not some fictional burg out in the middle of nowhere, and not the little-known National City, a short drive from San Diego, which Wade Miller used.  The very epicenter of western civilization and the world economy then, and to some extent still today.  The cities in most of the other books don’t feel quite real, because they’re not.  Doesn’t mean the other writers were wrong–sometimes you want that kind of complete control over the locale that comes from inventing it.  But not always.

The protagonist is George Clayton, known as ‘Clay’ to his colleagues.  Raised upstate, like Westlake.  Did a short stint  in the armed forces like Westlake.  Went to an upstate college on the GI bill, like Westlake.  Got into trouble with the law, like Westlake–but worse.  Ran over a young waitress on a deserted road, while driving a car stolen as a prank.  Crime boss Ed Ganolese happened by, and more or less on a whim, helped him get rid of the evidence, coached him on how to avoid paying the price for his mistake.

Nobody could prove he’d killed the girl, but he knew he had, and so did everybody else, and he got the cold shoulder, even from his dad.  Feeling like Ed was the only one on his side, he eventually came across him again, and asked for a job.  It only took him a few years to work his way up from the bottom to be Ed’s right-hand man, described in the papers as a trouble-shooter.  That was nine years ago–he’s 32 now.

This is quite different from all the other books (especially Hammett’s), where the fixer’s past isn’t really gone into, where he’s only held the job for a year or two (and yet performs it with practiced skill), and where his loyalty (if any) to the boss is never explained very well.  Westlake goes to a lot more trouble with motivation than the others.  He doesn’t want Clay to be a mystery to us.  There are a lot of speeches in the book where he explains himself (maybe more than there should be–overcompensation–Westlake cared a lot about character motivation, but needed a few more books to learn how to get it across without hitting us over the head).

Like Murder Me For Nickels (which only came out a few months before The Mercenaries), it’s Clay telling us his story in the first person.  The others all had third person narrators, though Hammett’s never leaves Ned Beaumont’s side for a moment.  In some of the other  duplicates, the POV switched around a bit.  Not here.

Women are important in all these books, but mainly as a way of telling us things about the men.  Ned Beaumont likes women, and they him, but there’s always this offhanded diffidence about the way he treats them.  He can take ’em or leave ’em alone, but they refuse to let him alone.  He eventually leaves with one, but it’s pretty hard to buy that he’s in love with her.  She’s just the next best thing to his friendship with Madvig, which ran its course.

In Cain’s treatment, the fixer (now boss) gets caught between two sisters–using one for her connections, and then falling head over heels for the other, which is always a terrible idea, but never having been in love before, he didn’t know how it can turn your priorities upside down.

In Wade Miller’s book, the fixer falls for the daughter of a colleague, much younger than himself, and she falls for another member of the gang, closer to her age.  This has a devastating impact on him, emotionally.  He’ll never believe in himself the same way again, and he can no longer control his emotions–which lead him to walk away from the organization, after doing something really noble. And a bit stupid (as noble deeds often are), but we’re given to understand he’ll be okay, if not too happy.

The way of a man with a maid was a Rabe specialty–happy endings not so much. Daniel Port finds true lust with a Mexican American girl, but perhaps because he’s got to remain single for as long as the series lasts, he’s leaving town in search of her at the end, and far as we know he never found her.  He finds many others, but if he ever finds The One his story is over, because that seems to be all he cares about (big switch from Beaumont).  Cripp seems to have no interest in women, or figures they’d have no interest in him, even though he’s a good-looking guy from the waist up. Jack St. Louis is the biggest ladies man of the bunch, hooks up with two bountiful brunettes during his book, but he never finds much time seriously talk to either of them–just banter, as a prelude to sex. (Could be talk is overrated).

Ella, Clay’s girlfriend of a few weeks, a nightclub dancer who he asked right away to shack up with him, is depicted as the ultimate male fantasy–smart, serious, sympathetic, and sexy as all hell.  Unconvincing, being utterly without flaw–but that may be the point.  Clay has to make a choice, and Westlake wants to make the stakes clear.  If he can turn this girl down–since she wants him to go straight, or at least go solo, cut the cord to Ganolese–then he’s got no excuse.  Life made him an offer, and he turned Life down.

And this is why she’s much more central to the story than the other women in the other books.  Even though some of the others were more accurately drawn. She’s Clay’s conscience, and he’s going to talk to her a lot, and listen to her, and be troubled by what she says to him–and what she doesn’t say–that she can’t accept what he does for a living. She knew he was a mobster when they first got together, but she didn’t understand the full implications until later.

Because, you see, part of that living involves dying–murdering anyone Ed Ganolese points at.  Sometimes just hiring a pro, but in some cases, the job requires the personal touch.  At which point, Clay tells both her and us, he turns off his emotions and becomes a machine.  He’s talked to professional killers while engaging their services (Westlake is drawing heavily on Rabe’s influence here), and he says one of them told him he didn’t see how anyone couldn’t enjoy killing.  He disagrees.

It’s an easy thing to take your own private sickness and claim everybody else has it too, so it really isn’t a sickness after all. And who could tell this guy, if he were still alive—the cops got him, finally, when he was enjoying himself so much after one job he couldn’t bring himself to leave the body—that he’s wrong, that the sickness is real, and almost exclusively his own?

A guy who’s never killed can’t say whether killing is enjoyable or not. I’ve killed, so I can refute that madman. I’ve never killed a man I hated. I’ve never killed a man who was doing any good for society in being alive. I’ve never killed a man for personal reasons of any kind.

I’ve killed. Only a few times, but I have killed, and I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s been strictly business, strictly a job I’m supposed to do. And I know if I let any emotion come out at all, it wouldn’t be enjoyment, it would be pity. And then I wouldn’t be able to do it.

What I do enjoy is the reputation I’ve got. Ed knows all he has to do is point a finger and say, “Clay, that guy has to stop breathing, don’t farm it out,” and he knows the guy will stop breathing, and I won’t farm it out to one of the professional triggermen, and I won’t do a sloppy job of it. The law has never come near us for any killing I’ve done personally.

That’s part of the reputation. Dependability, no matter what. I enjoy knowing I’ve got that reputation, and I enjoy knowing I deserve it. The other part is that the people in the organization who know me, or know of me, know I’m the best damn watchdog Ed Ganolese has ever had. They know I can’t be bought, they know I can’t be scared, they know I can’t be outfoxed. They know I can turn emotion off, and they know no man has ever been trapped except through his emotions.

Unlike Beaumont and all the others in this key chain I’ve been examining, Clay has committed multiple murders, in cold blood, before we ever met him, and if that bothers him, he does a good job hiding it.  Not good people, to be sure, but that’s just because Ed never asked him to kill any good people.  He tells Ella that if Ed pointed at her, he’d do it, even though he’s in love with her–this is how he first tells her he loves her–and she sticks around–you see what I mean about the unconvincing part, right?

Hammett and the others didn’t feel comfortable with making an unapologetic killer their hero, for reasons both personal and commercial–that ‘conventional morality’ that Boucher refers to in his review of Westlake’s book is hard to shake, even in crime fiction. But for Westlake, this is not something to be shied away from, danced around.  This is a story about organized crime–Ed Ganolese isn’t a corrupt ward-heeler, but a mafia don, albeit with some influential friends in city government.  Making people who are in some way complicating your business disappear is part of that business.

Even if there are fixers out there who never bloody their own hands–and there are–or never hire a killer–because that’s a lot easier to get away with in fiction–what difference does it make?  You know who you’re working for.  You know what the job is.  You’ve chosen your loyalties, and right and wrong don’t enter into it.  If the boss tells you to make some blonde he slept with go away, and you hire some tough to lean on her, and her baby daughter is there in the car when he leans, and then you pay her off, shut her up–is that better or worse than personally whacking a fellow crook, who’d gladly do the same to you?  I guess we could argue the point.  I guess we will, someday.

Ed Ganolese himself is different from the other bosses in the other book.  We don’t see a lot of him–he’s mainly a voice on the phone, or a brief presence here and there, telling Clay to go find that cutie who set up Billy Billy Cantell for the murder of Mavis St. Paul, and (like Steven Beck, in Wade Miller’s novel) deal with him personally.

We learn about him through Clay, but because Clay is loyal to Ed–feels that he owes him for getting him out of an accidental homicide rap, then giving him a shot that led to his current cushy mobbed-up lifestyle, when he could have just been some ordinary schmo, working a dead end job–because Clay’s identity is all wrapped up in serving Ed–to the point where he knows if Ed goes down, he’s probably going with him–we get the feeling he’s not one of your more reliable narrators, at least where Ed is concerned.

Ella was right, I did like working for Ed Ganolese. I liked everything about it. I liked the feeling of being Ed Ganolese’s strong right arm. I was high enough in the organization so that no one in the world but Ed Ganolese could give me orders. At the same time, I wasn’t in a position of final authority, where the power-hungry boys would like to rush me to the graveyard so they could take over. It was a safe and strong position, one of the safest and strongest in the world, and I liked having it.

That’s not Ned Beaumont, who doesn’t really seem to like his job much, good as he is at it.  Ned, a born loner, just likes having a friend he’d do anything for, and he likes being part of his friend’s family, having dinner at the house with Paul’s saintly silver-haired mother, being treated like he’s Madvig’s old army buddy or something, and he just takes all that for granted, until suddenly he doesn’t, and we never really see the process by which that happens.

That’s not Ben Grace, who despises his boss, and can’t wait to backstab him. That’s not Steven Beck, who could care less about his boss, or his position in the organization (which he could walk away from at any time), but is just in love with the idea of being good at his job.  It’s not the conflicted rebellious loyalty of Dan Port (who is dead determined to quit for the entire novel, but just when he thinks he’s out….), the blind loyalty of Cripp to Tom Fell (that destroys them both), or the cunningly conditional compartmentalized loyalty of Jack St. Louis to Walter Lippit, while still looking out for his own private interests, and screwing Lippit’s girl when he’s not looking.

George Clayton has just decided to define his identity through his loyalty to the man he works for.  He feels no great love for the guy.  They don’t socialize (that’s bad business).  He doesn’t go to dinner at Ed’s house.  It’s 100% professional, and well-compensated as he is, unshakeably loyal as he is, Clay doesn’t think of himself as Ed’s friend.   He thinks of himself as Ed’s servitor.  His good right hand.  Ed uses the phrase himself.  He’s all-in for Ed–but it’s strictly one way.

He’s not being groomed for leadership (wrong background, no family connection, unlike Ray Kelly in 361.) Which is fine by him, because he doesn’t want to be the boss.  And in spite of Ella’s remonstrations, he doesn’t want to be his own man either–take responsibility for his life, his choices.  And that, for Donald E. Westlake, is the unforgivable sin.

Most of the book is Clay dutifully following the trail, interviewing suspects like a cop (he’s painfully aware of how funny this is), crossing names off the list one by one, until he’s got the perp.  It’s well done for what it is, but the real point is to see how smart Clay is, how perceptive about other people–and how blind to himself.

That crack he makes about that hired killer pretending everybody else has the same problem as him–he’s doing the same thing all through the story.  Over and over, he insists that we’re all crooks, in one way or another.  Nobody’s honest, nobody’s clean, everybody’s got an angle.  He makes a persuasive case–but for the wrong reason.  Not to see himself more clearly, but to avoid seeing himself at all.  He tells Ella all about what he does, who he is, because he wants her to be with him, not some image of him she’s invented in her mind–but she sees him more clearly than he ever will.

“As a cop told me tonight,” I said, “I work within the system. Guys like Ed Ganolese, and the organizations they control, exist only because the average citizen wants them to exist. The average citizen wants an organization that can supply a nice, reliable whore when he’s in the mood. The average citizen wants an organization that runs after-hours drinking places for the nights when Average Citizen doesn’t feel like going home at closing time. The average citizen likes a union that’s a little crooked, because he knows some of the gravy’s going to seep down to him. The average citizen even likes to know there’s some place where he can pick up some marijuana if he feels like being wild and Bohemian for a while. And with the number of drug addicts in this country numbering over a hundred thousand, I’m talking about the average citizen. The average citizen also likes to gamble, to buy his imported whiskey cheap, and to read in the papers about desperate gangsters. The average citizen votes for crooked politicians and knows they’re crooked politicians when he votes for them. But maybe he’ll get something off his property assessment, or he’ll be able to pick up a little graft. At the very least, he’ll get his kicks by knowing somebody else is picking up some graft.”

“That’s all rationalization, Clay, and you know it,” she said.

“It isn’t rationalization, it’s the truth. It’s the way the system works and the reason for the system’s existence, and I work within the system.” I got to my feet and paced back and forth, warming to my subject. It was a subject I’d thought about often during the last nine years. “Simple economics shows it’s the way the system works,” I said. “Look, no business can survive if it doesn’t get support from the consumer, right?”

“Clay, this isn’t a business.”

“But it is. We don’t rob banks, for God’s sake. We run a business. We have items for sale or for rent, and the goddam general public buys. Girls or drugs or higher wages or whatever it is, we give something for the money we get. We’re a business, and we wouldn’t last a minute if we weren’t supported by our goddam buying public.”

And that’s true.  Maybe more today than it ever was.  And maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about it, but there’s something anyone can do something about–and that’s himself.  Clay talks a good game about how other people kid themselves, but he’s the biggest kidder of them all.  Because he believes as long as he’s loyal to Ed Ganolese, Ed Ganolese will be loyal to him.

That was the crucial assumption in The Glass Key, and it’s the central flaw of that book.  Beaumont never betrays Madvig, no matter what the inducement. Madvig only betrays Beaumont by withholding crucial information, for what would have to be called unselfish (if irrational) reasons.  Ned Beaumont is a fantasy figure with a credible world-weary edge to him, and nobody did those better than Hammett–but Madvig is pure fantasy. He doesn’t exist.  Not in that job.  Not for very long.  And the novel founders on that problem.  Okay, not everyone agrees with me about that.  But I can think of five capable mystery authors who did.

All the writers who tried their hand at fixing Hammett’s mistake came back to the relationship between fixer and boss.  Why would someone so much smarter and tougher than the man he works for go on working for him, when the price is so high?  James M. Cain said he wouldn’t–he’d take the power for himself.  Wade and Miller said he only cared about doing his job well, and the fixer job was more interesting.  Peter Rabe said one was trying to repay an old debt before he made his exit–another had no self-esteem, needed an idol to worship–a third was just biding his time, delaying maturity.

Donald Westlake said what Shakespeare said before him–the fault is in ourselves.  That we are underlings.  Whether we follow the leader blindly, or blame him for our problems–either way.  We’re not taking responsibility.  We’re failing to know ourselves.  And that makes it inevitable that bosses will come–and they won’t be any great geniuses. Like Ed Ganolese, who makes a critical mistake at the end, and (it is strongly implied) sets up his good right hand to pay for it–they are ruled by their own chaotic emotions.

It’s interesting to me that Westlake didn’t let Ed get away with it.  He wrote a much better novel than this, not long afterwards, about a better man than Clay, who does come to know himself–and Ed Ganolese has a brief cameo in that novel, where he meets his own end.  Doesn’t even get any lines.  And when the trigger is pulled, you know it’s Westlake pulling it.  And I like to think that was also Westlake’s subtextual homage to Wade Miller’s book, since Pat Garland’s downfall is reported to us in an unrelated detective novel.  Westlake did it better. Westlake almost always did it better.  We should remember (and he never forgot) that he stood on a lot of shoulders while doing it.

Did he this time?  Is this the best of the duplicate keys?  Is it better than even the Master Key?

Yes.  No.  I don’t know.  Does it matter?  Do we really read fiction only to rate it? And shouldn’t we rate it most of all by what it teaches us?

Reading this book for the fourth time (Fifth? Lost count.), I was reminded how not good some parts of it are.  Westlake was maybe halfway to finding his voice as a writer.  Parts of it are startlingly sharp and on-point, even today–which only clashes the more with the parts of it that are too by-the-numbers.  The contrivances you can’t avoid in a story like this (or any story) are not well concealed enough.

Too many well-worn genre clichés that he hasn’t quite yet mastered the gift of making his own. Too many stock characters who don’t quite come to life. Ella is more than a mere sex interest, though there’s a lot of (sadly offscreen) sex, and we’re very interested–but she’s less than a fully developed person, a problem Westlake would have over and over again when he idealized women, as he was wont to do at times (his best women were crooks, like just his best men.) A few too many impassioned self-explanatory speeches by Clay, though it was crucially important to Westlake that he get his points across–while we infer all the points left unmade.  The soapbox was another thing he’d learn to conceal better over time.

Of all these noirish narratives, only The Mercenaries is a first novel (well, first novel that isn’t pseudoporn cranked under a pseudonym).  I think each of the previous books is better, each in its own way–and worse, ditto.  I think that’s the story here.  That each writer found his own answer to the question posted by Ned Beaumont and his duplicates, and no answer could ever be perfect, because Hammett’s original pattern was flawed, if intriguing.  The key always shattered in the lock.

But for all that, I would say the door opened a little wider each time, even if the chain stayed on.  Life has certain  unifying patterns, just like keys do.  But it’s the variations in each new pattern that make the difference.  That create the possibility of a different ending to the same old story.  That make us individuals. When the bosses in this world just want us to be machines they can use and control. But we can walk out on them.  Or overthrow them.  Or become them. Or remain loyal to them.  And see where that gets us.

I wonder about Clay.  After all this time.  He’s sitting there in his living room, having sent Ella a message they’re through.  He let himself get emotional about her, and he can’t afford that.  But as he goes over recent events in his head, he’s recognizing that Ed made a stupid emotional blunder, that the cops will capitalize on–they’re going to need another fall guy.  Then the doorbell rings. It’s probably that nameless call girl he ordered, to help him forget Ella, and all her niggling little questions.  But what if it isn’t?  What if he had it figured wrong, this whole time?  What if he’s the fall guy?

Even now, he’s still got a choice.  We’ve been told there’s a fire escape.  He can use it.  He can run to the club, tell his beautiful conscience he’s sorry, she was right all along, and they make a run for it together–or he can turn state’s evidence.  The odds of either path working out are lousy.  But his creator gave him that escape hatch on purpose.  So he’d have the chance of at least going out his own man.  Instead of a pathetic patsy.  That’s one chance we all get in life.  For all the good we make of it.  God Save The Marks.

Boucher got one thing wrong in that review.  It’s not conventional morality.  Clay isn’t doomed because he’s a crook, or he murdered somebody in cold blood.  He’s doomed because he’s murdered himself in cold blood.  Alternate morality. Something Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark) would become known for in a lot of much better books coming down the pike.

See, one of the undoubted pleasures of crime fiction is that it gives us an escape from our humdrum lives–a chance to immerse ourselves in a world where the rules and guilts and fears that run our lives can take a backseat for a few hundred pages.  Westlake is writing about himself and his fellow crime writers, as much as Clay, when he puts that speech in his mouth about how us law-abiding folks love to read about criminals, identify with them–as long as we don’t see our own pockets being picked.  (They are, of course, we know full well–just don’t let us see it.)

What made The Glass Key special for Hammett, I think, was that he was doing something different from his other books–instead of bringing law-abiding readers into a criminal underworld, he was bringing the criminal underworld into the world of law-abiding readers.  He could have done a better job of it, and one of the things those who followed his lead were doing was trying to better fill in that gray area he created, inhabited by the fixer and his boss–straddling that fence between lawless and lawful.

Westlake did more than that–he had his protagonist suggest the law-abiding world itself is an illusion.  That we’re all crooked, all on the take, all part of a criminal underworld–and as Clay tells the Puerto Rican kid who parks his car for him, and wants to join the Ganolese mob, “It’s not what you think it is, kid.”

I’m guessing some I know who like this book more than I do (and I do, just not as much) are reacting to this honesty, vis a vis dishonesty.  And the escape hatch it gives them.  But they’re missing a crucial point.  Clay is right in a general sense.  We’re all crooks in some sense.  But it’s the specific sense that kills him. (Unless he found that escape hatch.)  The creator of Parker and Dortmunder didn’t damn this early prototype for being a crook.  He damned him for being a tool.

Even if everybody around you is a crook, that doesn’t prove you have to be one–even if you are literally a crook, that doesn’t mean you have to work for bigger ones. You still get a choice, every day, to go a different way.  And you’re responsible for your choices, whether you acknowledge them or not.  The sin is not being a crook, or even an enabler of crooks.  The sin is lying about it.  “I had no choice” is the biggest lie of all.  That’s just stealing from yourself.

Now I said this is the last duplicate key I know of, and in the realm of print fiction, that’s true.  But in the realm of celluloid fiction, there’s one more.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on cable, never watched it all the way through.  I’m going to do that now.

And while I do, I’m going to wonder whose sick sense of humor is responsible for the fact that the people crafting this key, imagining yet one more feckless fixer for a boob of a boss were brothers by the name of Coen.  (The ‘h’ is silent anyway).

One more time, I am moved to ask–who writes this stuff?

I only wish Westlake did now.  Holy ghost-writer?  We can but hope.

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Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 2–Port of Rabe

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This began Rabe’s first effort to develop a series character, beginning with a book called Dig My Grave Deep, which is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett’s The Glass Key, without Hammett’s psychological accuracy and without Rabe’s own precision and clarity.  The book flounders and drifts and postures.  The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett’s. The Ned Beaumont character is called Daniel Port, and at the end he leaves town in a final paragraph that demonstrates how sloppy Rabe could get when he wasn’t paying attention: “Port picked up his suitcases and went the other way.  By the time it was full dawn, he had exchanged his New York ticket for one that went the other way.”

_________________________________

Why would anyone ever want to read a book called Kill the Boss Goodbye? And yet, Kill the Boss Goodbye is one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written.

Here’s the setup: Tom Fell runs the gambling in San Pietro, a California town of three hundred thousand people.  He’s been away on “vacation” for a while, and an assistant, Pander, is scheming to take over. The big bosses in Los Angeles have decided to let nature take its course; if Pander’s good enough to beat Fell, the territory is his.  Only Fell’s trusted assistant, Cripp (for “cripple”), knows the truth, that Fell is in a sanitarium recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Cripp warns Fell that he must come back or lose everything.  The psychiatrist, Dr. Emilson, tells him he isn’t ready to return to his normal life.  Fell suffers from a manic neurosis, and if he allows himself to become overly emotional, he could snap into true psychosis.  But Fell has no choice; he goes back to San Pietro to fight Pander.

This is a wonderful variant on a story as old as the Bible: Fell gains the world and loses his mind.

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And next, published in May of 1960, Rabe’s sixteenth Gold Medal novel in exactly five years, was Murder Me For Nickels, yet another change of pace, absolutely unlike anything that he had done before.  Told in first person by Jack St. Louis, right-hand man of Walter Lippit, the local jukebox king, Murder Me For Nickels is as sprightly and glib as My Lovely Executioner was depressed and glum.  It has a lovely opening sentence, “Walter Lippit makes music all over town,” and is chipper and funny all the way through.

All three passages clipped from the essay Peter Rabe, written by Donald E. Westlake in the late 80’s, now collected in The Getaway Car.  

I’ve no idea how many mystery authors have rewritten The Glass Key over the years, but I’m pretty sure only Peter Rabe rewrote it three times.  Westlake easily spotted the first duplicate key, as you can see up top, and hated it.  He probably saw Rabe had returned to that well twice more, but liked those books too much to reduce them to mere ‘glosses’, and so held his critical tongue.

I’d say his critiques of Rabe’s first Daniel Port novel could be applied to the Hammett novel Rabe was copying.  Hammett was the one crime writer Westlake could not critique incisively, or perhaps at all.  Too close.  Too personal.  Like a bishop giving God a bad review.

I don’t think Rabe would have minded if Westlake had said that he’d rewritten The Glass Key three times (Westlake rewrote it once, and we’ll get to that)–he made it known that he’d appreciated Westlake’s pans as much as his plaudits, since the pans proved the plaudits were sincere.  Nor was Westlake disparaging him by seeing where his influences lay.  All writers begin, to some extent, by copying those they admire. But with repeated effort, copies may take on a life of their own and even surpass the original, in some respects at least.

In a December 1986 letter to Rabe, that was also published in The Getaway Car, Westlake made no bones about his debt to the older wordsmith, who he had a lot of questions for, preparatory to writing that essay.  They had never met or corresponded, and not presuming Rabe would have heard of him, he explained that he’d written a number of books under the name Richard Stark, and they had been stylistically influenced by Rabe’s work in the 50’s and early 60’s. He went so far as to say he’d drained Rabe’s blood.

(Rabe’s first marriage was to a woman named Claire Frederickson, and I wish I could write Westlake now to ask him if that’s a coincidence.  To which Rabe, a professor of psychology, therefore a student of Freud, would probably say there’s no such thing.)

My feeling about all the duplicate keys, good bad and indifferent, is that they are not mere copies of the original.  (A gloss is, after all, a commentary on a previous text, and they have their place in literature).  They are, I believe, attempts to fix the problems in Hammett’s novel–but also to use the same basic story to get some different points across.

Nothing new about that. Many ancient myths–such as that of the Pandavas in The Mahabarata–have been retold many times over the centuries, and each new telling has its own spin and sensibility.  You can’t own a story, no matter what copyright law says (for which you should probably ask a copyright lawyer).  You own the specific way you told that story.

The same is true, incidentally, of the gospels, which is why it’s stupid to try and meld them together into some cacophonous concordance for tawdry reasons of dogma.  Mark does not agree with Matthew does not agree with Luke and nobody agrees with John. You can admire a book and still want to turn it on its head, make it tell your truth.

A look at Rabe’s overall body of work shows that he was interested in depicting ambitious men, often trying to rise to the top of some criminal empire, and ultimately falling prey to hubris, and the emotional conflicts it gives rise to.  The hunger for success at war with the need for love.  Identity crises that, more often than not, end tragically.

But something about The Glass Key interested him–suppose the man wasn’t that ambitious?  Suppose he didn’t want power?  Suppose he wanted to walk away from it all? Suppose he was undyingly loyal to the man he worked for, but had hitched his wagon to a falling star?  Suppose he was just somebody who enjoyed the daily scrum of a semi-licit business, but felt like maybe it was time to go fully legit?  All these things are suggested in Hammett’s book.  None are fully spelled out.  The Glass Key is ultimately about a friendship that founders.  There are other things to say with the underlying structure of the narrative.

And maybe now I better get to laying out what they are, because reviewing three novels in one article smacks of hubris.  Let’s start with the book Westlake hated, that I think he was a little unfair towards, but you’re cruising for a critical bruising when the title of said book is–

Dig My Grave Deep:

“Tell me again, Danny.”

“I want out, that’s all.” Port tried to hold his temper, but it didn’t work. “I want out because I learned all there was: there’s a deal, and a deal to match that one, and the next day the same thing and the same faces and you spit at one guy and tip your hat to another, because one belongs here and the other one over there, and, hell, don’t upset the organization whatever you do, because we all got to stick together so we don’t get the shaft from some unexpected source. Right, Max? Hang together because it’s too scary to hang alone. Well? Did I say something new? Something I didn’t tell you before?”

“Nothing new.” Stoker ran one hand over his face. “I knew this before you came along.” He looked at the window and said, “That’s why I’m here till I kick off.”

The only sound was Stoker’s careful breathing and Port’s careful shifting of his feet. Then Port said, “Not for me.”

Series characters are good business for a genre author (repeat business is always good), but it’s hard to strike a good balance with them–you can end up telling the same story over and over or you can be all over the place, seeking ever stranger variations on a theme, thus losing that sense of continuity that makes the form rewarding.  And most significantly, in a genre crammed with surly sleuths, how do you stand out from the herd?

With a peripatetic former criminal forced to play roving detective, was Rabe’s idea–lifted from Hammett–continuing, in effect, the saga Hammett hinted at with Ned Beaumont leaving the town he’d helped corrupt with a girl who had despised him for it; never looking back, but presumably not settling down and becoming a solid citizen, because that isn’t his nature.

(It should be noted, Hammett only ever wrote one story about Ned Beaumont.  There may have been reasons for that unconnected to his writer’s block. Some characters just don’t have a second act.  Most of them, really.  Imagine a series of whaling novels about Ishmael.  And really, there was no need for us to ever hear from Huck Finn again.)

Rabe seemed to think it was worth trying–possible Gold Medal suggested it to him after he completed the first Daniel Port book, and he figured ‘what the hell?’  (They had the best pay rates in the business.)  This would track very nicely with the origins of many other series characters, including one we’ve spent some time discussing here.  But Port is no Parker–even though he may have influenced Parker, if largely in a negative sense.  What not to do.

Whether he’d planned it this way or not, Rabe cranked out five increasingly aimless sequels to the first Port book, and the last is the only one Westlake liked.  I haven’t reread it–I agree it’s better written than most, and the girl is really something, but I remember some serious problems with it–it’s set in Latin America, like many of Westlake’s novels (but none of his best ones).

So maybe just to be contrary (since even I don’t think Mr. Westlake is always right), I’m going to say the first novel is best.  Because it’s the the one story this glossed-up Ned Beaumont  was designed for.  In the five subsequent entries, he’s a shark out of water, flopping around on dry land, and it’s every bit as ungainly as it sounds.  One character in search of a point.

Not as subversive a rewrite as Wade Miller’s, and unlike James M. Cain’s, it sticks very close to the main outline of the original, while streamlining it a lot–but I think it does fix at least some of the problems in Hammett’s narrative–and his hero.  A tighter piece of work, with all the sex and violence and cutting to the chase one expects from a Gold Medal p.o.–but  it does somehow lack conviction.  Particularly the ending (of course I felt the same way about Hammett’s ending).

(And now I’m wondering–if Gold Medal did convince Rabe to bring Port back, did he have to rejigger the finish?  His protagonists don’t generally get happy endings–happy being a very relative term in this sub-genre, but I’d almost rather be a character in a Kafka story than a Rabe novel.  Just because Beaumont walks away in one piece doesn’t mean Port originally did, since this is a revisionist take on the story.  Westlake knew all about that kind of thing–we owe twenty-three of the twenty-four Parker novels to an editor at Pocket Books issuing a reprieve for the heartless heister.)

Daniel Port doesn’t like his career path anymore.  Maybe he never did.  His job is to solve problems for his aging mentor, named Stoker, the boss of Ward 9, in an unnamed town somewhere in the midwest.  It’s not really clear what this outfit does, other than fix elections–some gambling here, a little prostitution there, political graft whenever. There’s a reform party–but they’re crooks as well.  Using the press to undermine Stoker and get their own guys in (again, straight from The Glass Key.)

The Stoker mob is connected to organized crime nationwide, and they’ve got a lot of well-armed tough-talking hoods–and as you’d expect in a Glass Key rewrite, they’ve got local competition looking to take over.  Uneasy hangs the head and all.  Stoker needs his errant knight to stay in the game, if he’s going to hang onto his throne.  But Port’s had enough of being a vassal, and he doesn’t care to be king himself after Stoker dies.

They’re close–not brothers from different mothers, like Beaumont and Madvig–more like Stoker’s a surrogate dad for Port, who lost his younger brother to the organization–kid followed Port into the Stoker mob, after they did their stint, and somehow managed to catch a bullet after surviving WWII.  Port doesn’t blame Stoker, of course–he blames himself.  He’s one of those crooks with a conscience you meet in crime fiction (maybe not so often in reality).

And he’s got a caretaker complex.  He feels responsible for people he likes, will go to extraordinary lengths to help them, a theme that resonates across the entire series.  Knowing this about his protege, Stoker plays Port like a harp–if he can’t bribe or intimidate him into staying, he can guilt him into it. Port knows what Stoker is doing, but feels like he’s got to pay off a debt of honor he doesn’t really owe.

There’s a move from the city to demolish Ward 9 and replace it with new housing–this would effectively destroy Stoker’s power base, leaving him vulnerable to the opposition.  Port agrees to fix that problem prior to going.  While Stoker’s other  main lieutenant, a mean-spirited mediocrity named Fries (don’t even say it), just keeps repeating that nobody leaves, unless it’s feet-first.  His idea is that Port serves him after Stoker croaks (bad heart) and he’ll kill Port once he’s not needed anymore.  Port’s not real thrilled with the company retirement package.

One thing wrong about Hammett’s version of the story is that Madvig is too much of a boy scout, trusts Beaumont 110%, even when Ned pretends for a moment to be going over to the other side.  (Guys that trusting don’t survive long as crime bosses.)  When Stoker finds out Port was grabbed by the other side in his town, his immediate assumption (helped along by Fries) is that Port has turned traitor.  They were trying to turn him, absolutely–but Port is done with the whole dirty business.  But he still nearly gets clipped, right then and there, before he talks his way out of it (shades of Devil On Two Sticks, which you can bet Rabe read avidly).

So it all plays along much like Hammett’s story, but Port isn’t much like Beaumont.  He’s a lot more serious, he doesn’t gamble (except with his life), he’s not solving any murder mysteries (not a required component of the genre in a Gold Medal crime novel), and he’s got better taste in women.

He meets this girl, Shelly, the dark and lovely daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose younger brother Ramon (who she raised herself, since the parents were always working) is also tied up with the Stoker bunch–ambitious punk, probably headed for an early grave, just like Port’s brother, and of course Port’s guilty about that too, but there’s no reasoning with the guy, and Port has his own problems.

Port plants Ramon as a gardener (heh) at the home of a guy named Bellamy,  leader of the corrupt Reform party, to find out what they’re planning, and she’s mad at Port about that, but then she winds up there as a maid herself, getting pawed over by the old lech, and Port’s mad about that.  He grabs her, all caveman-like, throws her in his great new car Stoker gave him, in her skimpy domestic attire, and you’ve read Gold Medal novels before, right?

“Safe and prim as hell, right? What is it, Shelly, afraid I’m going to rape you?”

“You know you can’t! You know…”

“No. As long as there’s you and Nino I wouldn’t think of it. You’re not even here! And all you ever feel is sisterly love, isn’t it?”

She sat still, and Port started to think she was going to let it pass, when she suddenly swung out her arm and cracked the back of her hand into his face.

He jammed on the brake. At first he thought he was going to laugh but then felt himself getting furious.

“Stop the car,” she said. She sat crouched in the seat, and she had one of her shoes in her hand, holding it so the heel made a hammer.

Then she said again, “Stop the car and let me out!”

Port made a fast turn into a dirt lane and stopped the car. He was out before Shelly had found her balance.

The air was rainy and cool, with a strong leaf odor out of the woods next to the road, and while Port stood there, breathing it, he wondered whether she’d ever come out. Her teeth showed like an animal’s, and when she stood in the road she stopped to kick off the other shoe and then didn’t wait any longer. She didn’t wait for him to move, but came at him.

He hadn’t figured she was very strong or as determined as she turned out to be, but before he got the shoe out of her hand she had clipped him hard over the ear, had tried to knee him, and then bit his neck. He had to let go of her to get a good grip, and that’s when he stopped fighting her off. He got a hold on her that changed the whole thing, except that Shelly wouldn’t give in.

The next time she tried to knee him Port lost his temper. He picked her up, tossed her over the ditch, and was next to her when she jumped up. There was one heated look between them and then the front of her dress came apart in one loud rip. She froze, but Port wasn’t through. He reached out and tore the rest she had on, and when she tried to free her arm to claw him, he yanked it all down.

He was holding her as if she might get away long after Shelly had no such thought.

He had taken his jacket off and Shelly was wearing it, and when she had reached for the cigarette he had lit for her she left the jacket the way it had fallen because they were still far out of town. Port was surprised to see how far they had come.

She said, “Your place, or mine, Daniel?”

“Mine’s more private.”

“But mine is closer.”

“And I got better accommodations.”

“Except my clothes are at home.”

He shook his head sadly and kept on driving….

They keep on driving at Port’s apartment for several days, while Stoker frets and worries.  In fact, Port has done a good job thwarting the enemy plans, has found a cunning legal loophole to keep the slum clearance from happening, which almost amounts to a good deed (it’s not designed to benefit anybody but the people planning it–it’ll just displace the bluecollars from the only homes they can afford to live in, fragment their community, destroy it.  This was, you should remember, the era of Robert Moses.)

He’s found the weak spots in the opposition’s armor, their corrupt little secrets, and the only problem (as Stoker reminds him) is that only Port is smart and strong enough to pull the scheme off.  Fries hasn’t got a clue.

And Port still doesn’t have a workable exit strategy, but he’s got the girl he means to exit with.  He takes her shopping, then escorts her (the former domestic) to the big social event at Bellamys house.  This after half-killing Bellamy earlier that day, when he and his hoodlums tried to either turn Port or kill him.  (Basically non-stop violence, in this and all the other Ports, but again, you’ve read Gold Medal novels before.)

He’s there to show solidarity with Stoker, but it’s just not going to work–Stoker has a point, you’re either in or out, and Port’s trying to have it both ways.  Port finally realizes it won’t work, that he’s got to cut the cord, or accept his fate.  He and Stoker have their final face-off there–no matter what loyalty he may feel to his mentor, he’s got to be loyal to himself first.  Even if it kills him.  Even if it kills Stoker.  And it does.

“Face the facts, Danny. I won’t be here much longer. Which way do you want it: With Fries under you, or you under Fries?”

Port felt the rage grow, and he couldn’t stop it this time. “To me, that’s not even a choice.”

“There’s another one. The one I told you at first.”

Stoker saw the color come into Port’s face, a thing he had never seen, and like an infection he felt his own face become glutted with blood, the heart-pound loud in his ears, and he shouted, “Take it or leave it! I’m through begging you! Take it or leave it, and I don’t give one stinking damn!”

Port’s voice came out hoarse. He controlled its strength but no longer anything else. “You go to hell!”

“Wha—” “If I can’t get rid of you and the air you breathe, you and the Frieses and Bellamys and the big shots with small heads and the small shots with big heads, then I’d sooner crap out!”

“I’ll see you will!”

“Try it, Stoker. Try stopping me now!”

What stops, as if Port’s rage alone had done it, is Stoker’s tired old heart. Cracks his head on the stone hearth going down.  Guess who the Reform mobsters try to hang a murder rap on?  But Port gets out from under it with his accustomed eptitude, and informs them all–both mobs–that now he’s got the information needed to take them all down. Names, dates, places.  The works.  He’s leaving town, for good, and none of them better get in his way.

It’s the old fail-safe plot device (not sure how old in 1956).  He’s got it set up so that if he dies–for any reason–the information goes to the press and the law.  As a final parting shot, he gives the old Reform leader–the one who actually meant it, but got forced out by Bellamy–just enough intel to burn Bellamy, and regain control of the party.

This Samson’s bringing the whole temple down–but not before he leaves it.  With his girl.  Well, that doesn’t pan out, because the resentful Ramon (beaten to a pulp by the Reform thugs, and blaming Port for it) told Shelly Port was dead, and she left town herself, headed for the west coast.  Port was going to New York (like Beaumont), but he changes his ticket and goes the other way.  Doesn’t discourage easily.

And I wish Rabe had left it there, with the knight errant of noir, his liege lord no longer impeding him, riding out to find his lady love. For all the lack of conviction I lamented above, it’s still a fairly strong ending to a book that is hit or miss all the way through– though full of interesting minor characters, including a nerveless gunsel (in the sense he doesn’t process pain the way normal people do) and a hooker with a heart of brass, who may well end up with the gunsel, we never find out.  I agree with Westlake that it’s not as good as Hammett’s book; except in the ways that it’s better.

Westlake, ever the word nerd, was nitpicking about the repetitive language at the end, which I’d say Rabe used on purpose–Daniel Port always goes the other way.  You can say it doesn’t work, but no reason to assume he was being careless.  I like it better than Hammett’s ending for Beaumont, which just sort of hangs there, like a bad joke.

We never see or hear about Shelly in the later books–Port either couldn’t find her, or she just figured she’d had enough.  Different sexy broad each book–have to keep the roving hero single.  He’s settled down with another luscious Latina by the end, south of the border, but he’s too far out of his element there–the book isn’t really about him, he’s just kibbitzing in someone else’s story.  Rabe’s acknowledgement, perhaps, that Port wasn’t suited for a series, and then the series ended.

Rabe experimented with different styles, different types of story (as Westlake later did with Grofield, not a lot more successfully)  but all Port really has, as a character, is the caretaker thing (motivation to keep sticking his neck out), the not wanting or needing a boss or steady job thing (keep him rootless, searching), the eye for the ladies thing (so horny guys will keep buying the books), and this low tuneless whistle thing he does when he’s feeling pensive (because ya gotta have a gimmick).

Once his major conflict is resolved, at the end of this book, there’s just not enough left to hang a series on.  Which is why I say this book is the best of the six, since at least he does have the conflict here, even if it’s borrowed from Ned Beaumont.  And I’ve got two more books to cover, so that’s more than enough about Daniel Port.

Even though in some ways I find this a more enjoyable and focused novel than the mordantly messy original that inspired it, even though I find it handles many of the story ideas more adeptly (and sure as hell has the better sex scenes), I can’t say I think it’s as good as Hammett’s book.  Rabe wouldn’t have thought so either.  And there were other variations he had in mind, so at around the same time as he wrote this one (before?  after?  simultaneously?), he came up with a nigh-Shakespearean syndicate saga, entitled–

Kill The Boss Goodbye:

“Look, Jordan,” said Dr. Emilson. “If Fell should leave now, that might be all he needed to go over the brink.”

Cripp sat up. He was finally getting straight answers.

“That’s my professional guess,” said Emilson, “and it’s enough to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Did you ever hear of a psychosis?”

It made Cripp think of padded cells and children’s games for grown men. It made him think of Fell, whom he had known for over ten years. Fell had picked him up in New York, where Cripp was making pocket money in a cheap sideshow at Coney Island. The Brain Boy with the Mighty Memory. Tell the kid the year and date of your birthday, mister, and he’ll give you the day of the week. And now the most astounding feat ever performed! Read any sentence from this paper, mister, this morning’s paper, and the kid will tell you what the rest of the paragraph is. This morning’s paper, mister, the kid’s read it once – and Fell had picked him up after the show, kept him with him ever since. A mighty memory was quite a boon in Fell’s racket. No bookkeeping, no double checks on collections, no time wasted on figuring odds and percentages. Cripp did it all in his head. He and Fell weren’t friends, or even buddies, but whatever they had between them was as close a thing as Cripp ever had with anyone. And Cripp made it the only attachment there was. It was easier that way.

“Did you ever hear of a psychosis?” Emilson had said, and right then all Cripp knew was that Fell was not like those men playing children’s games or like somebody in a padded cell. Fell was strong, always right, generous because he was big; and he could make things sure because he was always sure himself. Fell had two legs that gave him a straight, even walk. Fell was –

“Mr. Jordan, I asked you a question.”

Rabe’s other two duplicates were not so much revisions of Hammett’s story as fresh takes, inspired by it, but not following the template too closely, which explains Westlake’s (justly) higher regard for them.

He talks about this one as if Rabe wrote it after his other 1956 novel (the one we just covered), and I don’t know if that’s based on his correspondence with Rabe, or if he just assumed.  I’ll just assume myself, because this is a better book–better than the book about Port, or the one about Beaumont.  Better than 99% of 50’s crime novels.

But it’s also a book that reverses the polarity, in some intriguing ways–the Beaumont stand-in isn’t looking to leave, ever.  He’s not so much loyal to the Madvig in his life as welded to him–unable to imagine life without him–content to be second banana, no agenda of his own.  Not even a love interest, which I assure you is quite unique among the duplicate keys.  There’s sex, because Gold Medal, but none for him.

His name is Cripp–well, that’s what they call him, because he’s got a withered leg, which he’s compensated for with a remarkable memory and an overdeveloped upper body.  He’s actually the one who pulls the boss back into the game.  And the boss is, to coin a vulgarism, nutty as a fruitcake, magnificently and tragically so as Lear.  It’s a tragedy Robert Ryan didn’t get to play him.  (maybe Kirk  Douglas for Cripp, but they’d have had to beef the role up, add a love interest, because Kirk Douglas.)

The story isn’t about Cripp.  He’s merely the fool to this mobbed-up Lear, head of the local gambling syndicate in some inland California town with a racetrack and a police force that looks the other way when properly greased.

The weakness Fell’s showing is mental–or really, emotional.  He’s had a nervous breakdown, and he’s been recovering at a sanitarium, and you read Westlake’s synopsis.  But no synopsis can ever prepare you for what follows.  Because Tom Fell is nothing if not magnificent in his burgeoning madness–

Fell turned around again. He was talking to Cripp.

“Ever notice that nose on Pander? Ever notice how nice and straight that nose is?” It was another switch nobody could follow, and Fell walked to the door. He stopped there and said, “Pander used to box, some years back. Even if we hadn’t set up a fight for him now and then Pander could still have looked good. A good welter,” said Fell and started to smile. “And then he suddenly quit. Just getting good, and he quits. No heart, you can call it.”

Pander had started to hunch himself up and got ready to take his sunglasses off.

Fell continued smiling. “You see a boxer with a beautiful nose,” said Fell, “and you got a fighter without heart. Look at him.”

Millie Borden looked from one man to the other. Then she moved back. She hadn’t understood a thing that had gone on, but she understood what was shaping up. She moved because there was going to be a fight.

Pander leaned up on the balls of his feet, arms swinging free, face mean, but nothing followed. He stared at Fell and all he saw were his eyes, mild lashes and the lids without movement, and what happened to them. He suddenly saw the hardest, craziest eyes he had ever seen.

See, in some ways it’s an advantage–to not give a damn.  To never count the cost.  To believe you can’t be stopped.  And it’s not like he doesn’t have Cripp to be his brains, or his beautiful wife to hold him together emotionally–except he’s putting unbearable stress on both relationships with his behavior.  Without a superego to get in the way, rein him in, he just keeps upping the ante–he wins a lot at first. But the more he wins, the more he knows he can’t lose.

There’s some stuff about a racehorse he’s been keeping under wraps–gorgeous stuff.  The writing here can make you gasp sometimes.  Ned Beaumont’s card games seem very small and shabby compared to the big race, where the horse, representing nothing less than Fell’s unbridled id, delivers in a big way, beats the oddsmakers, crushes all opposition, puts Fell right back in the driver’s seat–but he can’t stop driving.

A horse knows when it’s time to stop running, cool down, eat some grass, find a mare–a madman doesn’t.  He doesn’t even quite register his horse is a gelding–telling symbolism there–keeps calling him a she.  “I call ’em all she,” said Fell, and then he went outside to Buttonhead.  (Believe it or not, no database I’ve searched can find a thoroughbred by that name.) 

Fell starts pressuring local politicians, knocking over apple carts left and right, looking to build new castles in the air–the town is all sewn-up, on the take, but the state isn’t.  He’s drawing attention to himself and the organization.  He’s doing things for the sake of doing them, like a shark who can’t stop swimming forward, and Cripp just watches him helplessly, knowing it’s all wrong–knowing, in fact, that Fell is sick, because the doctor told him so–but not knowing how to stop him or leave him.  And he could never betray him.  So he just gets dragged down under with him.  Again, quite unique among the duplicates.

The bosses in L.A., who never thought much of Pander, would like to go on trusting in Fell, still can’t help noticing the lines he’s crossing, that put them in jeopardy as well–they do some research–they find out about the psychosis.  The mental hospital.  They dispatch a killer.  Named Mound.  Rabe was good with names.  And killers.

The ending is abrupt, unsettling, and doesn’t tell us what happened to Cripp.  What would be the point?  If Mound finished him, or Pander, it would only be a mercy-killing.

The story, as I said, isn’t about Cripp, and that’s nobody’s fault but Cripp’s.  He let his story be about somebody else, subsumed his identity into Fell’s.  The brain boy forgot how to use his brain for himself.  There’s a moral in there somewhere.  About how blindly following even a magnificent madman can have fatal consequences.  Imagine for a moment, how bad it would be if the madman was just a sleazy old fake, who didn’t even know his own business, his paymaster was a foreign power, and he was in charge of a whole country.  Well, who’d believe that?  Gotta keep these things plausible.

I’d call this the best of the duplicate keys, except it strays so far from the pattern of the master key, it almost doesn’t count.  It reimagines the story to the point where it’s a different story. One reason I’m giving it less time here.  (The other is I don’t want to spoil it for you.)

But Rabe had one more key in him, and this one gets my vote for the cleverest–and funniest–of all these linked stories about fixer and boss.  Even though it’s not as well written as Kill The Boss Goodbye.  Can’t have everything.  It’s got a much better title, Rabe’s own this time, namely–

Murder Me For Nickels:

I have a rule about money, which goes: make it, spend it. It’s the nearest thing to a rule which fits the way I’ve been living through one job or another, until I put in with Lippit. After a while with Lippit, and what with the business we built, there was money left over. What I mean is, I wasn’t used to spending that much and I didn’t have the time, anyway.

That’s how I got to own Blue Beat.

This studio taped only the rare jazz for the aficionados. Naturally, the place was going broke. I had bought the place for what always comes out as a mixture of reasons: I had the dough; I saw a bargain; I like jazz; I know some of the rare musicians, whether they’re known or not. Sew it all up and call it a gamble, and maybe I got Blue Beat because of that. The Lippit operation by then was getting boring, and smooth.

Then Blue Beat made money. We only taped what we liked, but this time it paid. Next for the action, I bought up what was left of a pressing plant on the ground floor where we started pressing our own records and also did jobs for the rest of the studios in the area. Nothing big, but it didn’t lose money. The whole works was Loujack, Inc., Jack St. Louis on the top of the stock pile, but silently.

I’d rather not mix friends and business, and as for Loujack I wanted Walter Lippit to be just a friend. He knew that the outfit was there, the way you know there’s a lamp post down the street, but so what. He didn’t know — there were few who did — that Loujack was me. That would have been different. That would have been less like a lamp post down the street and more like uncle Walter Lippit observing the doings of his favorite nephew. Next, kindly interest. Next, this being all in the family, he might have dreamt dreams about mergers and empires and since Lippit was not much of a dreamer, next thing, he would grab. I’m not against Lippit — friend of mine — but I myself don’t like to be grabbed.

I love being grabbed, if it’s a book grabbing me–and tickling me to boot.  Rabe, unlike Westlake, isn’t known for comedy.  Nor was he half so good at it as Westlake, but in 1960, neither was Westlake.

Gold Medal published this the same year Westlake’s first novel under his own name came out from Random House (also a duplicate key), and reading Rabe’s book certainly would have given the younger wordsmith a notion that you could write a story about funny criminals and not be arch–still make it thrilling, sexy, hip (also extremely violent, because still Gold Medal).

This is all of the above.  It’s also a bit clumsy and rushed at points–Rabe wasn’t used to this, he was trying something new (for one thing, it’s written in the first person, which he hardly ever used).  So you have to excuse the rough spots.  You’ll be well-rewarded if you do.  And that Robert E. McGinnis cover alone was worth more than a measly 1960 quarter.  (You can still get a decent vintage copy for twenty-five bucks or less online–go figure.)

This certainly is a ‘gloss’ on The Glass Key. (Gloss Key?)  Westlake could hardly have missed that–it’s the exact same story, from the same perspective, that of the fixer, but the first person narration is new, as is the narrator.  In this case one Jack St. Louis, a hard-punching fast-running girl-chasing low-flying small-time entrepreneur, right on the edge between legal and illegal, who makes Ned Beaumont look like a stick in the mud plodder.  (Beaumont literally kept getting stuck in the mud, which got kind of vexing after a while.)

The gag here is that what they’re doing isn’t really criminal–they’re putting jukeboxes in bars and other establishments.  That’s a crime?  It is, maybe, if you kind of give proprietors the impression they don’t have any choice in the matter–but they never have to break any windows, or fingers.   They’re providing a service, and making a good living by it. Jack’s doing so well, he’s started his own record label on the side (that he doesn’t want Walter to know about, see above).

Since people want to hear music when they drink, something they can relax to, tap a toe to, maybe even dance to, it’s fairly victimless.  Except the people providing this service may fall victim themselves–to rival mobs muscling in.  In this case, not just any mob, but The Mob, or people affiliated with it.  People with names like Benotti, who Jack goes looking for in a tux, no less.  He wins the fight, but these guys don’t intimidate.  If Jack and his boss/buddy Walter don’t watch out, their thing will become somebody else’s thing, and they might just get murdered for nickels.

And if Walter doesn’t watch out, his current girlfriend will become Jack’s thing–Jack, whose loyalty doesn’t extend to matters of sex (very Grofield), goes to the Lippit home and finds Patty, an aspiring chanteuse hoping Walter can get her into the bigtime, all by her delectable self.  They’ve been eyeing each other a while now.  The moves are applied.  Resistance is feigned.  A zipper unzips. The deal is sealed. But neither means anything serious by it.  It’s not a serious book.  Though it might become one,  if Walter finds out.  About any of Jack’s little side-deals; the one with Patty perhaps mattering least of all (but only cows look good with horns).

Jack doesn’t solve any murder mysteries (because nobody gets murdered–even Gold Medal had to lighten up sometimes).  But he does have to figure out where this new outfit muscling in on their turf came from, how to stop them, and sometimes to get into some pretty serious scuffles with them.  Jack doesn’t think of himself as a tough guy (what real tough guy ever does?) but he’s learned to hit first and ask questions later, and he does pretty well in the fisticuffs department, just by moving fast and doing the unexpected, dressed to the nines while he does it, dropping hoods–and ladies underdrawers–all over town.  (Jon Hamm?  Oh never mind, nobody’s going to adapt it now.)

So it’s a detective novel after its own idiosyncratic fashion, but it’s much more about describing the jukebox business to us, and all the related businesses, like jobbers, record companies, etc.  A lot of organized crime actually involves legit enterprises used in illegit ways, and it’s refreshing to see that done so well here.   There’s no political angle, because they don’t need to corrupt any public officials to do what they do, as long as they don’t do it too loudly.   There’s a wee bit of union fixing, but it’s not the Teamsters.  Nobody gets buried under the 50 yard line for nickels.

So Jack goes on dancing, juggling women (Patty, but also a short stacked little brunette who also wants to be a singer, but can actually carry a tune).  Juggling his job defending Lippit’s interests while trying to defend his own private business concerns at the same time.

Benotti’s bunch buy out their jobber, and now they can’t get new records for the jukeboxes.  Jack’s own record business, complete with pressing plant, could address that short-term.  But Lippit would want to own it himself.  And Patty has found out about it.  And she wants a recording contract.  And Benotti, like every rival gangster in every duplicate key, wants Jack to come over to his side, or else get murdered for nickels, or at least very badly beaten up.  And there are guys on their team who aren’t to be trusted.  Vaudeville never saw such a juggler as Jack St. Louis

So when he finally drops a ball (or Patty drops it for him), Lippit believes he’s a traitor (which, you know….), and let’s just say none of the duplicate key bosses are as trusting as Paul Madvig.

“So what was your plan, right-hand man?” said Lippit.

“The plan was,” I said, “to help you keep playing your jukeboxes.”

“Was that the reason you snuck around behind my back and set yourself up in a legitimate business?”

He used the expression like a dirty word and I felt I should make one thing clear right away.

“Just remember it’s mine, Lippit. Not yours.”

“Sure. And you just remember that I got the union that can rock your boat.”

“How’s that going to help you?”

“It would make me feel just fine. The way I feel, it would make me feel just fine.”

Lippit doesn’t even know about Patty, and he’s almost ready to murder Jack for nickels.  The friendship, that Jack valued (in spite of the bird-dogging behind Walter’s back), turns out to be built on a flimsy foundation–they never understood one another.  But Walter’s not the problem so much as the guys looking to take over from him, who will murder Jack for nothing.  (I can’t possibly recap all this, there’s too much, and I’m over 7,000 words)

Patty, a nice girl down deep, knows it was her blabbing on Jack that got him into this mess–she’s mad at him, for seducing and abandoning her, (and even more because his other girl can sing better than her), but she does not want him dead.

So she does the old femme fatale routine with one of his captors, distracts him, and another thrilling fight scene and a few smooth moves later, Jack’s on top again.  He and Walter call it quits, more or less amicably.  He and Patty go legit with the record label (and his other girl, now superfluous, is more than content with her new recording contract).  Maybe the girl he ended up with can’t sing, and isn’t quite so curvy, but a gal who’ll vamp a hulking hood for you (even if she’s the reason he’s got you tied to a chair, half-conscious) is a keeper, any way you look at it.

Jack steals his best friend’s girl, just like Ned Beaumont–but it’s the right thing to do, they really do care about each other, and Walter doesn’t give a shit about either of them now (he was never that stuck on Patty to start with).

Jack leaves the organization, just like Ned Beaumont–but he stays in town, and becomes an honest businessman–well–as honest as anybody ever gets in that biz.   (When did the payola scandal break wide open?–oh right, year before this book came out.  Would have made for an interesting sequel.)  He was headed that way already, but delaying it–putting off full adulthood–because he liked the romance of being a kindasorta crimelord’s right-hand man.  This crisis forced him to stop with the fence-sitting, and he chose the other side of the fence.

Jack stops the rival mob from taking over, but he doesn’t cause any deaths in the process, and the cops never even seem to notice what’s happening.  He seems happy and hopeful,  when last we see him, Patty leaning on his shoulder–not a fatalist existential bone in his body.  Hardly reformed.  Jack St. Louis will always be a rogue, but he’s not a killer–or a hireling.  He’s his own man now, with his own woman, a team–and he likes it that way.  Rogues can be adults too.

It’s damned upbeat and optimistic for a duplicate key–or a Gold Medal paperback–and most of all for a Peter Rabe novel.   Although after all the beatings that went around, these people should be getting dental work and maybe dialysis.  Gold Medal must have had the best health plan going.

And that gets us through all the duplicate keys save one–that as I’ve already mentioned, came out the same year as Rabe’s last duplicate.  It’s the other duplicate written in the first person, and the only one set in a major city (The Major City, not that I’m biased).  The only one that’s really about The Mafia, and drug-smuggling, and all the things the others kind of danced around.

And it’s not upbeat or optimistic at all.  Not sure what kind of health plan Random House had, but more interested in what kind of funeral benefits they offered.  And yeah, I already reviewed this one.  First book I ever reviewed here.  Let’s see what I missed.  Next time.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Review: The Duplicate Keys

They rode in a taxicab to his rooms. For most of the ride they were silent. Once she said suddenly: “In that dream—I didn’t tell you—the key was glass and shattered in our hands just as we got the door open, because the lock was stiff and we had to force it.”

He looked sidewise at her and asked: “Well?”

She shivered. “We couldn’t lock the snakes in and they came out all over us and I woke up screaming.”

“That was only a dream,” he said. “Forget it.” He smiled without merriment.

From The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett

The Glass Key was an unqualified success for Hammett, a big seller, inspiring two film adaptations, neither of which captured the book’s spirit, but both of which made money.  It proved he could write from the perspective of criminals, instead of detectives, even if those criminals were, you might say, something of an aristocracy–existing in the space between the law-abiding and the lawless.

Critics have disagreed ever since about its place in the canon, some concurring with Hammett when he said it was his best book (never trust authors on the subject of their own work).  Others, like me, thought it was his worst. (You don’t have to trust me either.) It has somewhat languished in the shadow of the Continental Op stories, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man, which would tend to bear out its detractors, at least so far as enduring popularity is concerned.  But it could hardly be called a forgotten book. (The two I’m reviewing here qualify.)

Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler both liked it.  Greene liked characters with opaque motivations in stories with a harsh moralistic edge.  Chandler liked confusing plots that ended with the ambiguous hero going off with the girl (ambiguously).   So really, they were complimenting themselves.

Hammett’s #1 critical fan at the time was probably Dorothy Parker, who wrote in The New Yorker that she adored The Glass Key, but not nearly so much as The Maltese Falcon,  which had appeared a short time before.  Writing more of a mash note to Hammett than a serious review (you’d have to look long and hard for anybody writing serious reviews of Hammett back then), she doesn’t go into much detail about why she prefers the previous story, but I can hazard a guess.  The people.

Ned Beaumont is a hazy sort of hero, who blunders around in the dark, his motives undefined, his agenda scattered, shifting.  Sure, you could call that post-modernism before anybody called it that.  Since I hate post-modernism, I call it a writer who hasn’t quite figured out who his protagonist is, or what he’s trying to get across with him, and is hoping if he writes enough, he’ll figure that out.  Since Ned Beaumont isn’t a series character–is all used up by the end of  his one and only story–that wasn’t a viable approach.

The Maltese Falcon has a much better-defined hero (self-defined, in fact), who still has plenty of inner mysteries we can speculate about–he’s also, to some extent, a romanticized more independent version of The Op, so Hammett had a grip on him going in. He wasn’t starting from scratch.

Spade has a trio of eclectically eccentric villains to best, while Beaumont has to make do with a big dumb lug of a henchman, and a stage Irishman of a gangster whose comeuppance is a mite too contrived.  Spade also has not one but three interesting women vying for his attentions, each in her own signature style.  Say their names with me–Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Iva Archer, and the ineffable Effie Perine, mother of all Gumshoe Gal Fridays–and still the best of the bunch.

Now try to name the The Glass Key girls.  Drawing a blank?  I typed the name of the main girl repeatedly in the last review, and it’s gone out of my head.  She gives the book its title, serves as its primary plot complication, and I like the book much better when she’s not around.  Her name’s Janet.  I looked it up just now.  I’ll forget it again in no time.  Even though she’s helping Ned solve the mystery (or thinks she is), she seems not so much co-detective as co-dependent, not so much love interest as sex irritant.

Hammett crafted far more diverting damsels in all his other novels, and many of his short stories.  Most of all, he dropped the ball with the females in this book. And who’d mark that deficiency more acutely than the Queen of the Vicious Circle?  If Mrs. Parker loved Hammett to the point of mania, it was not least because at his best (and his worst) he really does get women, in all their perplexity of purpose.  Never met a pedestal he didn’t want to kick over.  He was far from perfect himself, and he never expected perfection from the fair sex (who ain’t so fair when it comes to that).

By the ordinary standards of hardboiled detective fiction, the women in The Glass Key are fine–typical, even.  He’d set a higher standard.  (In his next and final published novel, he arguably surpassed it.)

But in labeling this book a disappointment,  its hero an unsatisfying cipher, I can’t call either a complete failure.  As I said last time, Hammett had come up with one hell of an interesting set-up for a mystery, and a useful protagonist prototype.  Problematic, to be sure.  Perhaps unperfectable.

But in the decades following its publication, The Glass Key would prove a perennial temptation to other writers in the genre, each seeking the ideal combination of elements that eluded the original story’s creator.  Those seeking to emulate and improve upon Hammett’s magic would craft their own duplicate keys–only to have them shatter inside the lock.  Every time?  Let’s see.

I can’t possibly find all the duplicates (could be dozens, for all I know), but the earliest I’ve come across was written by James M. Cain, and published in 1942.  Let’s take a sideways look at—

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit:

She got the solemn frown on her face again, as though she wanted to make clear that it was no ordinary greed that prompted her present activities, but he ran his finger up the crease between her brows.

She laughed. “I want to be an idealist.”

“O.K., so I’m a chiseler.”

“Oh, say crook.”

“A chiseler, he’s not a crook.”

“He certainly isn’t honest.”

“He’s just in between.”

Two days before, when Lefty had said it, Ben had obviously been annoyed. Now, just as obviously, he was beginning to be proud of it. She laughed. “Anyway, we’re both walloping Caspar.”

Today, James M. Cain is remembered for The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity–and (it’s an old refrain) much more for the films inspired by his books than for the books themselves.  And there are reasons for that.

Joan Crawford buffs may recall that he also wrote Mildred Pierce–he dabbled a lot in melodrama, and never went in much for detectives.  There’s quite a lot of melodrama in this book, but it’s a crime novel, with a mystery to solve, and I liked it–and found myself losing interest too often. His style hasn’t dated well.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have twigged to it being a duplicate key (or should I say counterfeit?) if I hadn’t seen the movie made from it, with a more memorable title.  Maybe the only early color noir worth talking about, and I’ve watched it multiple times, because I’m a sucker for redheads.

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(Some posters didn’t bother with Payne at all.)

Cain’s book likewise has two sexy sisters setting their sights on the Ned Beaumont clone, but neither has Titian locks.  And this version of Beaumont is not big on loyalty, at least where bosses are concerned. But the novel is a very different thing from the film, the latter of which I slightly prefer.  I can’t say how much of that is based on Arlene Dahl in a leopard-print one-piece.  Nothing against Rhonda Fleming, but Dahl steals the picture, which kind of tracks with her character.

Cain’s story has the same bones, connected differently.  Ben Grace, errand boy for Solly Caspar, head of the local syndicate in a sewn-up midwestern town, has no love whatsoever for his employer, who treats the good-looking college grad come down in the world with amused disdain.  A major variation from Hammett’s bromance between Beaumont and Madvig and intentionally so–what if the fixer decided to fix things up for himself?

When deployed by Caspar to keep a troublesome political reformer at bay, Ben figures out he can use the do-gooder–and the do-gooder’s half-good assistant, a black-haired beauty named June Lyons–to give his boss the push.

By half-good, I mean June wants to do good, but she also wants to do well–and she’s got this younger sister she has to support, who shows up much later in the story than the equivalent character in the movie, who is there from the opening credits.  (Because Dahl lived up to her name, and you wouldn’t want to wait that long to see her.)

Aside from her financial needs, Ben’s a smart tough ex-football player who stayed in shape, and let’s just say Hollywood doesn’t always screw up  the casting for crime novel adaptations (just when it really counts). Ben Grace is a man who gets what he wants, and right now he wants June–just not the same way she wants him.

They go sleuthing and swimming together on a lake, find a dead body, and get a good look at each others’ bodies in the process. With her help he finds evidence that leads to the boss leaving town in a hurry.  Which he figures makes him the boss. He takes over the organization without firing a shot.  All this adventure turns June on no end, but Ben’s all business.

He’s got the reformer, now mayor, to make things look legit.  He’s got June, the girl the reformer is enamored of, to run interference with the mayor (who is uncomfortably aware that Ben helped get him elected).

He’s got a powerful ally on the police force (who isn’t 100% reliable).  He’s going to work the same old rackets, like pinball gambling machines, but dressed up to look like it’s just fun for the kids and a little extra cash for local merchants.  He literally just refits the original machines, discarded when the old boss went on the lam–pulls them off the scrap heap, sticks new decals on them.  The same old machine underneath.  Nice metaphor.  You get a lot more details about the seamy side of politics than you do from Hammett in The Glass Key.

Nobody gets hurt, and Ben gets rich. He also gets June,  a fringe benefit he enjoys (not in public, because the mayor still wants her).  He’s not gone for her, as she is for him.  He’s never experienced that sweet insanity.  Can’t fathom it.  You see where Cain’s going with this?  It’s the punch you don’t see coming that knocks you out.

See, this heel is of the Achilles variety. A recurring weakness of Cain protagonists, keeps tripping them up.  He’s got the last lingering ghost of a conscience, can’t commit fully to thug life.  If June’s not as good as she wants to be, Ben’s not as bad.  And the very last thing any heel ever needs is to fall head over heels himself.

But he does–for Dorothy, the younger of the two Lyons girls, who June has been fighting for years to keep out of prison.  A luscious light-haired klepto, with no conscience at all–and to Ben’s astonishment, and June’s horror, his soulmate.  They take one look at each other, and June might as well be on the moon.  If you really need a woman to back you, for your organization to stay afloat, probably shouldn’t fuck her kid sister.

Solly comes back for revenge, Ben kills him, and Dorothy’s the witness.  He tries to hide the body, but June rats them both out, hell hathing no fury and all.  They go on the run, finding a big stash of cash from the old operation–and solving a murder into the bargain, not that either of them cares, and frankly, neither do we.

The love of a bad woman, combined with the looming threat of the electric chair, has made Ben want to reform, join the war effort in Canada (which won’t ask too many questions), start a new life with Dorothy, who is gone enough on Ben to try and quell her larcenous habits for now.

But the bum luck of Cain’s anti-heroes is legendary.  They both get nabbed by the law, Ben badly wounded, Dorothy having no choice but to testify against him for Solly’s murder (which was self-defense, but with everything else they have on him, the judge won’t buy it).

He has one last trick to play, a variation on that old scene where the detective brings everybody together at the scene of the crime, but he’s the criminal, and detection is not his game.  It’s romantic as all hell, but if I explained how, that’d be a spoiler.  I’ll say this much–Jim Thompson read this book.  And I suppose you could argue that The Killer Inside Me is a duplicate duplicate key–and a really twisted one–but I’m not going there (Yet.)

This has never been considered one of Cain’s best books (nor are most of his other books), and it’s the only one I’ve read, so I shouldn’t form any snap judgments.  I can’t help but note a lot of problems with his prose, which is a bit overstuffed–about par with most best-selling books of that era that nobody reads now.  He doesn’t cut to the chase enough, even though it’s by no means a long novel.  It doesn’t have Hammett’s efficiency, or his intelligence. It does spend a lot more time dealing with the practical implications of practicing corruption without calling it that.

Ben Grace does not have a way with the witticisms like Ned Beaumont, his motives aren’t particularly mysterious.  The most interesting relationship in the book, his partnership with June, could have been fleshed out a bit more (you know what I meant–okay, I meant that too).  The most important relationship in the book, his ruinous romance with Dorothy, gets short shrift because Cain saves it for the end, and they barely have time to talk what with all the surreptitious screwing.

That’s his point, though–the man who thought he figured on everything never figured on falling for his girlfriend’s sister.  Nobody’s as smart as he thinks.  But love–or its counterfeit–does get one last inspired maneuver out of Ben.  I think Cain’s one of those crime writers (like W.R. Burnett) more significant for who he influenced than what he wrote himself, but one of these days, I am going to read Double Indemnity (a novella), and see how it matches up to the Wilder/Chandler version.

Cain wrote this maybe a decade after The Glass Key came out, and he went to some pains to change the story around.  This is the most divergent of the duplicates, where the relationship between fixer and boss is antagonistic from the start (and the fixer becomes the boss early on). As a general rule, the fixer survives in these stories, but rules are made to be broken, just like glass keys.

Women matter a lot more than in Hammett’s book, and not just sexually, though definitely that–you can see Cain’s stamp on what would soon be a roaring trade in spicy paperback originals, featuring dissolute amoral protagonists, satisfying their animal lusts, to the general delight of the strait-laced law-abiding populace.

I’d have said the book was well worth reading just for the scene where June strips to her skivvies and dives into the freezing water of the lake, as the two search for a body hidden there–telling a shivering Ben that women can handle the cold better than men.  And he’s impressed, but still–not stirred on any deeper level.  (More fool he, I’d say, but again, that’s the point.)

For all its fleshy pleasures, it’s the weakest of the duplicate keys.  Like Ben Grace, it’s not committed to the criminal path it’s chosen–written a bit too much to the mass market.  And yet, looking up the review in the Times, I saw that it got more ink there than any Westlake tome I can think of–though the review is condescending and dismissive, it’s still a review of a mainstream best-selling author.  “Here’s a nice piece of trash, if you’ve got the time and inclination to read it.”  Many did.  Few remember it now.

Cain’s novel began life as a hardcover, and so did the next key in our chain, written by a guy named Wade Miller, who was actually two guys from San Diego, pals since the age of twelve.  That friendship spawned a fruitful collaboration in what might be called the middle period of 20th century crime writing–after Hammett and Cain,  before Westlake and Block.

Unlike Cain, detective stories were their primary stock in trade, but like Hammett, they saw the value in branching out, looking at things from the criminal’s POV.  They also saw the potential in a gangster’s right-hand man being forced to solve a mystery–but they had their own idea about how that would go, and how the experience might impact said crook, in a 1949 effort with the rather odd title–

Devil On Two Sticks:

Thursday, May 19th, 4:00 p.m.

THERE WAS ONE PARKING PLACE OPEN NEAR THE Cathay Gardens when Steven Beck came along in his Buick.  A gray sedan had pulled up ahead, ready to back into the opening.  Beck tapped his horn and slid his Buick coupe in instead.  The driver of the gray car glared back, mouth working.  Beck met his eyes and laughed.  The other driver shifted gears savagely, spurted away through National City.

Beck got out of his black coupe on the curb side and walked back three buildings to Hop Kung’s Cathay Gardens.  His body moved as always with a quiet surety, as if convinced its every move was valuable.  His was a solid medium-sized body, conditioned in a club gym, tanned by sunlamp.  An afternoon breeze ruffed his hair pleasantly, taking the curse off the high May sun, the California sun he seldom had time for.

He looked younger than he was.  Part of this discrepancy was his crisp brown hair, cropped short like a college man’s, and part was his clothing.  Beck wore a tweed suit, slipover sweater and bow tie.  His eyes, light brown and thoughtful, were his softest features.  Nothing immature showed in his blunt face.  Patches of steel-gray bristles at his temples were clipped near to invisibility.  He carried his mouth locked shut but in the beginnings of a smile.

I first encountered the sleuthings of Robert Wade and Bill Miller via some dusty old paperbacks that came my way via my sometime partner in crime, Ray Garaty, who used to have me buy up big ebay lots for him, and I could have the books he didn’t want (as rackets go, I’ve seen worse).  Two of them were paperback reprints of Devil on Two Sticks, under the same alternate title.  (The original is derived from an 18th century French satire.)

(I have both Signet editions, but read the one on the left, because damn that’s nice art.)

I  got a few Max Thursday novels into the bargain, perused them, but those editions were not in great shape for reading–all six, published between ’47 and ’51, are now available for Kindle, and if you follow that link to Thrilling Detective, you can snap them all up for $3.99 a pop, like I just did.

A San Diego based P.I. ahead of his time, was Max.  More vulnerable and emotionally complex than maybe any other fictive gumshoe of that period (or most of those that followed).  Good at his job, but at the same time a bit of a loser–particularly when it came to love.  A recurrent theme with Messrs Wade & Miller. One can also find it in Hammett, on a minor key.  And in a different way, in Westlake, particularly when he’s writing as Tucker Coe.

(One thing this novel shares with the Thursday books is each chapter beginning with a date/time stamp.  Very X-Files.  40+ years before The X-Files.  This book we’re looking at came out roughly in the middle of the Thursday Era, so there’s some overlap. No ebook, sadly.  Most of their work is out of print.)

Steven Beck is a fixer for a southern California syndicate called ‘the circle,’ operating out of National City.  (All the duplicate keys save this and one other are set in towns that don’t exist, just like the master key.)

Like Ned Beaumont, he’s only been with this outfit about a year, and has quickly become indispensable, respected by his colleagues, and somewhat feared.  He’s got a mind like a computer; precise and capacious, packed with information on anyone who might be useful to his boss.

“State Senator Gene L. Wake.  Some papers call him The Parimutuel Senator.  Talks like a farmer, dresses like a farmer, but grew up on Main Street, L.A.  Gambling lobby in Sacramento.  One of the Fierro’s front men before Fierro retired.  In state politics for about, oh, seven, eight years.”  Beck tossed off his drink, went to pour another.

Behind him, Garland laughed.  “What’d I tell you, Gene? Like clockwork.”

Wake’s twangy voice complained, “Downright uncanny, considering I don’t have a name this far south.  How’s he do it?”

“I don’t know.  How do you do it, Steve?”

“Professional secret.”

“You left out only one thing,” said Garland.  “Gene may be our next governor.”

Beck sat down again, held up his glass.  “God save California.”

His boss is Pat Garland, a big man, getting bigger, who runs a good-sized territory, has at least one major state politician on the payroll (see above) who shows up with unsettling news–somebody inside the organization is feeding intel to the state Attorney General’s office.  A plant.  A cop of some kind, posing as one of them, who Steve can tell from the letter Wake got via a bureaucratic snafu must have legal training.

No way to fix the AG’s office, so they’ve got to fix the leak, which means fixing the leaker.  Has to be someone who joined up not much more than a year ago, fairly high on the food chain, which narrows it to six suspects.  One of whom is Beck, but he’s prominently mentioned in the letter, and Pat trusts him–mainly.  He gets the enviable task of checking out the other five.  He’s a detail guy, so he’s got a question.

“One more point.  When I dig up this AG man–what do I do?”

Garland paused, replacing the bottle.  His face was surprised.  “Do you have to ask?  You kill him.”

“I just like to be accurate,” Beck said.

Now when I reviewed The Glass Key, skimping on the synopsis more than I normally do, I neglected to mention one vital plot point–Ned Beaumont learns that somebody is sending poison pen letters to newspaper editors and law enforcement personnel, implying Ned’s boss and buddy, Paul Madvig, is a murderer, and is using his political clout to cover it up. That was kind of a big thing to skip over.  (I like to be accurate too, but sometimes space considerations get in the way, and this is looking like a five part series anyway, so bear with me.)

A big part of the story hinges on who’s writing those letters, and how Ned figures that out.  However, since Paul is strangely indifferent to the whole matter, Ned is doing this strictly on his own time, for his own reasons, chief among which is his friendship with Paul.

Cain didn’t really touch on this in his duplicate key, though there’s a hint of it in June’s jealous betrayal of Ben and Dorothy–no anonymous letters from an informant within the mob, and Ben’s too busy hatching schemes and juggling sisters for most of the book to do much detective work.  Cain wasn’t much interested in that kind of mystery.  Hammett was, but wanted to prove he could write something else.

Wade & Miller, full-time gumshoers that they were, saw unrealized potential there–what if the fixer was professionally obligated not only to play shamus but judge and executioner into the bargain?

And what if he was neither bosom buddies with the boss, nor looking to do him in, take his place?  Loyalty is not a big thing for either of them.  He and Pat are friendly, but not friends. Beck takes pride in doing his work well, for its own sake, and for the handsome financial compensation that comes with it.  It’s what he does, therefore who he is, and he’s learned to keep his feelings buttoned up, since they get in the way of doing the job.  He’s not emotionally involved with anyone or anything.  Like Ben Grace, however, it’s going to be emotion, relating to a woman, that does him in.  (I’d say Ben gets off easy by comparison, but it’s debatable.)

As he goes from suspect to suspect–while Pat wonders if maybe Beck’s the plant, no Madvig he–Beck encounters Marcy Everett, self-styled black sheep daughter of the organization’s shady lawyer, J.J. Everett, who is another suspect on the list (he’s got the legal training).  Much younger than him, tawny hair, slim build, modern morals (they had those in the late 40’s too–I doubt there was ever a time they didn’t have them).

Just like Ben with Dorothy, he’s taken aback at how quickly he falls for her–starts out as mere lust, quickly morphs into a strong protective urge.  Only (variation time again) she doesn’t fall for him.  They have a fast flirtation, an enticing first date, she’s definitely into him–but her roving eye turns to yet another suspect on his list, a younger man, Eddie Cortes, tall and swarthily handsome, reputed to have been a rather brutal pimp down near Mexico, before joining the circle. Good dancer.

By the time Beck realizes what’s happening, it’s already happened.  It creeps up on him slowly, sharp operator that he is–it’s maybe the one thing we the readers pick up on before him.  Nobody’s smart about love.

Unlike Cain, who didn’t want to hew too close to Hammett’s book (already a movie by then, another one coming, so that was prudent of him), Wade and Miller cover every major plot point from The Glass Key, and you can tell how much fun they had taking it apart and putting it back together, knowing that only fellow mystery mavens will spot the references.  (The English Bulldog becomes a Persian Cat, if you’d believe it.)

The early near break-up between Beaumont and Madvig?  Garland nearly has Beck whacked, thinking he’s the spy, a notion encouraged by J.J. Everett, out to save his own neck.  When that’s cleared up, Beck almost quits in a cold rage–but Garland sweet talks him back in, offering a raise. There’s no love between these two at all, but they work well together, and Beck is all about the job.

Well, maybe not 100% about the job.  Beaumont walking away at the end with the girl of Madvig’s social-climbing dreams?  The equivalent in this book is Leda, Garland’s tall classy black-haired swan of a wife (that’s her on the left-hand paperback cover), having a risky extramarital fling with Beck that he’s about ready to end, thinking he’s still got the inside track with Marcy–but Leda’s not ready to let him go.

The dialogue in this book is first-rate.  According to this piece, the way the partners worked was to outline carefully, then they’d take turns writing drafts, each revising the other, until they had it just the way they wanted.  A very precise well-calibrated book would result, with each man contributing something of his own, but you’d be hard pressed to see the joins.  Never seems written by committee.  You get some nifty philosophizing along the way here, and it ties in neatly to the theme of the book, and its machine-like protagonist.

Here’s a good sample from late in the story–a cocktail party at Garland’s house.  Leda’s just tried to seduce Beck.  J.J. Everett (Marcy’s father, remember, who has just asked Beck to stop Cortes from dating her, not knowing Beck already has).  The Tarrants are there, members of the circle, who just lost a key employee because Beck incorrectly fingered him as the spy, and Garland wouldn’t wait for confirmation, but subsequent events have proven they killed the wrong man.  Garland’s angry about that, and that an underling of his has not shown up for the party.

J.J. is now Beck’s #1 suspect.  But it’s a cocktail party, and they’re going to pretend all that isn’t happening, and J.J. will talk to distract Garland from his rage.  Sophisticated upscale gangsters.  Not a goombah in the bunch.

(If it helps, I’ve headcast J.J. as William Powell.)

Everett repeated, “I’ll tell you how and why.  Homo sapiens, the wise animal, has evolved from the more bestial, more complete animals.  We are weakening because of the mixture we’ve made of ourselves lately.  I’d say we had abandoned humanity almost entirely in order to breed the machine and we can’t survive, half-animal and half-mechanical.  You see, the next evolutionary step is the pure complete machine.  So let’s reconcile ourselves to making way.”

Leda, rustling by Beck, murmured, “What’s he talking about?”

Beck shrugged and said, “Somebody has to.”

She glanced towards her husband’s morose bulk and bore out some more dishes.

Everett said, “We were goners, you know, as soon as we accepted machine ideals as our ideals.  And don’t think we haven’t.  We even believe that human nature is inferior to the machine, which is perfection.  We admire its accuracy, its speed and strength, its impersonality, and its standardization, which is the machine  word for our own beloved conformity.  Especially we envy the absolute neatness and comfort of predestination.  That’s the basis of all machinery.”

Beck gazed stolidly back at him.  He felt irritably that the lawyer was making fun of him in some obscure fashion  Now that an explosion from Garland had been averted, he wished that Everett would shut up.

He doesn’t, of course (William Powell, remember?).  He expands on his theme at some length, even brings up cybernetics, “the machinery to replace brains,” and if you’re not impressed by that, please recall this book is copyrighted 1949 and its authors didn’t write science fiction.

Beck’s not sure if J.J.’s poking fun at him personally, or the whole world, and either way it bothers him.  Because J.J.’s right, and he’s the future?  Or because J.J.’s wrong, and he’s just another failed experiment, still all messy and emotional on the inside, for all his attempts to suppress it, tick smoothly like the expensive chronometer on his wrist?  He takes Marcy on a late date that very evening, the dog track, where they watch greyhounds chase a mechanical lure they never will catch up to.

He brings up Cortes–and what Cortes does for a living–knowing Marcy is aware of ‘the circle’ her father is part of, wary of Beck because he’s part of it too.  That goes about as well as you’d expect, and then Leda shows up, which goes even better.  Any chance he had left with Marcy (not as modern as she thought) doesn’t survive the encounter.  He finds her later at Eddie’s place, and it’s a bit too soap opera, but so are people a lot of the time, when their hormones get going.

So after the sad predictable scene has played itself out, he’s ready to finger J.J. just to get even with her.  His rage has to expend itself somewhere, but it has to be a sanctioned target.  He still has to do his job right.  His job is all he has left.  Or rather, his job is all that’s left of him.

The Shad O’Rory of the piece–a subordinate looking to take out Garland and become the new boss–comes along very late in the story here (with the Persian Cat), and wants Beck to come in with him–or else.  Beck may not be loyal to Garland, but he’s loyal to himself–his sense of professionalism.  Instead of ending up in the hospital, like Beaumont, Beck puts the turncoats in the morgue.  (Don’t worry, the cat is fine.)

(This, incidentally, is where you maybe should stop reading if you don’t want to know how the story comes out and who the informant is.)

He gets a call from Leda, as he patches himself up.  She’s not accepting their affair is over.  She’s ready to blow their whole world up to keep him, if that’s what it takes.  He will have her or a bullet from her husband.  Is the general gist.  Just to make his day perfect.

He decides to go get drunk.  He has to figure this out.  Isn’t he the machine man, the splendid automaton, the guy who always wins?  This never happened to Ned Beaumont!  Even Ben Grace had not one but two girls–sisters at that!–madly in love with him before meeting a dramatic end of his own choosing.  Who’s the anti-hero of this story, anyway?

Then just what was he: Steven Beck?  The bursting light of answer he could believe burned around him and through him.  He was clockwork.  He was caught in the wheels so he was caught in himself.

No, he couldn’t see any difference between himself and a machine.  He had all the same virtues.  He liked to be accurate.  Why?  He stuck the question into himself viciously.  What was so wonderful about facts when they had gotten him into this position?  After all, two plus two only equaled four because the whole world had agreed that they should.  What was so wonderfully worshipful about that?

And what really irks him, more than anything else, is that Marcy can’t see Eddie Cortes for what he is–she’s spent time with him, she must have seen his sleazy moves by now.  He knows Marcy was drunk the night Eddie took her home, he would have taken advantage, that cheap whore-mongering–wait a minute.

What if he’s none of those things?  What if Marcy is seeing the real Eddie Cortes–the one nobody in the circle ever sees?  What is there is no Eddie Cortes?  Or used to be and is no more, leaving his identity available to be borrowed?  One might say illicitly, but…..

Beck goes to brace Eddie at a nearby beach resort–Marcy’s there with him, in the water, wearing a white swimsuit–not wanting to talk to Beck, she keeps her distance.  Which is fine by him. He hasn’t come to talk to her.  He shows Eddie the palm gun he got from one of his would-be killers–he normally never carries one–and tells him the game is up.

‘Eddie’ puts up a token resistance, then spills, figuring he’s dead either way.  His real name is William Joseph Allison.  Never got so much as a parking ticket in his life.  He did legal research in the AG’s office, wanted to try undercover work.  This was his shot.  Maybe a bad choice of words.

His Latin looks, that qualified him to take the real Eddie’s place, he came by honestly, through a Mexican grandmother.  (Well, I guess we all come by our genes honestly, if nothing else.)  Eddie Cortes drank himself to death right after he got out of San Quentin, and that was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up to take out Garland’s circle.

He tells Beck it’s all over, either way–they’ve got most of what they need–they could use Garland’s ledgers, that he’s been hiding from them, all those names and figures–if Beck were to provide them, he’d maybe get a light sentence…..

No dice.  That would be unprofessional.  He’s already sent Garland claim tickets for the books via the mail.  There’s a looming gang war, due to Garland’s own stupidity, his inability to control his emotions.  Beck knows, however, that he could fix it all.  He could fix the machine, end the war, outwit the law.  And kill this bastard who stole his girl right out from under his nose.  Of course he’d have to kill her too.

And this is where Steven Beck decides he’s not a machine.  He does have a choice.  Marcy loves this bum, and much as he hates to admit it, the bum is worthy of her.  More than he is, anyway.  She hates him now, thanks to Leda.  Killing his rival won’t get him what he wants.  Even if he fixed Pat’s wagon, Leda would end up fixing his.  He’s got plenty saved up.  He just has to leave the state and lay low.  Pat won’t last much longer without him. Beck won’t be a cog in a machine anymore–not Pat’s circle, and not Eddie’s either.

He asks a stunned Eddie/William/Whoever to tell Marcy the truth sometime–wishes him luck breaking the news that he’s been lying to her, is going to put her daddy in jail.  They might catch Beck too, someday–but he doesn’t think so.

Wearing the same enigmatic half-smile he had when the book opened, he walks away on rubbery legs, wobbling a bit in the sand.  He’s lost the whole world and gained his immortal soul.  (Who does that remind me of?)

In just about every way I can put a finger on, this is a better book than The Glass Key. Better plotted, better motivated, better denouement.  More honest.  Starker, you might even say.

It also does a better job than either Hammett’s or Cain’s book with regards to discussing the relationship between organized crime and government–the little corruptions that don’t seem to matter much, taken one at a time.  After all, Garland reasons earlier, they’re just providing entertainments people want, like gambling.  Maybe they’ll get into drugs sometime (Beck’s against it), but that’s just another entertainment.  Wade and Miller get into the weeds of what a fixer does, the arrangements such a person has to make, the people he has to meet in a working day, maybe smoke a cigar with, hammer out deals with.  Like these fine citizens.

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(I had not realized, when conceiving this series about fictional fixers some weeks back, how au courant it was going to become, but that’s happened to me before.)

It’s better than Hammett’s book in every way but one, but it’s a big one–style. Excellent writing, but a bit mechanical itself, at times.  Maybe a bit too geared to the style of 50’s paperbacks, delicious as that can be.  It’s very good writing, exceptionally good–not great.  Because the style isn’t quite there.

Two close friends writing as one collective entity (under a number of pseudonyms besides Wade Miller) can have the same interests, the same preoccupations, the same overriding themes, the same piercing intelligence–but style is a fingerprint.  When it’s two fingers, from two different hands, the print gets smudged a bit. Unavoidable.

I wouldn’t say they don’t have any style–more than I’d have thought possible–but how many ever had it like Hammett?  It’s a quibble; a damned subjective one, and you don’t have to agree with me.  I don’t even agree with myself.  I think it’s a damn shame most of their books are out of print.  Bill Miller died in ’61, same year I was born (same year Dashiell Hammett died)–only 41 years of age.  But Bob Wade carried on after him–never again as Wade Miller, though.  A 29 year partnership.  How many marriages last that long?  And produce so many gifted offspring?

I’ve got four more books (and one film) to review, and my point in all this is not to say that these writers all read The Glass Key and went about retooling it to their own specifications.  It runs deeper than that.  I’ve little doubt Wade and Miller read Cain’s book as well. (Beck, like Ben, gets caught between a dark-haired woman with connections, right around his age who he doesn’t love, who won’t let him go–and a younger, flightier, light-haired woman he loves too much, and he has to let her go.  It’s easy to see when you’re looking.)

And we’ll see that progression, that accretion of influences, as we make our way through the remaining duplicates.  I’ve no doubt at all that Westlake read Devil On Two Sticks.  It’s too skillful for anybody in that genre who cared about good writing to ignore.  There are numerous little moments in the book that remind you of Westlake–not least the fascination with identity crises, and professionalism.  He was studying Wade and Miller.   Thinking of ways he could improve on their improvements.  Carry the torch a ways further.

And we know for a fact Westlake read everything ever produced by the next keysmith in our chain.  Fellow named Peter Rabe.  Who you might say made stories about mob fixers something of a specialty.  Nobody ever did more of them, and nobody ever did them better.   He even gives us three possible endings for the beleaguered fixer:

(1) Dark yet hopeful.
(2) Tragic yet thoughtful.
(3) Jarring yet joyful.

(My vote for Michael Cohen is “sordid but lawful.”  Isn’t that awful?)

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books–haven’t typed that for a while.)

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Review: The Glass Key

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Paul Madvig arrived early in the afternoon. “Christ, I’m glad to see you alive again!” he said. He took the invalid’s unbandaged left hand in both of his.

Ned Beaumont said: “I’m all right. But here’s what we’ve got to do: grab Walt Ivans and have him taken over to Braywood and shown to the gun-dealers there. He—”

“You told me all that,” Madvig said. “That’s done.”

Ned Beaumont frowned. “I told you?”

“Sure—the morning you were picked up. They took you to the Emergency Hospital and you wouldn’t let them do anything to you till you’d seen me and I came down there and you told me about Ivans and Braywood and passed out cold.”

“It’s a blank to me,” Ned Beaumont said. “Did you nail them?”

“We got the Ivanses, all right, and Walt Ivans talked after he was identified in Braywood and the Grand Jury indicted Jeff Gardner and two John Does, but we’re not going to be able to nail Shad on it. Gardner’s the man Ivans dickered with and anybody knows he wouldn’t do anything without Shad’s say-so, but proving it’s another thing.”

“Jeff’s the monkey-looking guy, huh? Has he been picked up yet?”

“No. Shad took him into hiding with him after you got away, I guess. They had you, didn’t they?”

“Uh-huh. In the Dog House, upstairs. I went there to lay a trap for the gent and he out-trapped me.” He scowled. “I remember going there with Whisky Vassos and being bitten by the dog and knocked around by Jeff and a blond kid. Then there was something about a fire and—that’s about all. Who found me? and where?”

“A copper found you crawling on all fours up the middle of Colman Street at three in the morning leaving a trail of blood behind you.”

“I think of funny things to do,” Ned Beaumont said.

You can’t tell a completely new story.  That’s a fact.  Nobody can do anything about it, nobody should try.  Total originality is a chimera; maybe not even something one should aspire to–wouldn’t something completely unprecedented be at the same time untested, unreliable–even incomprehensible?  How would we even know if it was any good or not?  Art is a process, hopefully a progression–like life.  You build on what came before, absorbing influences, and sometimes improving on them.  Evolution is a thing, and we should respect it, since it’s how we all got here.

All that being said,  there’s some consensus that this particular story, structured this particular way, within this particular genre, is a relatively original confabulation of Dashiell Hammett’s.  If anybody told it before, in some form or other, it didn’t take, and nobody remembers it. You could probably find some version of it in Shakespeare, like you can everything else, but Shakespeare didn’t write crime fiction, he wrote fiction with crimes in it.  There’s a difference.

Perhaps something of a certain wily Spanish barber here?  Ostensibly the servant of a count, but with his own ingenious agenda, wheels within wheels, and he gets the girl.  Maybe, but Senor Figaro had his predecessors as well, and none of them are the stuff hardboiled heroes are made of.

Let’s run through the particulars, shall we?  There’s this guy.  Tough.  Resourceful.  Smart.  Attractive to the ladies.  Snappy dresser.  Coolly competent, with a cutting sarcastic wit.  A cagey operator, a fixer, a consigliere, working for some kind of criminal outfit.  This outfit isn’t necessarily a gang.  But connected.  Fingers in a lot of pies.  Playing a dominating role in whatever burg it’s situated in (usually a fictional one).  In short, a machine.

But that machine has a lot of moving parts, depends on a whole lot of things running just so.  There’s the law to worry about (though it’s usually on the take), and there’s rival outfits looking to cut themselves in.  There’s the human factor to contend with.  Machines with lots of moving parts are prone to breaking down.

Hence the need for a fixer, and he’ll be our protagonist, our window into this world.  But he’s not the boss.  He works for the boss.  The boss’ good right hand.  A valued asset.  He and the boss are just like that.  Maybe

It’s the maybe part the story tends to hinge on.   That’s where the variables tend to stem from.  Where do the fixer’s ultimate loyalties lie?  How much can he rely on the boss?  How much can the boss rely on him?  How much do they trust each other when the chips are down?  Why is such a multi-talented individual content to be a mere flunky?  Is he, in fact, content to be that?  There’s dames in the mix, because that goes with the territory, and they just complicate things further, but nobody’s complaining much.

Hammett had written about a town with just such a machine before, in Red Harvest.  The Continental Op comes to a corrupt midwestern mining town, where rival factions are at each others’ throats, and even though it’s none of his beeswax, in the process of doing his job, he plays them against each other, and restores a sort of balance, strictly off the books.

But his loyalties are never in question, because he’s talking to us in the first person, and we know what he’s up to, who he works for.  He brings us into his confidence.  He’s an employee, a private cop, on the side of the law, even if he bends it a lot.  A detective.

The hero of The Glass Key is, technically, a detective for most of the narrative, sworn in as an investigator for the D.A’s office, trying to solve a murder (which turns into several).  But that’s just a disguise he puts on, to help his friend, the power behind the throne, who has city hall (and the D.A.’s office) in his pocket.   If he finds out his boss is the murderer, he’ll still help him beat the rap.

Hammett had written about criminals his whole career, often from direct experience with them, as a Pinkerton operative.  His detectives were on the shady side of the law, often leaning towards illegality, but still lawmen, when the chips were down.  Not this new guy. If Sam Spade is ambiguously straight (you know what I meant), Ned Beaumont is just as ambiguously crooked.  They’re working different sides of the same mean street.

It’s hard to say just how crooked, because Ned Beaumont (at all times referred to as such by the very formal narrator) isn’t going to share with us.  He’s not going to tell us what’s going on inside his head.  The Continental Op stories are the Op telling us his stories, but Hammett had moved into the third person with The Maltese Falcon, and found it suited him (he’d dabbled in earlier shorts, but not his best ones). He went back to first person with The Thin Man, but weirdly it still felt like third person, the ambiguity and emotional distance remaining (Westlake admired this very neat trick, but we can talk about that some other time).

Hammett doesn’t use the greater freedom of this more objective format to switch up perspectives, though.  He’s still sticking with his man, be it Spade or Beaumont, letting us see the world entirely through their sharp cynical eyes, but not letting us inside their sharp cynical minds, as he did with the Op.  Keeping us guessing.  Who is this guy?  What’s he up to?  What does he want?  Does he even know?  That’s the real mystery.  The rest is McGuffins.

Hammett’s novels came out one after the other from the late 20’s through the middle 30’s, usually first in serial form in Black Mask, then in hardcover (no paperbacks yet).  Between 1927, when the early version of Red Harvest started its run, to 1934, when The Thin Man came out in book form.

Five novels.  Two with The Op, then three successive protagonists, each of whom had other stories afterwards, but Hammett never could come up with a convincing second act for any of them.  The Op stories greatly outnumber all the others combined, but that was partly because Hammett stopped writing–at least he stopped writing stuff he believed in enough to publish in book form, which to him was all that really counted.  Movies, radio–nice source of drinking money.  It wasn’t real.

Hammett was hitting a wall.  Everybody’s got an opinion about what that wall was composed of, how it got built.  Lillian Hellman said she never figured it out, and who’d know better than her?  Hammett was the ultimate Hammett protagonist.  Nobody knew what he wanted.  Maybe not even  him.  But with just five books, written in less than a decade, he changed the face of mystery forever.  The genre has produced a few better writers (Westlake was one of them), but he was its supreme innovator.  Perhaps the greatest genre writer of all time.  Better than most of the non-genre people as well.

But for all that, Mr. Hammett and I have a little disagreement.  He said The Glass Key was the best of his five published novels.  I’ve read all five now, and I say it’s his worst.  Still pretty damn great.  Full of inspired passages, like the one above.  Asking some very good questions, laying some very crucial groundwork. But the answers aren’t entirely satisfying, the paving stones don’t fit together just right.

For one thing, it’s supposed to be a murder mystery, and the mystery itself is on the weak side.  For another, Ned Beaumont is by far the least convincing of Hammett’s four major protagonists, because he’s got motivation problems.  That all his later fictional progeny inherited, to some degree.  For all his talents, he’s a study in failure.  A loser by choice.  Maybe that’s what Hammett liked about him.

Hammett found a problem well worth solving–a new way of telling a detective story, a new perspective for writing about the criminal underworld, and its many links to the world us solid citizens live in–and he couldn’t balance out the equation.  But he saw the potential there, even if he couldn’t quite realize it.  Hoping, perhaps, that he could figure it out later.  Later never came.  The Glass Key turned out to be a promise never fulfilled.  At least not by Hammett himself.

In fiction, as in math, unsolved problems are often the most intriguing ones, and each new generation will test itself against them.  Many have taken a whack at rebalancing Hammett’s figures.  We’ll be talking about that.  Let’s check his calculations first.

214 pages in the first edition hardcover.  10 chapters.  Each chapter is long, and split into roman-numeraled sections–Chapter 1 gets IX of them.

Ned Beaumont is introduced to us as an habitual gambler who loses a lot at the craps tables, and never once worries about it.  He’s not gambling to get rich, but because he likes it.  On his way to get more good money to throw after bad, he runs into a guy he knows named Walter Ivans.  He greets him by saying ‘Lo Walt. He greets everybody this way.  The ‘Lo part.  Can’t be bothered with a two syllable greeting.  Not big on formalities, is Ned Beaumont.

Ivans stutters–he’s nervous, but seems like the impediment isn’t just nerves.  (Also seems like this rings a bell with me, with regards to a very early Westlake novel based quite directly on this one.  Mr. Westlake found subtle ways to namecheck his influences.)

Ivans’ brother is up for a prison rap–he and Walt are both connected to the same outfit as Ned.  He wants the boss of their outfit, Paul Madvig to make that rap go away.  Ned, visibly discomfited, says he will, but not until November–after the next election.  Walt’s not satisfied.  Ned says he’ll talk to Paul about it, but Walt shouldn’t expect anything.

He goes upstairs to the boss’s office–yeah, same house as the gambling parlor. Not much need to keep up appearances of legality in this sewn-up town.  He asks Paul for a couple hundred to tide him over (around three grand today). Madvig, a tall powerful-looking blonde in a suit, maybe forty-five years of age, is not merely the big wheel, but the only wheel in town–everybody else is just a cog in his machine.  Never ran for office in his life, and all the politicians are under his well-manicured thumb.  He’s also Ned’s best friend in the world–maybe his only friend.  Ned’s not really the Dale Carnegie type, as we’ll see.

Paul coughs up the two hundred like it’s carfare.  But he expresses concern at Ned’s recent run of luck.  He hasn’t won in over a month.  “That’s a long time to be losing.”  “Not for me” Ned Beaumont responds, bothered by the concern. Prickly, even with his pals.

Ned picks up the phone and calls a bookie.  Hedges a bet on Peggy O’Toole–500 to win, 500 to place, 500 to show.  He’s mad at himself about that.  Says he should have put the whole fifteen on her nose.  Only it might not rain.  Peggy runs better in the rain.  We’re inferring Peggy is a horse.  I had a dog named Peggy.  Ran like blazes, wet or dry.  Hey,  if you’re bored, you can leave.  Ned’s not the only one who gets prickly around here.

They spar a bit, these two.  There’s always some beef between them. They can never be fully at ease together, because they’re not wired that way.  Ned works for Paul, hits him up for money often, but he’s not the type to knuckle under, to anybody, ever.  Paul respects that, and he needs Ned–his brains, his guts, his instincts.  But the sparring never ends.  Here’s a sample round in the running bout–

Ned Beaumont grinned crookedly at the blond man and made his voice drawl. “We didn’t have to do much worrying about women’s clubs before we joined the aristocracy.”

“We do now.” Madvig’s eyes were opaque.

“Tim’s wife’s going to have a baby next month,” Ned Beaumont said.

Madvig blew breath out in an impatient gust. “Anything to make it tougher,” he complained. “Why don’t they think of those things before they get in trouble? They’ve got no brains, none of them.”

“They’ve got votes.”

“That’s the hell of it,” Madvig growled. He glowered at the floor for a moment, then raised his head. “We’ll take care of him as soon as the votes are counted, but nothing doing till then.”

Paul’s working on a move that could make him respectable, get him out of the rackets for keeps, married to Janet Henry, beautiful young society girl, the daughter of a senator who needs Paul’s support for reelection.  Paul talks up the political advantages for their organization in this strategic alliance.  Ned figures the alliance is more amorous than strategic–Paul’s in love, maybe more with the idea of Janet than Janet herself.  But either way, it’s amour fou, and Paul can’t be argued out of it.

And if this all panned out, if he ascended to a higher level, what would Paul need his faithful fixer for?  Ned’s skeptical Paul’s plan will ever pan out–old money always looks down on new, and Janet has shown no interest in Paul. But still, the question remains implicit–if Paul marries up, does he leave Ned down below to run the stuff he can’t touch anymore?  Right now, it’s moot.  They’re still in the trenches, fighting rival machines, political and criminal in nature.  Paul can’t get by without his good right arm.

The arm, for his part, would take six bullets for Paul without a whimper.  But the tension is always there, regardless.  Alpha males.  Two men who look at the world in deeply incompatible ways, and like each other all the more for that.  Their acquaintance can’t be longstanding–we’re told Ned got to this hick burg from New York a year or two back.  We don’t know how they met, how they got so close, how Ned became family–Paul’s mother keeps asking when Ned’s coming to dinner.  The two must have clicked almost on sight.

We never learn how this friendship got started.  But Hammett can get it all across to us in a few brush strokes.  He takes it for granted we all know what it’s like, the loyalty of friendship.  How much it means, in a cold and inconstant world.  How much you’ll put yourself through for it.  And all the more if you’re one of those people who have a hard time finding it.

The friendship between Beaumont and Madvig is a mystery in itself.  And is there any greater mystery than friendship?  How it gets born.  And how, sometimes, it dies.  The first mystery isn’t dealt with here, but we’re going to get an answer on the second.  Spoiler alert.

A lot happens in Chapter 1.  After Paul tells Ned to keep the foot soldiers happy by footing all the bills for the jailed man’s wife, Ned goes out and at some point finds a dead body on the street.  He doesn’t call the cops right away.  You get the feeling this kind of thing happens to him all the time, but this is a different order of stiff.

It’s Taylor Henry, son of Senator Henry, brother of Janet.  A bit of a rake.  Who has been sniffing around Paul’s charming young daughter, perhaps by a prior marriage, but that’s another thing we never hear much about.  Paul has made it clear there’s to be no romantic quid pro quo in this case, but that just made Taylor more attractive to her, and she to him.  Forbidden fruit.

So before calling the law, Ned goes back to straighten out a few things with Paul. Like, did he do it?  Paul’s not telling either way.  He doesn’t sound real broken up about it–or surprised.  Says Ned should go ahead and make the call, which he does.  Oh, and in the sporting news, it did rain, and Peggy O’Toole came through like a champ.  Ned’s won a tidy sum.  But his bookie has disappeared.  Somebody owes him money!  (Westlake  never stopped referencing Hammett).

Turns out the bookie, named Despain, also held paper on Taylor Henry, who was known to be careless about things like debts of honor.  Could Despain be the killer?  That would make Ned’s life easier in some ways, harder in others (he needs that dough).  He tells Paul he’s going to pop over to New York, where this welsher is holed up, and just to make things legal, Paul should get him sworn in as a deputy sheriff or something equivalent.  It ends up being special prosecutor for the DA’s office.  Easier to fix.

Paul’s not happy about any of this, but Ned’s a dinner guest at Paul’s house when he makes this odd request.  Hard for him to say no, since Ned is saying that if he can’t collect his winnings, after finally winning, it’s going to make him feel like he’s fated to lose.  Is this the real reason why he wants to go?  I have no idea. Maybe Ned doesn’t either.  He improvises a lot. Knows where he’s going when he gets there.

Before Ned leaves, he talks to Opal, Paul’s daughter.  They’re pretty tight, or they were.  He’s almost a big brother to her.  He knows right away she’s lying when she says she hadn’t seen Taylor Henry for weeks.  Her main reaction to this is to wonder if Ned and her father had been spying on her trysts with Taylor.  Ned hadn’t been.  Good bet Paul had.  The last thing she says, before Chapter 1 ends, is that she’s pretty sure she was in love with Taylor Henry.  It goes without saying that she’s thinking that’s what got him killed.

Ned gets to New York, finds Despain, gets his money, and comes back fairly well convinced that Despain didn’t kill Taylor Henry (but he’d do for a fall guy if one was needed).  Ned is a very reluctant detective indeed, since he’d really rather not know if Paul is the killer.  All the more since if he was, Paul should have told him already.  They’re supposed to be pals.  And you don’t keep your second in command in the dark on something this big.

So that’s the set-up.  There’s a few more elements to be introduced, like the diabolical Shad O’Rory, an Irish gangster who speaks with the expected brogue (not too thick, and neither is he).  He’s Paul’s principal rival, hoping to exploit his vulnerabilities to take control of the city himself.  Ned’s got him pretty well scouted, but Shad’s got a few tricks up his sleeve, and some formidable henchmen, one of whom is a real bulldog–not a metaphor, he’s literally a dog, with a mind like a steel trap.  Also not a metaphor.

The big X-factor is Ned’s attractiveness to women, which he seems to find more of a nuisance than anything else.  Women hold a lot of the secrets in this story, and they insist on sharing them with Ned.  Now in the second movie adaptation, with Alan Ladd–which probably a lot more people know than the novel–there’s a strong emphasis on the relationship between Ned and Janet.  Because Ned and Janet are played by Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, who had been established as a screen team by This Gun For Hire, an equally misleading adaptation of a Graham Greene novel Westlake was influenced by.

As often happened with Hammett, the first adaptation was more faithful to the book, but it was a later film that stuck in the public imagination.  Movies like big romantic pairings, and the problem with a straight-up adaptation is that the big romantic pairing in the novel is between two men, isn’t sexual in nature  (I guess you could figure it that way, but you’d be figuring wrong), and doesn’t have a happy ending.  (And if they’d been true to the book, neither would the Ladd/Lake thing, but after This Gun For Hire, the populace would be jonesing for them to get a break one, so why not? Hollywood.)

The Glass Key isn’t really about sex, though.  And Ned isn’t really about Janet. He likes her and all, but he likes other women too.  He drives one man to suicide just by making love to his wife by the fireside, in the man’s house, while the poor guy watches.  Ned feels bad about this.  But he feels bad about lots of things he’s going to do anyway.  And the guy had it coming.  He ends up with the one girl he should have stayed away from, but it’s impossible to believe they’ll be together very long.

In spite of my penchant for blow-by-blow synopses, I find myself oddly disinclined to go into all the funny things Ned Beaumont finds to do in this book.  Seems like every other chapter, he’s running around in the dark, covered in mud (I think that only happens twice).  Literal and metaphorical mud.

He gets cussed out, beaten up, tied up, mauled by a dog, put in the hospital (where he engages in the standard Hammett banter with a cute nurse who kind of rolls her eyes at him while batting them at the same time), and somehow he just keeps bouncing back, finding a new angle, homing in closer and closer to the truth that he never wanted to begin with, but he’s going to get it anyway, because he’s the detective in this story, like it or not.

To me, the best Hammett novels–by which I mean the other four–make all the ‘hugger-mugger’ of the genre work for them, with them–a feature instead of a bug.  But The Glass Key seems more a prisoner of the clichés it’s coining than the master of them.   They distract from the story that’s really being told here–which is about Ned and Paul.  We don’t see enough of Paul, because Paul’s got to remain oblique, so we keep thinking he’s the killer.  To distract from who the real killer is.  And yet I spotted the killer (after a few false guesses) and I never do that.  Well, hardly ever.

Paul and Ned know their friendship is on the rocks, but they don’t want to let it go.  They know they’ll never find this kind of connection with another human being, ever.  I think maybe this is my favorite scene in the whole book, where Ned very nearly walks out on Paul in a white hot rage (he gets those a lot).

This argument is what you might call the practice break-up, early on in the book.  Every relationship on the rocks has one.  (And every Fred Fitch review has an over-long quote)

Ned Beaumont emptied his seidel and let the front legs of his chair come down on the floor. “I told you it wouldn’t do any good,” he said. “Have it your own way. Keep on thinking that what was good enough for the old Fifth is good enough anywhere.”

In Madvig’s voice there was something of resentment and something of humility when he asked: “You don’t think much of me as a big-time politician, do you, Ned?”

Now Ned Beaumont’s face flushed. He said: “I didn’t say that, Paul.”

“But that’s what it amounts to, isn’t it?” Madvig insisted.

“No, but I do think you’ve let yourself be outsmarted this time. First you let the Henrys wheedle you into backing the Senator. There was your chance to go in and finish an enemy who was cornered, but that enemy happened to have a daughter and social position and what not, so you—”

“Cut it out, Ned,” Madvig grumbled.

Ned Beaumont’s face became empty of expression. He stood up saying, “Well, I must be running along,” and turned to the door.

Madvig was up behind him immediately, with a hand on his shoulder, saying: “Wait, Ned.”

Ned Beaumont said: “Take your hand off me.” He did not look around.

Madvig put his other hand on Ned Beaumont’s arm and turned him around. “Look here, Ned,” he began.

Ned Beaumont said: “Let go.” His lips were pale and stiff.

Madvig shook him. He said: “Don’t be a God-damned fool. You and I—”

Ned Beaumont struck Madvig’s mouth with his left fist. Madvig took his hands away from Ned Beaumont and fell back two steps. While his pulse had time to beat perhaps three times his mouth hung open and astonishment was in his face. Then his face darkened with anger and he shut his mouth tight, so his jaw was hard and lumpy. He made fists of his hands, hunched his shoulders, and swayed forward.

Ned Beaumont’s hand swept out to the side to grasp one of the heavy glass seidels on the table, though he did not lift it from the table. His body leaned a little to that side as he had leaned to get the seidel. Otherwise he stood squarely confronting the blond man. His face was drawn thin and rigid, with white lines of strain around the mouth. His dark eyes glared fiercely into Madvig’s blue ones.

They stood thus, less than a yard apart—one blond, tall and powerfully built, leaning far forward, big shoulders hunched, big fists ready; the other dark of hair and eye, tall and lean, body bent a little to one side with an arm slanting down from that side to hold a heavy glass seidel by its handle—and except for their breathing there was no sound in the room. No sound came in from the bar-room on the other side of the thin door, the rattling of glasses nor the hum of talk nor the splash of water.

When quite two minutes had passed Ned Beaumont took his hand away from the seidel and turned his back to Madvig. Nothing changed in Ned Beaumont’s face except that his eyes, when no longer focused on Madvig’s, became hard and cold instead of angrily glaring. He took an unhurried step towards the door.

Madvig spoke hoarsely from deep down in him. “Ned.”

Ned Beaumont halted. His face became paler. He did not turn around.

Madvig said: “You crazy son of a bitch.”

Then Ned Beaumont turned around, slowly. Madvig put out an open hand and pushed Ned Beaumont’s face sidewise, shoving him off balance so he had to put a foot out quickly to that side and put a hand on one of the chairs at the table.

Madvig said: “I ought to knock hell out of you.”

Ned Beaumont grinned sheepishly and sat down on the chair he had staggered against.

Madvig sat down facing him and knocked on the top of the table with his seidel.

The bar-tender opened the door and put his head in.

“More beer,” Madvig said. From the bar-room, through the open door, came the sound of men talking and the sound of glasses rattling against glasses and against wood.

Who needs a faithful film adaptation, when you can see every bit of it in your head, and cast any actors you want to read the lines?  Or hey, maybe you and a friend you used to have.

And how does it end?  That part the movies are always faithful to.  Ned saves Paul’s bacon, deals with Paul’s enemies, fixes all Paul’s messes, leaving Mr. Madvig the unquestioned master of this lousy little town (where even the reformers are shacked up with gangsters)–and walks away into the noirish sunset with Janet, who despises Paul, and finding out he didn’t kill her brother didn’t change that one bit.  Leaving Paul Madvig an empty burned-out husk of a man.   Not to mention a really old joke–ever hear the one about the guy whose best friend stole his girl?

There’s no sense of masculine triumph here.  Ned has declared his independence at last, but he’s still a gambler.  He’s broken his losing streak, but there’ll be others, and he won’t have Paul to bail him out. Janet will get tired of slumming, or Ned will get tired of her feeling like she’s slumming–that’s not a relationship with a future.

Paul will rebuild his machine, make it more legit, but there’ll be this dead look in his eyes where a light once burned.  Ned will go from one misadventure to the next, but he’ll never trust anyone else the same way again.  It couldn’t end any other way, because they wanted different things.  Damon and Pythias probably broke up over a woman too.  (Unless it was another man, you know, ancient Greece.)

The Glass Key turns out to be Janet’s metaphor, from a dream she had, and it’s not a hopeful one.  There are some good scenes between her and Ned, but Hammett was capable of much better, and the dreams are a bit too Freudian for his style.  He’s getting too fancy, trying to move up in the literary world.  It doesn’t suit him any more than it does Paul and Ned.  What he had going down on those mean streets was better than most of those society authors, anyway.

I will say, with Ned Beaumont, he’s anticipated the existentialist anti-heroes of Sartre and Camus by about a decade.  And I’m sure a bunch of French critics have said this already, but in French, right?

So as a story, I find it fascinating but inadequate.  As a character study, provocative but unfinished.  As a template for future mystery authors, and maybe even some non-genre scribes, influential as all hell, but that begs the question–did any of the books based on it hit the target Hammett aimed at here?

One of those authors, you must realize, was Donald E. Westlake.  This was the very first target he aimed at in the very first novel he wrote under his own name.  Why would he do something so hubristic?  Because, I hubristically argue, he agreed with me that Hammett hadn’t hit the mark.  So maybe he could.

But before he set his sights on that bullseye, there were some other archers stringing their bows.  Let’s talk about them.  Next time.  In the meantime, in-between time, here’s some book covers.

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Now go have a beer with a friend.  That crazy son of a bitch.  Or daughter.

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Reappraisal: Dash and Don

Donald-Westlake-001

It seems to me that there is entirely too little screaming about the work of Dashiell Hammett. My own shrill yaps have been ascending ever since I first found Red Harvest, and from that day the man has been, God help him, my hero; but I talked only yesterday, I forget why, with two of our leading booksy folk, and they had not heard of that volume, nor had they got around to reading its better, The Maltese Falcon.

From Dorothy Parker’s 1931 New Yorker review of The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, entitled, Oh Look–Two Good Books!  She was a poet, you know.  

Hammett was a major writer, for a lot of reasons, one of them being that the texture in his writing comes so very much from himself.  Writing inside an action genre, where subtleties of character and milieu are not primary considerations, he nevertheless was, word by word and sentence by sentence, subtle and many-layered, both allusive and elusive, delicate and aloof among all the smashing fists and crashing guns.

From The Hardboiled Dicks, a lecture given by Donald Westlake at the Smithsonian in 1982, which I’ve quoted from in the past, and probably will again, but you can read the whole thing in The Getaway Car.  Cut out the middleman. 

Well, that was a long break.  I’m still pondering on a problem piece (political), but while that was percolating, and I was crouched forlornly by my mailbox, waiting for somebody to drop a copy of Westlake’s Red Harvest screenplay in it,  I said to myself, “Hey, maybe I should read The Maltese Falcon.  I hear that’s pretty good.”

Yeah.  Never read it.  I started, years ago, but could not get past Spade being a ‘blonde Satan.’  Which he’s not, really.  Well, he gets up to some deviltry, but he has light brown hair.  Light brown isn’t blonde.  What was Hammett thinking?  Probably not that his snarky shamus would be forever linked with some black Dutchman with a lisp, who had just ditched Broadway for Hollywood. (Grofield would not approve.)

I have this thing, where when I read the book a movie I love was based on, the two duel for supremacy in my mind while I read.  Sometimes they fight to a standstill.  Sometimes the movie wins.  Usually, the book triumphs.  This was one of those times.  Huston great, Hammett greater.  I still heard Bogie’s voice when I read Spade’s dialogue, but even that began to fade after a while.

Movies.  They screw with your perceptions of the books.  Damn them anyway.  The good ones in particular.  And none better than Huston’s.  But never mistake the packing material for the contents.  Excelsior.

So I read it, then read some things about it, came to some conclusions, and after banging my head on my desk a number of times at all the things I knew now that I coulda shoulda woulda known back when I started work on this blog, I did still more reading.  I’m all Kindled up now, ready to dig deep.  New worlds to conquer.

See, I mainly just read the Op stories for background.  Having been assigned Red Harvest for a college course eons before, I knew Westlake had taken that as his model for his anti-Op Tim Smith, in Killing Time. It served as the backbone for several of his most interesting books.

Likewise, I read The Thin Man, because Westlake cited it as an influence on the Mitch Tobin mysteries.  But somehow, the other stuff didn’t pull me in.  I didn’t have the right key to open it.  (Glass, of course.)  Why it somehow never occurred to me that Westlake would have learned from everything written by a man I’ve many times described here as his most important literary influence….

Well, you see, we don’t scream enough about Hammett.  Mrs. Parker was right.  We know of him, of course.  We honor and homage him, we review and reference him, we parody and plagiarize him, we anthologize adapt and and assay him, we do guided tours of San Francisco based on him, and we even write lengthy scholarly biographies and other erudite tomes about him, a privilege accorded to precious few pulp writers.  We know of him.  But do we know him?  Not really.  Not most of us.

Westlake did.

And just as Sergio Leone began his career in earnest by copying Kurosawa, almost shot for shot–well Westlake was never that incautious (movie directors can afford lawsuits a lot easier than novelists), and he went out of his way to contradict and revise his mentor, but fact is, a bit of creative copying can teach you things you can’t learn any other way.  It shouldn’t be how you finish, but it’s the only way to begin.

Hammett was a part of Westlake to the very end, but it’s at the start that the influence is most powerful–and, if you’re looking close, obvious. I can see it all so clearly now.  I couldn’t then.

And because by the early 60’s, Westlake was more and more aware that his future was in novels, not short stories, it’s the five Hammett novels–each one different from the last–that we need to put under the magnifying glass now.

Hammett died on January 10th, 1961, which I would think only intensified Mr. Westlake’s   devotion, but he was already on the case.  Just five months earlier, in August, Westlake’s first novel under his own name (also the first he’d want anybody to know he’d written) had gotten a quick complimentary write-up in Criminals At Large, Anthony Boucher’s round-up mystery column in the New York Times.

Brief and glancing as that Boucher review is, Hammett is referenced in it.  As is a novel by Hammett.  That’s what we’re looking at next.  It’s late Hammett, but we’re doing this in Westlake’s order.

Touché, Boucher.  You got it.  Why didn’t I?  Oh right.  Never read the book.  (Or in this case, even watched the movie).  Man in the middle.  That’s me.

Care for a cartoon, while I ratiocinate?

 

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Wanted for Questioning: Westlake’s Continental Op

It’s always interesting seeing how one novelist approaches transforming another novelist’s work to the screen. So, besides produced films like “The Grifters”, Don’s unproduced screenplay for “Red Harvest” and the script I adapted from Steven Saylor’s book, “Roman Blood” all provide insights.

Jeff Kleeman, in the comments section here, who tarried not for questioning.

It’s always nice when Jeff Kleeman pays one of his periodic visits here, and tells us stuff we didn’t know before, though I have to say, this is something I feel like I should have known already.  And didn’t.  Not a clue.  But once I went looking around online, I found mentions of it in multiple places–it was no deep dark secret.  Lying around in plain sight, like the purloined letter.  Or a gold falcon, covered in black lacquer.

Donald Westlake has a lot of admirers, stretching across multiple generations, and stands to reason that (with no biography in sight) nobody knows everything there is to know about his many-faceted career, him being the elephant, and we the blind men (and women), feeling our way in the dark.

It’s becoming clear that he did a lot more work for the movies and TV than one would have believed possible for a man with nigh on a hundred published novels (not mentioning short stories and sleaze paperbacks).

There’s an archive in Boston with a large collection of screenplays he wrote that never got produced.  Greg Tulonen was there, when he went looking for the manuscript of Fall of the City, now known as Forever and A Death.  He didn’t know about this one either.  He said it isn’t listed as part of the collection.

So cutting to the chase, there’s this legendary Italian film producer, named Alberto Grimaldi–he’s still around, at the age of 92.  Back in the 70’s, he got obsessed with making a movie of Red Harvest.   Not set in feudal Japan, or the old west.  Not the usual Hollywood butchery of the source material, either.  A legit straight-up adaptation, class all the way, that would capture the essence of Hammett, without making it into some over-reverent museum piece.

(And would star Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, or Warren Beatty as the short pudgy balding Continental Op, okay, we get it, you need a star to get the money to make the movie.  But he never did, and the movie was never made.)

Bernardo Bertolucci was attached to direct for some time, and co-wrote two drafts of a screenplay, one of which you can buy online pretty easy, and I couldn’t care less, no disrespect meant.  Many other scripts were commissioned, nobody seems to know how many, but it is known for a fact one of them was from Westlake.  I’ve found multiple mentions of it.  I just can’t find the screenplay itself.

Some guy on an old listserv discussion forum (apparently linked to Miskatonic University), says he bought a copy on ABE.  He posted that in 2000.  I emailed him.  Even though it was one of those addies that ends in ‘.net.’  Gmail says it’ll keep trying for another two days, but that lead’s not going to pan out.  Neither did any of the online sources for screenplays, produced or otherwise.  Neither did ebay, Amazon, Bookfinder, or ABE.  If it’s out there, it’s keeping a low profile.

Seems like Westlake got approached sometime after he wrote the script for The Grifters.  His best work as a scripter (that got produced, anyway), nominated for an Oscar, successfully reworking a noir classic in a way that respected the original without getting bogged down in it.

Martin Scorsese was involved in the Red Harvest project at one point as well, as were several other big names, but things got complicated.  And of course he was a producer on The Grifters.

So that all tracks, but how do I put this?  Red Harvest would mean more to Westlake than everything Jim Thompson ever wrote.  Not because it’s a better book than The Grifters (debatable).  Because it’s Hammett.  And Hammett was the foundation stone of everything Westlake ever wrote in the crime genre.  And Red Harvest is a book Westlake had used as the starting point for multiple novels of his own.  Notably Killing Time, Anarchaos, and Butcher’s Moon.  But you can find hints of it scattered throughout his oeuvre.

It’s no secret he wrote it, as I said.  Lots of people know about it.  Lots of people have read it (I’m guessing one of them is Kleeman).  But I don’t remember ever reading an interview where Westlake mentioned it.  Sore spot, possibly.  Because it didn’t get made, or because he didn’t like how it turned out?

Nothing would bring out the unforgiving critic in him more than a project like that.  He was hardest on himself about The Jugger–(one of my favorites) and what’s that about?  A man coming to a small corrupt western town to solve a murder, and he gets caught up in various agendas, playing both ends against the middle.   Only that man is Parker, and Parker isn’t The Op.  (Though we’ll never know either one’s real name, they’ve got that in common.)

And what’s Joe Sheer, the titular Jugger, to Parker?  Just a bit like what The Old Man is to The Op, wouldn’t you say?  But so different, you really have to squint to see it.  Hammett was the literary father figure Westlake kept trying to measure up to, and never quite sure he’d managed it.

So I would like to read this attempt to do just that, and decide for myself.

Can anybody out there make that happen?

It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

Yeah, I know, wrong book.

And yeah, I’m still working on that other thing, but got bogged down, so feel free to chime in while I’m digging my way out.  Passes the time.

(And Jeff, if you’re out there, I’d love to read that Roman Blood thing too.  Hail Cicero.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake screenplays