Tag Archives: Donald Westlake Nephew Books

Advance Publicity: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner–back in print! (next year)


Got the word from Charles Ardai, just a few weeks ago–he read my piece on what a Westlake Library of America edition might look like, and this book was high on my list of criminally out of print Westlake crime.   It’s not being released until February 13th, 2018 (not a Friday, I’m disappointed to say), but Amazon already has a page up for it, so I’m not giving away any trade secrets here.  Behold! Cover art!

Yes, of course I bitched and moaned to Ardai about how The Girl in this book is a blonde, but seems like the artist wanted a brunette, and I shall privately entertain my own dirty-minded suspicions as to why that was.  The spirit of Robert E. McGinnis lives on, as indeed does McGinnis himself, but this isn’t his handiwork.  This version of the not-too-maidenly Marian is suitably zaftig, and that’s what really matters, right?  That and getting one of Westlake’s best Nephew Books back in print–and not just as an ebook.  (Though the nice thing about ebooks is that once you’ve got something digitized, it tends to stick around.)

In early 2019, Hard Case is planning to come out with a new edition of Brothers Keepers, and there are subsequent reprints in the works.

I must say, it’s getting a bit spooky how as soon as we here express our desire for a particular Westlake book to be reprinted, Hard Case turns out to already be on the case.

(C’mon, Adios Scheherazade! Or is that too hard a case even for them?)



Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Money For Nothing, Part 2

Robbie was a good listener, watching Josh’s face intently, almost never blinking.  When Josh finished, Robbie let a little silence go by and then said, “That’s crazy, you know.  That’s completely crazy, all that story.”

“Getting a thousand dollars a month for seven years with no explanation isn’t crazy?”

“I wouldn’t plot it this way,” Robbie told him.  “You have to at least make a stab at believability.”

Mr. Nimrin’s attempt to scoff lacked a certain conviction.  “Disappear?  How do you expect to do that?”

“Oh, come on,” Robbie said.  “Josh probably wouldn’t be able to pull it off, so he’s dead meat–”


“–but I’m an actor.  I could be somebody else in twenty minutes, stand right in front of you, you wouldn’t know it was me.”

“Oh, fine,” Josh said.  “Now I’ve got two masters of disguise.”

“Not disguise,” Robbie corrected him.  “Disguise is for amateurs.  What I do is character.”

Mr. Nimrin clearly hadn’t liked the amateur crack.  “If you could disappear so readily,” he said, sounding miffed, “why haven’t you done so?”

Robbie spread his hands.  “What–and give up show business?”

Although this is one of my least favorite Westlake novels to read, it’s turning out to be even more of a pain to review.  On the surface, it’s a fairly diverting story, Westlake’s prose is ever a pleasure to peruse, and it’s one of our last chances to enjoy his reverently irreverent take on New York City and its environs.  But the deeper I get into it, the more my head hurts and my spirit flags.  I don’t want to review this book.  Why are you making me?  Oh right.  Another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

“A Novel By the Author of The Ax” says the paperback reprint from Grand Central Publishing (Mr. Westlake’s final redoubt) with its predictably trite artwork.  From one of the finest crime novels of the 20th century (one of the finest novels, period) to this, in just a few short years.  O tempore.  O mores.

That is the precise edition I’ve been using here, incidentally.  I have never purchased a copy of this book.  Last time, I read the hardcover first edition from Mysterious Press, borrowed from the stacks up above my desk.  But visiting with my mom in her gated retirement community in the sunny south, a short spell back, I had occasion to accompany her to the community center, where there is a sort of book exchange.  Basically, people donate unwanted books, and residents can just come in and take them, without even checking them out, returning them at their leisure, or never at all. Mainly mainstream middlebrow pop lit.  You know.  ‘Good reads.’

There were maybe half a dozen or so Westlakes there, including this (no Starks at all, I’m oddly happy to report).  I needed to start on it.  So I took it.  For nothing.  Seemed appropriate.  My mom said it was fine.  Are you saying my mother is dishonest?  By the way, they had fifty-three James Patterson novels–just in the trade paperback section.  It would have taken too long to run a complete tally in all formats.  I already said the o tempore o mores thing, right?

So where we left things last time was that Mr. Nimrin had informed Josh that one of his fellow sleeper agents, when woken up, had professed a desire to go back to sleep, and Mr. Levrin & Co. complied with his request in a most permanent fashion.  Josh, being depressed by this news, retaliates by informing Nimrin that he’s figured out what the target of this operation is–the dictatorial leader of a former Soviet satellite, who is attending a ceremony honoring his country’s sole Olympic medalist at Yankee Stadium.

The dictator is a thoroughly unpleasant and sporadically murderous fellow, as persons in his walk of life tend to be, but the agents will also be shooting quite a few relatively innocent bystanders standing around him (the better to confuse the issue of why this happened and who did it).  They’ll pretend to be among the wounded themselves (fake blood packets, like in the movies), then kill the EMT workers trying to revive them, and disappear without a trace.  Josh responds with a conditional third-person variant on the sort of indignant expostulation you’d normally expect from somebody a different kind of Westlake protagonist was robbing at gunpoint.

They’d never get away with it.,” Josh said.

“Oh, come now.” Mr. Nimrin was insulted.  Glowering at Lincoln Center, he said, “Of course they’ll get away with it.  These are not some religious fanatics, determined to kill themselves and sail off to some matinee heaven.  These are professionals.  Do you think this is the first assassination I’ve been connected with, in thirty years of service?

“It’s my first,” Josh said, “and I don’t want it.”

“Though it isn’t mine, is it?” Mr. Nimrin said.  “They’re keeping me out of the loop on this, aren’t they?”  Then he offered a bitter laugh an said, “Oh, yes, we say ‘out of the loop,’ too.  Everyone does now, though many have no idea what it means.  Part of the Americanization we all so bravely struggle against is the Americanization of slang.  It started many years ago with OK, which seemed to be all right, since OK didn’t mean anything in English, either.  But it was the thin end of the wedge.  See?  There’s another.”

“Mr. Nimrin,” Josh said, “I don’t want to talk about slang with you.  I want to talk about how I get out of this mess.”

(I’d much rather talk about slang, but since Mr. Westlake has chosen to assign his deep fascination with linguistic peculiarities to a curmudgeonly Non-POV character he is going to deal with rather summarily later on, I’ll just refer you to this article from the OED, OK?  Wouldn’t want you to be out of the loop.)

The mention of terrorist matinee heavens seems to indicate that Westlake wrote this book after 9/11, though perhaps he conceived of it beforehand.  But this is the only reference to terrorism in the book, meaning that as far as the characters are concerned, that date has no special significance. So it’s a Post-9/11 novel written from a Pre-9/11 perspective.  Westlake hasn’t figured out yet as a writer what to make of that day, that had a particularly shattering effect on the psyches of all New Yorkers.  He hasn’t fully processed it yet, and once he does, it’s going to be as Stark, and his main takeaway is going to be that it’s made his job a lot harder.  And that he still prefers freedom to security, given a choice.

Westlake is here once again displaying his conviction that at the end of the day, professionals are more dangerous than amateurs (though amateurs may triumph if they find their inner pro), and has created a situation where conventional terror would be unlikely to achieve the desired end.  In this case, I’m not so sure he’s right–if your only goal is chaos and fear, professionalism might prove more of an impediment than an asset.  I guess if we were talking about hackers in the employ of certain governments, trying to overthrow Democracy, he’d have a point, but that would make a very boring book.  In any event, this is not a book about terrorism.

Josh returns home to find Eve waiting for him.  She’s seen Tina Pausto’s slinky Mata Hari gear in his closet, and there follows a domestic scene, at the end of which he shows her the AK-47’s and uniforms she totally missed, because one-track-mind.  Eve is, quite honestly, not much of a character, because she doesn’t need to be, because she’s not The Girl, she’s The Wife.  Westlake could write interesting wives when he wanted to, but not here, for whatever reason.

She’s very attractive (we’re given to understand this, though there is basically no physical description of her in the book), and a good mother, and a loving passionate partner who Josh rightly adores, and very occasionally the source of some pragmatic suggestions.  But mainly she and their offspring are there as an incentive to heroism.

So once she’s been convinced Tina isn’t a threat to her marriage and Josh wasn’t lying (just not telling the whole truth), and he tells her about the need to find the third sleeper before Levrin and his cohorts get to him, she mentions that one of their summer neighbors in Fire Island works for an insurance agency, and has access to amazing databases.  He gives her the name–Mitchell Robbie–and in two shakes of a hound’s tail, she’s got the address.  856A East 2nd St.  The Lower East Side.  He lives in his own theater.  He’s an actor.  No, he’s not Alan Grofield living and working under a false name, but wouldn’t that have been fun? We’ll have to settle for a sort of roadshow Grofield, and another urban sociology treatise.

Alphabet City, it’s called, and as a neighborhood, it could not be more mixed.  The remnants of the waves of immigration can still be seen, fused with newer arrivals.  Parts of the area have become more valuable, but it still contains plenty of pockets of poverty.

Poverty and art have always been more than nodding acquaintances, so another part of life in Alphabet City has a certain La Boheme atmosphere, with coffee shops and performance artists and poetry bars and the most minor of publications and the most marginal of theaters.  Good Rep fit right in.  It was in a corner building, six stories high, the tallest you can erect a building without an elevator in New York City, with a crumbling stone outdoor staircase leading up to a wide entranceway that looked as though it had been gnawed for many years by giant rats, which was probably true.  To the left of the stairs, toward the corner, was a bodega crowded with inexpensive food in very bright packaging, and to the right of the stairs, with a marquee the size of a Honda hood, was Good Rep.

Good Rep is currently hosting a revival of Arms and the Man, which is certainly convenient.  Venturing inside the establishment, Josh quickly encounters a short dark-haired narrow-faced gentleman he quickly divines is Mitchell Robbie, who is understandably 1)Suspicious of Josh’s motives and 2)Unwilling to admit he made a mistake cashing those checks from United States Agent, which he probably thought of as a sort of informal artist’s subsidy.  A poor man’s MacArthur Grant.

Robbie’s skepticism collapses under the weight of Josh’s conviction, and is replaced with deep concern–he hates guns.  Even as props.  He won’t do any Mamet plays (a shot across the bow of the playwright’s cranky public assertions that all gun control is evil, and that the more guns there are, the safer we all are, and it would have been so nice if he’d been right).

And now, as Mr. Shaw might say, a dramatic coincidence–Levrin shows up to activate Robbie.   Josh hides in Robbie’s apartment behind the stage, while Robbie rather admirably improvises a character for himself who might credibly have accepted the job of foreign sleeper agent.  Perhaps a few too many British-isms, and he overplays it a bit, but Levrin is used to odd personalities in his line of work, and leaves, shaking his head, after instructing Robbie to rent a car.  Oh, and he gives Robbie the bank book for the 40k account in the Caymans that comes with activation.  Another grant.  Robbie’s so pleased, until Josh tells him about the impending massacre at Yankee Stadium.

(Sidebar: Would this be a better book if Robbie was the protagonist?  I think it would, yeah. Westlake probably thought it would too, or at least that it would be easier to write. He knew exactly how to do characters like this, freewheeling independents, practical cowards who turn out to be brilliant in the clutch, and of course he loved writing actor-protagonists, while perversely refusing to ever actually show any of them doing their jobs, except in that one book where the main subject of the book is acting.

Robbie first appears on page 106 in my edition, and he takes over the story without half trying.  It wouldn’t have been too hard to reverse the roles, and do the book from Robbie’s perspective, with the opening scene being Josh coming to warn him, and take it from there.  I would assume Westlake at least considered that.

All the previous Nephews–even Jay Fisher, the hapless second string network correspondent from I Gave At the Office, had some exceptional aspect to them, some splash of color in their lives.  And here he’s made his hero an ad agency hack with a wife and a kid and an expense account.  Because he’s trying to break the mold here.  Because he wants to take an organization man, well settled into his mediocre life, and turn him into something better.

That, for him, is the raison d’etre of the story, which is not about espionage, any more than it’s about terrorism.  How a chocolate soldier becomes a real one, under the pressure of severe exigencies. The same story he told in The Spy in the Ointment, only with a hero who has no higher ambition than to work a steady job, go home to his pretty wife, and watch his son grow up.

But to make that work, you have to believe in the person Josh was before all this happened, and speaking for myself, I don’t.  Robbie, with all his eccentricities and impressions [he’s doing spot-on send-ups of Levrin and Nimrin a short time after meeting them], is more believable within five minutes of our meeting him than Josh ever becomes, and he is by no means one of Westlake’s best characters in this vein.  He still gets to steal every scene he and Josh share in this book.  Well, of course he does, he’s trained for that.

Robbie says Josh can’t think outside the box because he lives in the box, and likes it there.  Well, a lot of people do, maybe most people.  But unless you can understand that type of personality, like him on his own terms, you’re not going to do a very good job writing a book about him.  Sidebar concluded.  I am not making this a three parter, even if that means skipping over two thirds of the plot.  Just so you know.)

Let me telescope things a bit.  Okay, a lot.  Nimrin meets Robbie, and is not encouraged, and they have a rather interesting discussion about whether actors or spies are better at disguising themselves as other people.  Robbie arguably wins the point by having Nimrin walk right past him (in character) without recognizing him, but Nimrin scores a point in return, later on, when Robbie follows him to Port Washington, Long Island, then loses him when Nimrin does one of his quick changes.

Josh has now decided that even though Nimrin insists his only chance of survival is to go along with the plot, he can’t do that.  He can’t be a party to all those murdered innocents.  So they have to find some way to steal a march on Levrin & Co., and Nimrin clearly won’t help them with that.   They need to find the safe house, and that’s in Port Washington, where Nimrin is posing as a confused old rich lady’s butler.  (Shades of the next book in the queue, which means they were both written around the same time.)

Robbie is doing all the heavy lifting at this point, using his acting skills right and left to get them the information they need, some of it from one of those helpful cab drivers you somehow never find outside of crime fiction.  She informs them that Mrs. Rheingold is the last in a long line of old moneyed people, the family having ‘daughtered out.’  She married some ne’er do well who turned out to be a real estate developer, and of course she broke it off when she found out how he made his living, because really.

His feelings hurt, he got the rights to half the family estate in court, and built a lot of little tract houses on it.  She retaliated by erecting a huge wall around the family manse, and going into seclusion.  And somehow, her house ended up being a headquarters for Ukrainian spies, but she has no idea about any of that.  I can’t wait to stop typing this synopsis, you know.

(There really are Russian and maybe even Ukrainian spies in New York City and its environs, needless to say.  Up to all kinds of mischief.  But they don’t work like this.  I’m pretty sure.  Well, as sure as anyone can be in this day and age.  Seriously, the main problem with this book now is that Westlake makes them work too hard.  Their safe house now would probably be the big white one on Pennsylvania Ave.)

There’s also some kind of corporate retreat thing on one side, ‘Christian Capitalists’ (oxymoron don’t half say it) and they go around in orange hats on golf carts.  It doesn’t get developed much (hardly anything in this book does), but it’s a plot point later on, so I should mention it.

So they know a lot now, but what good does it do them?  Much as I don’t agree with the narrative’s assumption that going to the authorities is impossible, with that assumption firmly in place, because there’s no story without it, all they’ve learned is the likely setting of their torture and execution, once Levrin finds out they’re ringers.  The thing to do is to stop the assassination, so the spies will go home and leave them alone–but how?  Robbie has an idea only an actor would have–steal the uniforms.  The Kamastan army uniforms hanging in Josh’s closet.  Without the proper costumes, to establish character, allow them to blend into the ranks of the dictator’s honor guard, they won’t be able to put on the play.  They won’t have time to replace them before their target is back home, out of their reach.

Nimrin catches them spying in Port Washington, and is rather hypocritically shocked by their behavior (this is a constant leitmotif with the character–he doesn’t like it when people don’t live down to his expectations,  don’t continue to behave in in the stupid predictable unimaginative manner that gives people like him an edge over the rest of the world).

They need to get him on their side, so they try to bribe him with the 80k in their Cayman bank accounts.  He’s not happy about it, but he comes from a culture where it’s almost rude not to accept a bribe, so he conditionally agrees.  Very conditionally, as it turns out.

Here and there in this disappointing book, there lies the occasional gem–Nimrin has not been happy living as a butler to a crazy old heiress (like Grey Gardens, only no daughter, more money, better clothes, fewer cats), but he had thought he could at least embezzle a little something from the housekeeping money.  He thought wrong.

“An enterprising independent local grocer, for instance,” Mr. Nimrin explained, “I could deal with, pad the account a bit here, a bit there, split the difference.  But the Grand Union!” he snorted, with an angry dismissive wave at the grocery sacks beside them.  “They’re all employees.  Cowards to a man–and woman–and they wouldn’t get the profit anyway, it would go to their corporate masters.  Oh why couldn’t Marx have been right?

Robbie, sounding honestly bewildered, said, “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Socialism, for a clever man,” Mr. Nimrin told him, “is a license to steal.  Capitalism is a license for capitalists to steal.  As the name suggests, you first need capital.”

(Or you could just have a name that suggests capital.  I’m going to keep beating this horse until it drops dead, you know.  Or until I do.)

As I have mentioned already, there is a huge problem with the notion that Josh and Robbie can’t go to the cops, the Feds, somebody.  It’s the 21st century, or nearly.  Obviously Levrin’s surveillance can’t be that great, or they’d both be dead already, and probably Nimrin too.  They have a lot of very solid intel now.  But they also have hostages to fortune–Josh’s wife and child, Robbie’s aged mother in Hartford.

And that goes from a theoretical possibility to a stark reality, when Josh gets home and finds Levrin there, and Tina, and a few hulking well-armed operatives, and is informed that Eve and Jeremy have, shall we say, been taken into protective custody.  Just to make sure Josh knows there’s no back door.  Well, now there isn’t.  He talks to her briefly over the phone.  She’s very scared, but holding it together somehow, for Jeremy’s sake.  They hang up.  Levrin suggests ordering pizza.  Tina is mildly sympathetic, but this isn’t her first rodeo, you know?

He gets to talk to Eve again, later, and this time she lets it slip there’s this amazing old antique cradle, and he knows–they’re being held at the Rheingold estate.

The plan with regard to the uniforms is to slip Tina some sleeping pills in her drink before Robbie comes in and steals the uniforms (which he covets in their own right, since good costumes cost money, and lots of good plays involve foreign soldiers).   That’s the plan, but that’s not what happens.  Tina and Robbie meet, are immediately taken with each other–she loves his Levrin impression.

And when she mentions she has trouble sleeping, Robbie slyly says Josh must have some sleeping pills handy, which she takes gladly.  Robbie and some of his cast mates from Arms and the Man (their names are literally Tom, Dick, and Harry, cue Ann Miller), come in later and take the uniforms.  Tina never notices.  (Or does she?  She’s a bit of a cipher. But not, I’m sorry to say, a very interesting one.  Too much of a Bond Girl, and that’s probably being unfair to Fleming, but much I care.  Though she may be the only Bond Girl who snores.)

Robbie insisted, for reasons having nothing to do with any of their plans, that Josh bring Tina to the opening of his play, and she is delighted to attend, goes shopping for very expensive clothes, and creates a minor sensation at the theater, wearing one of those little black dresses that never go out of fashion, nor should they.

I have to find things to interest me in this book that mainly doesn’t, and one of them is the third person narrator’s synopsis of a play I have never actually seen performed, though I went to a lot of top flight Shaw productions, back in the day.  It really shouldn’t surprise me that Mr. Westlake is a fellow Shavian, but how is he just now revealing this to us after so many novels?  I guess because the play is a metaphor for the novel.  Or an inversion of it.  I’m not quite sure.

Arms and the Man is a comedy set in a small town in Bulgaria in 1885.  There’s a war going on, Bulgarians led by Austrian officers versus Serbs led by Russian officers.  In the first act, a Serb soldier, who later turns out to be Swiss for some reason (Bluntschli, played by Harry), hides from Bulgarian troops in the bedrom of Raina, the daughter of a Bulgarian major.  She finds him, but he and his pistol talk her into covering for him.  She gives him a coat of her father’s, who’s away at the war, and he leaves.

The next spring, out in the garden (an even more minimal set), there’s some rustic comedy of the rural-lout sort, including the servant Nicola (Dick, with smudged cheeks).  The father, Major Petkoff (Tom, with a pillow stomach), is back from the war, and so is his daughter’s betrothed, the war hero Sergius (Robbie, looking not like just any doorman, but the doorman at Trump Tower).  Sergius and Raina are both devotees of the higher emotions, full of melodramatic gestures and proud stances (a dig at romantic novels peers wanly out of the past).

Bluntschli, the Serb/Swiss, now that the war is over, shows up to return the coat.  It takes another act and a half for everybody to understand that Raina doesn’t really want to be a romantic ninny and that she belongs with the realist Bluntschli rather than the preening hero, Sergius.  A nice around of applause, and out to dinner.

(No, when you eat after the play, it’s supper.  Unless it’s a matinee, of course.  I’m surprised at you, Mr. Westlake.  But not a bad synopsis.  A mite brief, perhaps.  If you don’t mind a little constructive criticism.)

Josh gets home from the opening night cast party, and wakes up at nine the next morning to Levrin calling him, to say they should meet where Josh keeps his Toyota Land Cruiser, because he needs a ride to Kennedy airport.  (Okay, it’s one thing to make a man participate in an assassination, store assault rifles in his apartment, force him to billet a gorgeous foreign spy without his wife’s knowledge, then kidnap said wife and their infant son to use as leverage–but to demand a ride to JFK at the last possible minute without so much as offering to pay for gas and tolls is really a bit much.  And people say us New Yorkers are pushy!)

It’s not just Levrin.  Also along for the ride are two of Levrin’s toughs, the one named Hugo, and one whose name doesn’t come up.  And when they get to the airport, Josh is instructed to drive to a little frequented area for longterm parking, and it’s a set-up.  They’re going to kill him.  Josh is cursing his own stupidity, when suddenly there’s a chance for him to grab the gun, so he does–and it’s loaded with blanks.  Because this isn’t where they kill him. This is where they get gunpowder residue on his hand, for later.

They are going to kill him–they were always going to kill him.  And Eve.  And Jeremy.  And make it look like he killed Eve and Jeremy prior to killing himself, and was personally responsible for the assassination, and there’s going to be a suicide note (which Josh later asks to read, surprising Levrin) and for the moment, at least, this is not an exercise in farce, because farce can’t accommodate the kinds of emotions Josh is feeling now.  (That a lot of us are feeling now.)

Meanwhile, those three stood beside the car, up near the front on his side, talking together, easy, calm in their manner and calm in their minds.  How could they do th is?  How could such people exist?  To murder an innocent inoffensive family, for some…what?

For some temporary geopolitical advantage, to somebody somewhere, which would probably, given the history of such things, not even accomplish anything.  If all the schemes and machinations of these realist political tough guys were any damn good, the world would be sorted out by now, wouldn’t it?  For good or for ill, somebody would have won.

But they don’t care, they’re pragmatists, they ride roughshod over real human beings for ephemeral advantages in a contest that never ends.  They’ve traded in their humanity for something they think is better.  They don’t smell their own stink.

Do they always have to win?  Do they make their messes, and just move on, untouchable, full of their rotten expertise?  Was there nothing for him to do but play the part of mouse, among these cats?

(Understand, I’m not saying there is nothing whatsoever in this book that resonates with the times it was written in, and maybe even better now.  Though it perhaps might have made mention of the fact that there are real life Levrins and Nimrins much closer to home as well, and not always so professional.  As to Tina Paustos, I really couldn’t say, but that would be some compensation, at least.)

Josh’s question is answered, if not for all time, when Nimrin (who was supposed to be on Josh and Robbie’s side now, but 80k isn’t enough to retire on) arrives at the parking area in Mrs. Rheingold’s car, and runs at Josh, screaming “Where are the uniforms?”  And in fact, Josh doesn’t know where they are.  But they’ll torture him just the same, to try and find out.

And he’s past caring.  To bring up that final Yeats poem once more, “You that Mitchell’s prayer have heard….,” he’s fighting mad, and he’s not going to take it any more.  It’s a cold rage, and it stiffens his spine admirably.  No more the Chocolate Soldier, but the cool hardheaded pragmatist that Shaw’s hero concealed beneath the bonbons.

Nimrin, who is back on team Levrin now, talks to him in the car, hoping to get him to be reasonable (suicide is reasonable?), and when he loses his temper at Josh’s obduracy, tells him he should not think he is in the driver’s seat.  Josh looks at the steering wheel in front of him, and begs to differ.

And then Levrin has him beaten up, and locks him in a room.  And Josh breaks out of that room with Dortmunderian ingenuity, clubs the guard into a coma, takes the dying man’s gun, maneuvers his way through the house like James Freakin’ Bond, sees Tina being tortured by Levrin (with kitchen matches, shades of The Mourner), because she’s suspected of maybe having taken the uniforms herself, thinks about saving her, then thinks again, runs into Nimrin, ends up using him as a human shield against the terrifying Hugo, who much to his surprise ends up dead (Nimrin is just badly wounded), finds Eve and Jeremy, gets them outside, and there’s Levrin, waiting for them.  He did good.  Not good enough.

But then in comes Victoria’s Messenger Riding.  Only they’re riding in golf carts.  Wearing orange caps.  Christian Capitalists?  Not quite.  It’s Tom, Dick, Harry–and Robbie.  They probably never put on The Threepenny Opera, because money, but its 18th century forebear is public domain.  They have the four AK-47s.  And the element of surprise (because the right costume distracts and confuses, see, it works!)  And would you believe Harry was in the Army Rangers, before the acting bug bit?   Sure you would.

“The cast of Arms and the Man were very well-armed.”  (Oh you waited a long time for that joke, didn’t you, Mr. Westlake?)  They didn’t originally steal the guns, but Robbie called the team waiting at Josh’s apartment, and did his Levrin impersonation, telling them to stand down and run for the hills, the game is up.  He demonstrates to Levrin, who of course insists that doesn’t sound like him at all.  From an invincible villain to a comic one, in less time than it takes to tell about it.  It can happen.  Thankfully.

Levrin tries the standard bad guy shtik, thrown down your weapons or the woman and child die, but then Josh mentions all the explosives in the basement, and Robbie says he needs to get over his fear of guns, and trains his Kalashnikov in that direction.  Levrin screams in terror, while over above his head, Mrs. Rheingold, greatly enjoying the spectacle from an upstairs window, exhorts them to blow it all up (with her inside; dementia has its virtues, never doubt it).

Eve takes Levrin’s gun away from him, and then a somewhat singed Tina comes running out of the house, stark naked, all six feet three inches of enraged femme fatale, and beats her torturer within an inch of his life.  Then she orders Robbie to put down his gun, and drive her away in the golf cart.  He obeys with pleasure.  (And he still has that 40k in the Caymans, of course).  Chapter 56 ends with Dick saying “That’s something the Christian Capitalists don’t see every day.”

I think that’s where the book should have ended.  The classic Westlake abrupt ending, with lots of tantalizing loose ends, never to be tied up in a neat little bow.  But this book is the exception to almost the entire Westlake rule book, and not usually for the better.  There’s a very standard tying up loose ends chapter after that.

The Feds finally show up, and are forced to agree, grudgingly, that they can’t figure out what to charge Josh with, and they’re going to have to let him go.  Tina and Robbie have disappeared without a trace.  Nimrin is alive, but not very happy (well, he basically never is).

In spite of having spent over a day in the Rheingold house believing she and her son were going to be murdered there, Eve has taken a shine to the old place, and to Mrs. Rheingold, poor thing.  Can’t leave here alone there, without her faithful butler.  So they’ll just move in for a while, and Josh can commute via the Metro North, instead of the Fire Island ferry.  No, Josh is not going to quit his job.  And for whatever reason, nobody at his job has missed him while all this was going on.  Back into the box with him.

And then, at the very end, he gets a call from Robbie, that is a direct and self-conscious echo of the final paragraph of the very first Nephew, almost thirty years earlier.  Robbie and Tina are an item now.  She’s negotiating her surrender to the authorities, in exchange for all kinds of useful intel.  Once that’s done, he’s going to find her an agent, make her a star, with him her close personal friend and impresario.  Lots and lots of money.  Maybe even a little for Josh.  Probably for the movie rights to his story. “Money for nothing,” Josh thinks to himself.

Eve asks him who was calling.  Josh shuddered all over.  “The future, I think,” he said.  End of book.  At last.

This book wasn’t the future, of course.  It was an attempt to bring back something that belonged in the past, and it was the last attempt Westlake made to revive the subgenre (maybe more of a sub-sub-subgenre) he’d helped pioneer, which had given him his first big success, and led to him being thought of as primarily a comic writer by so many, not always to his benefit, but it had its compensations.

I doubt he had any trouble getting it in print, and that bothers me, when I think of the three novels he couldn’t publish in his lifetime, all of which were immeasurably more interesting and revealing than this one–but not what people expected from him.  Not hardboiled, like Stark–not funny, like Westlake.  Because sometimes he wanted both polarities at once.  And see, people who really know what’s funny also know what isn’t.  Mark Twain wasn’t always funny either.

Maybe the Nephews had already run out their string, years before.  Maybe they didn’t belong in the new century, at least not the way Westlake wrote about them.  But I think maybe the biggest problem was that Westlake himself didn’t really believe in them anymore, and was no longer up to the elaborate juggling act that went into writing about them.

They always seemed like the lightest of his books, the easiest, but that’s an illusion–like the way Astaire makes his painstakingly choreographed routines seem like improvised throwaways.  Tripping the light fantastic is always much harder than it looks, and as Westlake headed into his final years, he just didn’t have the chops for it anymore (neither did Wodehouse at the end, but he had no other options).  The comic persona began to fall away from him–with just one crucial exception.  But the only first-rate work left in him would be from the other persona–the core persona.

As he falters in these final furlongs, two tall somber dark-haired figures step forth, to catch him as he falls, and hoist him back to his feet, one at each arm.  They have nothing to say to each other, because they don’t live in the same world.  But they share the same father.  And to him, they say in unison, without unction, but with deep respect, “Don’t sweat it.  We’ve got this.”

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Bad News, Part 2

“Hair,” Dortmunder said.  This was suddenly absolutely clear in his mind.  “We find  a descendant with black hair, we figure out a way to get a little buncha that hair, we give it to Little Feather, and when they come to take hair for the test, she gives them Moody hair.”

Kelp said, “John, I knew you’d do it.  The Moody hair matches the Moody body, and Little Feather’s in.”

“If we can find an heir,” Dortmunder said.

Irwin laughed.  “This is wonderful,” he said.  “The absolute accuracy of DNA testing! First, we put in a wrong body to match our wrong heiress, then we get a wrong wrong body, and now we’re gonna get the wrong wrong hair. One switched sample is gonna get compared with another switched sample.  Absolutely nothing in the test is kosher.”

Kelp said, “Irwin, that’s the kind of test we like.”

Murch said, “Whoops.  You wanna plan it, and organize it, and do it, all this weekend?”

“No, I don’t want to do that,” Dortmunder said, “but that’s what we got.”

“Then,” Murch said, “I don’t know we got much.”

“Well, it could be that luck is with us,” Dortmunder told him.  Then he stopped and looked around at everybody and said, “I can’t believe what I just heard me say.”

Kelp said, “I’m a little taken aback myself, John.”

This novel features both a con and a heist, and the con takes up a lot more time.  The heist is merely there to shore up the con, and from conception to execution occupies eight chapters in a fifty chapter book, which I think is fairly unique for the series as a whole.  I have this little suspicion that Westlake thought of the heist first, decided it wasn’t quite enough of an idea to hang a novel on, but too much for a short story, and the market for novellas was just not there anymore.

So he found a way to plug it in here, thus allowing him to tell a Dortmunder story about a con while still satisfying the need for a heist.  And a damned clever way at that.  I could be wrong,  I often am.

Not that cons, of the short variety, are anything new to Dortmunder.  In the first two novels, we see him going door to door, selling encyclopedias to housewives–he shows them some brochures, they give him a down-payment, and they never see him again, or the encyclopedias ever.  He doesn’t like it, and he’s not good at it, but he feels like he has to make some kind of dishonest living, and it’s relatively low-risk.  After Bank Shot, he abandoned the encyclopedia thing, and if there was no big heist to plan for the moment, stuck to simple burglary, which was never as simple as he hoped.

J.C. Taylor brought a bit of the grift back to the series, via her many mail order scams, and eventually her own fake country–but always in a strictly ancillary fashion.  This would be the only novel in the series to feature a classic long con.  Well, classic in the Dortmunder sense of the word, put it that way.  Nothing succeeds as planned.

I don’t much like any of the covers I found for this novel (except maybe the Japanese edition I put up for Part 1), and for reasons perhaps a mental health specialist will explain to me someday, often feel obliged to find other images to go with the covers.  It makes sense to me, and that’s all that really matters, right?

What you see up top is a photo of the current St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council (my, don’t they look fierce!), and below that is The Kittatinny House, a rambling old pile that once overlooked the Delaware River, on what is now part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  Originally only accommodating 25 guests, it ended up as a super-swanky resort hotel that could sleep 250.  In its final form, it burned to the ground in 1931.

I’d never heard of it before I started doing research for this review.  I’d say it’s a fair bet that Westlake knew about it, and quite a few other bits and pieces of real history (some of it relating to the odd custom of House Museums  and we’ll get back to that), all of which went into this Mulligan stew of alternate history he’s cooking up here.   He usually knows more than his readers, and he always knows more than he’s saying.  It’s annoying.  Like my propensity for prologues.

Here’s the thing.  I don’t really feel like doing an in-depth synopsis of this one.  No percentage in it.  So I’m going to revisit my old custom of titled subheadings, and see where that gets us.  Hopefully somewhere under 7,000 words.  We’ll see.  Let’s start out with–

The Arraignment of Redcorn:

Little Feather uncrossed her arms and said, “You don’t act like you’re my lawyer, you act like you’re the other guy’s lawyer.”  She pointed to the letter she’d sent.  “I am Little Feather Redcorn,” she said.  “My mother was Doeface Redcorn, my grandmother was Harriet Littlefoot Redcorn, my grandfather was Bearpaw Redcorn, who was lost at sea in the United States Navy in World War Two, and they were all Pottaknobbee, and I’m Pottaknobbee.  I’m Pottaknobbee all the way back to my great-grandfather Joseph Redcorn, who fell off the Empire State Building.”

At that, Dawson blinked and said, “Are you trying to make fun–”

“He was working on it, when they were building it, he was up on top with a bunch of Mohawks.  My mama told me the family always believed the Mohawks pushed him, so I believe it, too.”

Where we left things last time was that Little Feather had been hauled off to the local hoosegow, at the behest of Roger Fox and Frank Oglanda, who co-manage the reservation’s casino, are stealing from it on a regular basis, and thus don’t want anybody other than themselves looking at their overcooked books.  They assume Little Feather’s a fake, but they’re not taking any chances.  Scare her off, before this thing mushrooms.  Only thing is, as we’ve already seen, Little Feather don’t scare easy.

She’s worried, sure.  Nothing like this was supposed to happen, at least not this soon.  But see, in her mind, she’s not really a fake.  She’s a real Indian (says her mother was a full-blooded Choctee, and no that’s not a real tribe either, though it sounds like Choctaw), who has lived exactly the life she says she has, and so what if she doesn’t really belong to this specific tribe?  Her ancestors got robbed by the whites just as much as any Pottaknobbees ever did, and she grew up just as poor.  She’s not lying so much as badly stretching an inconvenient truth. Entirely possible she’s got some non-native ancestry as well, but you know what she’d say to that?

(Lucky horse.)

The secret to a good con is confidence, hence the name.  She’s got so much confidence in herself, it doesn’t matter what name she goes by.  She’s still the same person down beneath.  Any name she goes by isn’t her real name, just like her forebears never called themselves Indians or Native Americans.  She’s going to get her split, and she’s going to have the best house on the reservation, and as God is her witness–well, that’s a different book.  Possibly different God as well, opinions differ.

So even though her public defender, Marjorie Dawson,  a rather frumpy woman of around the same age as herself, acts at first as if her only job is to convince Little Feather to sign a statement admitting she lied, Little Feather’s strict adherence to that lie shakes Dawson’s own assurance, and makes her start to ask herself if this woman could be telling the truth. Believe in the lie enough, and others believe it too.

Then she’s brought up before another in a line of bored curmudgeonly judges we meet in the Dortmunder books, sick of the usual run of uninspired criminals they typically encounter in their daily grind.  They need a little break in the routine, which Dortmunder & Co. will provide.

Judge T. Wallace Higbee had come to realize that what it was all about was stupidity.  All through law school and through his years of private practice, he had believed that the subject was the law itself, but in the last twelve years, since, at the age of fifty-seven, he had been elected to the bench, he had come to realize that all the training and all the experience came down to this: It was his task in life to acknowledge and then to punish stupidity.

Joe Doakes steals a car, drives it to his girlfriend’s house, leaves the engine running while he goes inside to have a loud argument with his girlfriend, causing a neighbor to call the police, who arrived to quiet a domestic dispute but then leaves with a car thief, who eventually appears before Judge T. Wallace Higbee, who gives him two to five in Dannemora?  For what?  Car theft?  No; stupidity.

Bobby Doakes, high on various illegal substances, decides he’s thirsty and needs a beer, but it’s four in the morning and the convenience store is closed, so he breaks in the back door, drinks several beers, falls asleep in the storeroom, is found there in the morning, and Judge Higbee gives him four to eight for stupidity.

Jane Doakes steals a neighbor’s checkbook, kites checks at a supermarket and a drugstore, doesn’t think about putting the checkbook back until two days later, by which time the neighbor has discovered the theft and reported it and is on watch, and catches Jane in the act.  Two to five for stupidity.

Maybe, Judge Higbee told himself from time to time, maybe in big cities like New York and London there are criminal masterminds, geniuses of crime, and judges forced to shake their heads in admiration at the subtlety and brilliance of the felonious behaviors described to them while handing down their sentences.  Maybe.  But out here in the world, the only true crime, and it just keeps being committed over and over, is stupidity.

And after giving Little Feather a thorough grilling in his courtroom, Judge Higbee is grudgingly forced to acknowledge that she may be lying, but she’s not stupid (and therefore, in his private worldview, not guilty).  And after a while, he begins to wonder if it’s actually Fox and Oglanda who have been stupid–done something they need to hide, and that’s why they’re so determined to get rid of this woman.

So not only does Fox’s and Oglanda’s preemptive strike fail–it backfires.  Turns out there’s a memorial plaque at the reservation headquarters for Joseph Redcorn, that the Mohawks presented the tribes with (and which the tribes have always interpreted as guilty conscience because they pushed him). Even Guilderpost’s research never turned that up, but it provides some needed verisimilitude to back up the con.

Little Feather gets released on bail (she puts up her mobile home as collateral), and her co-conspirators arrange for her to stay in touch with them discreetly, knowing she’ll be watched.   It’s mostly up to her now, and they just have to wait until somebody thinks to bring up DNA testing.  Then they’re all set.  They think. But this is a Dortmunder novel.  It’s never going to be that simple.  Which brings us to–

The Un-Busy Body:

“If I was them,” Dortmunder said, “and I’m in the spot they’re in, what do I do?  And I’m beginning to think I know what I do.”

Tiny said, “What you did.”

Dortmundre nodded.  “That’s what I’m thinking, Tiny.”

Kelp said, “They would, wouldn’t they?”

Dortmunder and Kelp and Tiny all nodded, not happy.  Guilderpost and Irwin both looked baffled.  Guilderpost said, “What do you mean?”

Dortmunder said, “What did we do, to make sure the DNA was a match?”

“You put grampa in there,” Little Feather said.

“So if I’m on the other side,” Dortmunder said, “what do I do?”

“No!” Guilderpost cried.  “They wouldn’t dare!”

“I bet they would,” Dortmunder said.

Back when I reviewed the second of the Westlake crime comedies, The Busy Body (also the second ‘Nephew’ book, since before Dortmunder turned up, they were one and the same), I made a connection.  I said that 1966 novel’s star-crossed mobbed-up protagonist, Aloysius Engel, was clearly a Dortmunder prototype.  I hold to that claim now, and present this book as evidence.  Westlake is revisiting ideas from The Busy Body here, but is turning them on their heads. He knows what he did.  And what he’s doing now is returning to the scene of the crime.  Namely a graveyard.

The joke this time is that once Little Feather’s grandfather goes into that grave in Queens, he stays there.  It’s a bit unclear what happens to Joseph Redcorn, who was clearly just born unlucky, and stayed that way after the Mohawks pushed him.  Once both sides have fully lawyered up, and the subject of DNA testing is raised by the other side, as Guilderpost anticipated, Dortmunder correctly anticipates what Fox and Oglanda will do–dig up the deceased Pottaknobbee they’re afraid might really be Little Feather’s grampa, and replace him with somebody she’s definitely not related to.  Guilderpost’s aggrieved moral indignation at this  suggestion is rather priceless.

So what can they do about it?  Little Feather isn’t supposed to have anybody backing her up here, so they can’t guard the grave without tipping their hand. They could dig up the body–again–and then put it back in there–again–after the tribes have planted their own ringer, but Dortmunder feels like if you do grave-robbing not once but three times, it’s starting to become your job, and that’s not a career path he’s particularly interested in.

Tiny comes up with the answer–switch the headstones.  So Little Feather’s grampa, who was posing as Joseph Redcorn, is now posing as one Burwick Moody, buried very nearby, under a very similar marker.  He died about three years after Joseph Redcorn, on December 5th 1933.

“That’s the day Prohibition ended,” Dortmunder said.

Tiny looked at him.  “You know stuff like that?”

“I like it when they repeal laws,” Dortmunder explained.

Worth mentioning.  My favorite exchange of the book may actually be one that happens before that, as they make the long drive back down from the Adirondacks to Queens, in a stolen Jeep (with MD plates, naturally, because Kelp).  Seems the jeep has some kind of built-in electronic compass (GPS is not mentioned).  Tiny brings it up.  Tiny notices things.

As Dortmunder looked, the S E changed to S.  He looked out at the road, and it was curving to the right.  “So now it’s south,” he said.

“You got it,” Tiny told him.  “Comin down, that’s what I been doing back here.  Watchin the letters.  A whole lotta S.  A little N back there when Kelp got confused on the Sprain.

“The signage stunk,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder looked at Kelp’s profile, gleaming like a Halloween mask in the dashboard lights.  “Signage,” he said.  “Is that a word?”

“Not for those pitiful markers they had back there,” Kelp said.

Dortmunder decided to go back to conversation number one, and said to Tiny, “And the numbers are the temperature, right?  Outside the car.”

“You got it again,” Tiny told him.

Forgetting about signage, Dortmunder said to Kelp, “Did you know about that?”

“Did I know about what?”

“Southwest,” Tiny said.

“The car here, Dortmunder explained to Kelp,” it tells you which way you’re going, south, east, whatever, and what the temperature is outside.  It’s up there.”

Kelp looked up there.

“Back on the road!” Dortmunder yelled.

Kelp steered around the truck he’d been going to smash into and said, “That’s not bad, is it?”  The temperature outside, and which way you’re going.”

“Very useful,” Dortmunder suggested.

“A car like this,” Kelp said, “you could take this across deserts, jungles, trackless wastes.”

“Uh-huh,” Dortmunder said.  “How many of these things do you suppose have been across deserts and jungles and trackless wastes?”

“Oh, two or three,” Kelp said, and took the exit, and Tiny said “South.”

So they can just switch the stones back again after the wrong body is dug up and replaced with another wrong body.  Here’s the problem.  The reason Aloysius Engel failed to find the body he was supposed to find in that earlier comedy of errors is that he’s a natural-born schlemiel.  It seems schlemiel-dom is not a uniquely causasian thing.  Well, that’s only fair, right?

The Native Nephew:

Benny Whitefish and his cousin Geerome Sycamore, and his other cousin Herbie Antelope loaded the coffin into the rented van and shut the doors.  Then Geerome went behind the tombstone and threw up.

Benny was pleased that Geerome had thrown up, because it meant there was at least one person around here who was a bigger goofus than himself, but of course, since Uncle Roger had put him in charge of this mission, he had to say, in a manly kind of fashion, “That’s okay, Geerome, it could of happened to anybody.  Don’t think a thing about it.”

Benny Whitefish is an actual nephew, of Roger Fox–Westlake’s not being at all subtle about this, and most people still miss the joke, I bet.  We first meet him because he’s assigned to keep an eye on Little Feather, and being a horny young guy, that’s a job he can get into.  He immediately takes a liking to her, and she immediately spots him as her tail, and as somebody she can twist around her clever card-dealing finger without half-trying.

So before you know it, he’s on her side, and is speaking up for her at the Tribal Council, which theoretically is how the tribe is supposed to govern itself, except that since all the money comes from the casino, all the real power is with Fox and Oglanda.

The Tribal Council functioned mostly like a zoning board.  Back in the good old days, the Tribal Council had waged war against tribal enemies, had overseen the distribution of meat after a hunt, maintained religious orthodoxy (a combination of ancestor and tree worship at that time), punished adultery and theft and treason and other high crimes and misdemeanors, arranged executions, oversaw the torturing of captured enemies, conducted the young men of the tribe through the rites of manhood, and arranged marriages (most of which worked out pretty well).  These days, the Tribal Council gave out building permits.

Tommy Dog was chairman of the Tribal Council for this quarter, he being a Kiota and the chairmanship alternating every quarter between the tribes, to be fair to everybody and to distribute the power and the glory equally, and because nobody else wanted the job.

Yeah, I’ve had those kinds of jobs too.  Tommy Dog has no encouragment for poor Benny, since he has no power to question Roger and Frank, who control the purse strings.  Or the wampum pouch strings, I dunno.  As Tommy looks back at Benny, he thinks to himself he resembles those paintings of the Defeated Indian, head hung dejectedly.  This is not a very PC book, it should go without saying, but in a comic universe, you’re at a disadvantage if you’re not funny.  If everybody is absurd, nobody is absurd, right?   Even playing field.  Except it’s not, really.  Not when it comes to Benny.

He and his buddies get caught at the graveyard with what is supposed to be Joseph Redcorn’s coffin, but isn’t. This is a major plot complication, needless to say, so Benny’s pulling his weight, storywise. What happened was, the groundskeeper there figured out there was too much going on at night, people prowling around who aren’t supposed to be there, so he called the cops, and Benny’s the one got fingered. So where that leaves things is that now they’re going to test Burwick Moody’s DNA, not Little Feather’s grampa’s (which in a weird way, means Benny’s mission succeeded, only his uncle doesn’t know it, and neither does Benny).

And since the coffin has now been removed from what Fox and Oglanda were insisting was sacred tribal burial ground, by members of the tribe who (their lawyer argues) were merely trying to return a member of their community to his proper place, they can’t use that as an excuse for not testing the remains.

More on that later–what happens now is that Benny and his cousins spend the night at Riker’s Island, and they’d probably find the Plains Indian Sundance more relaxing.   (Okay, I guess you can’t really say he didn’t earn his reward, but it’s more by way of suffering than actually doing stuff.)

Here’s the thing–Benny deserved a few more chapters. He’s not developed that much.  By the end of the book, he’s shacked up with Little Feather, and that’s a grand and generous reward for any sub-protagonist.  But unlike the other Westlake Nephews, Benny never gets to earn The Girl, make a grand heroic gesture.  He never figures out what’s what, or who’s who; never has that insightful moment of self-realization that is the very heart of Nephewdom, and that’s basically because it’s a Dortmunder book.  The Dortmunders ultimately replaced the Nephews in Westlake’s comic stylings; rendered them obsolescent. It’s not about Benny.

But think how much better the Nephew of Drowned Hopes made out, and he’s a total shit.  The Nephew in Dancing Aztecs (where there is no dominating central protagonist) may be a total mama’s boy, but he’s a mama’s boy who wins.  Did Benny have to be such a total nebbish?  Did his subplot have to be so patronizing?  Couldn’t he have counted coup just once?  Points deducted from your score, Mr. Westlake.   You could have given him a few more chapters.

Obviously the Native American hero of this book is a heroine.  And given that Dortmunder himself was born in a town called Dead Indian, and is (I believe) the living embodiment of the Indian trickster figure Coyote, you could argue he himself is partly Indian (Dortmunder is partly everything, that’s part of his appeal).  More than anything else, Benny’s another Westlake commentary on how guys under the age of 30 don’t really know themselves–Westlake remembers that form of naive listless hormone-addled identity confusion all too well.

But he’s a lot less sympathetic here.  Maybe because he’s old and cranky now, has increasingly less patience with the stupidity of the young (there’s a reason Judge Higbee’s voice is so strong in this book, in spite of him being a fairly minor character).  Happens to the best of us.  But lest you lose patience with me, maybe we better move on from Benny Whitefish.

Truth is, Dortmunder has his own problems to worry about, and they are also problems with the book itself, that must be addressed and dealt with.  This book isn’t about a heist.  Aren’t all Dortmunder stories supposed to be about some kind of theft?  Stealing bodies isn’t the same thing.  Neither is conning people.  Which leads us, quite naturally, to a question–

What Color is Dortmunder’s Parachute?:

“I mean,” Dortmunder said, “why am I in this place?  I’m not a con artist.  I’m not a grafter.  I’m a thief.  There’s nothing here to steal.  We’re just riding Little Feather’s coattails–never mind, Tiny, you know what I mean–and we’re horning in on somebody else’s scam, and if they don’t manage to kill us–and you know, Tiny, that’s still Plan A they’ve got over there in their minds, and you can’t walk around with a hand grenade strapped on forever, for instance, you’re not even wearing it now–what do we get out of it?”

What Color Is Your Parachute? is about job-hunting and career-changing, but it’s also about figuring out who you are as a person and what you want out of life.”

I always hated that book.  Mainly because I associated it with having to look for a job.  And that’s what Dortmunder is doing, all through this book.  And he feels just the same way about it.  Job-hunting sucks.  Particularly when you already know what your real job is, but they ask you to do something else instead.

Case in point–Dortmunder critiques Guilderpost’s professional technique, with regards to how they stay in touch with Little Feather.  This leads to a disagremeent within the makeshift gang–Tiny and Kelp say that John’s the planner, the organizer–Guilderpost is most offended, says that’s his job.

Dortmunder said, “That’s not what they mean.  We do different things, Fitzroy, you and me.  You figure out someplace where you can make people believe something’s true that isn’t true. Make them believe you got an old Dutch land grant screws up their title to their property.  Make them believe maybe there is just one more Pottaknobbee alive in the world.  That’s not what I do.”

“No, of course not,” Guilderpost said, and Irwin, sounding slight snotty, said, “I’ve been wondering about that, John.  What is it that you do?”

“I figure out,” Dortmunder told him, “how to go into a place where I’m not supposed to be, and come back out again, without getting caught or having anything stick to me.”

“It’s like D day,” Kelp explained, “only like, you know, smaller.”

“We also go for quieter,” Dortmunder said.

So he can, in fact, make sound practical suggestions about how they can avoid falling under the scrutiny of the law–there’s a police tail on Little Feather as well, and much more professional than Benny’s (though Benny’s the one gets invited in for coffee).  But that’s more like a consultancy gig, which hardly satisfies his need to work, and neither does switching headstones, and he’s still brooding about that later on, to May, before he heads back upstate again.

He starts off on his childhood at the orphanage of the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and how they had these cereal bowls with pictures of Looney Tunes characters on the bottom, and he usually got Elmer Fudd.  May is confused, wonders if he’s saying he’d like her to find some of those bowls for him to eat his cereal out of.

“No,” he said, and slowly shook his head.  Then he let go of the spoon–it didn’t drop; it remained angled into the gunk–and at least he looked up at May across the kitchen table and said, “What I want, I think, is, you know what I mean, some purpose in life.”

“You don’t have a purpose in life?”

“I usually got a purpose,” he said.  “Usually, I kind of know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, but look at me now.”

“I know,” she agreed.  “I’ve been looking at you, John.  It’s this Anastasia thing, isn’t it?”

“I mean, what am I doing here?” he demanded.  Slowly, the spoon eased downward.  Silently, it touched the edge of the bowl.  “There’s nothing for me to do,” he complained, “except sit around and wait for other people to scheme things out, and then all of a sudden Little Feather’s supposed to give me a hundred thousand large, and guess how much I believe that one.”

And then comes the bad news–the wheels have fallen off the con.  Benny Whitefish’s blundered grave robbery has undone their succcessful grave robbery. They can’t pipe up and say “Hey, that’s not Little Feather’s grampa!” without revealing how they know that.  And now Dortmunder’s very specific set of skills comes into play, at last–but how?  What’s the job here?  The grave is being closely guarded now.  They can’t switch bodies again, or headstones–Burwick Moody’s grave is open now, so even if they could sneak in and switch the stones back again, it wouldn’t work.

But as you can see up top, there’s another solution.  Dortmunder’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play–if you can’t change the DNA at one end, change it at the other.  All they need to do is find a descendant of Burwick Moody with the same color hair as Little Feather, get some of that hair, and her own formidable skill set, honed at many a blackjack table, will allow her to present that hair as her own, and she gets her share of the casino.  If the genes match, you must attach.

(Sidebar–I don’t know how advanced genetic testing was when this story takes place–or even when exactly this story takes place.  Sometime in the 90’s, definitely.  At what point in time would DNA testing show not only if such and such person was a close relation of yours, but whether or not the person tested was of Native American ancestry?  I feel like I’ve done enough nit-picking for one review, so let’s just assume that all the court case requires, given that nobody contests the fact that it’s Joseph Redcorn in that grave, even though it isn’t, is to verify Little Feather is related to him.)

So off goes Fitzroy Guilderpost, to comb the internet for news of Burwick Moody’s present-day descendants.  He comes back to the diner they’re meeting at, with good news and bad news–yes, there is a female descendant, named Viveca Quinlan.  She has black hair.  She lives not far away, in Pennsylvania.  But the bad news is a lulu.

See, Burwick Moody’s sister married an artist, Russell Thurbush, of the Delaware River School, and you know better than to try and look that up online, right? There’s a Hudson River School, and there’s something called ‘Pennsylvania Impressionism’ (one somehow imagines Renoir and Monet rolling their eyes), and obviously I did not know better than to try and look it up online.

Russell Thurbush got himself a reputation, sold a lot of paintings to very rich people, invested his money wisely, and built himself a huge mansion by the Delaware Water Gap, which is now a House Museum, and I told you we’d get back to that.  Well see, Viveca Quinlan lives with her two daughters in said Museum, or rather a section of it set aside for her family’s personal use, while tourists get to go through the rest, looking at old things.  It’s a bit like being the First Lady, except you don’t get to be on Oprah.

So that’s it, right?  The house is full of very valuable objets d’art and antiques, and there’s alarm systems, and guards, and all of that.  No possible way to get in there and nab a few follicles from her hairbrush.  Good idea, John, but forget it. Hey, why are you smiling?  “At last,” Dortmunder said, “A job for me.”  Because that’s what color his parachute is.

So that chapter leads to seven additional chapters of heist planning and executing, and it’s a pretty good heist, that comes off amazingly smooth, thanks to a blizzard, which is pretty funny, considering that I’m finishing and posting this review on Tuesday, March 14th (finally, an excuse to focus on the job they don’t pay me for).  I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of it, read the book.  Stan Murch gets dragooned into it, and there’s some great moments with him, and with his mom, and the usual hijinks at the OJ Bar and Grill, and I could do a section on all of that, but I’m almost to 5,000 words now, so maybe not.

What I do want to talk about is what you might call a bonus identity puzzle Mr. Westlake sneaks in here, Lagniappe upon Lagniappe  You remember how Dortmunder rescued that nun quite literally imprisoned in an office tower serving as a metaphorical medieval castle?  Well, there’s yet another imprisoned woman in this book.  Her imprisonment is purely psychological in nature, but the castle itself is quite real, if more along Victorian lines, architecturally speaking.  Dortmunder rescues her without ever knowing it.  But somebody knows, and that leads us to–

The Mendaciously Majestic Munificence of Murch’s Mom ( AKA, Are you there, God?  It’s me, ‘Margaret.’):

“There was a rustling sound downstairs,” Viveca said.

“Didn’t hear it,” Margaret said.

Viveca leaned close and dropped her voice. “It’s mice,” she confided.

Margaret looked interested.  “Oh yeah?”

“In the winter,” Viveca said, “there’s just no way to keep them out, since there’s nobody ever down there.”

“Huh.” Margaret said.  “Tell me about this husband of yours.”


“Be as frank as you want,” Margaret said, but then she shook her head and patted the air and said, “No, just a joke, I get it, the name is Frank.  And Frank said he was leaving the house, not you.”

“Yes.  And I know it’s true.”

“You want him back, you feel like shit, you–whoops, sorry, you really feel terrible all the time, and you can’t control your daughters because you don’t feel good enough about yourself, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next.  Have I got the story here?”

“Yes,” Viveca said.  She felt humble in the presence of this wise older woman.

“Okay,” the wise older woman said, “I tell you what you do.  Tomorrow, when you get your phone back, you call this Frank.  You tell him, ‘Honey, rent a truck and come get us, all of us, we’re blowin this mausoleum.'”

“Oh dear,” Viveca said.  “I don’t know, Margaret.”

“What you tell him is,” Margaret insisted, “this separation is over.  Come on, Frank, rent a truck or hire a lawyer, because we’re either gettin back together or we’re gettin a divorce.”

You ever think about the people who live in house museums?  Now most of them probably chose to do so–I used to work with a guy who got free rent that way for a while, he just had to be there during museum hours to let people in, and the rest of the time it was just him and Mr. Poe.  Or was that a different house museum, I forget.  The stories get jumbled together over time.

But imagine it’s your family’s house, or used to be–your famous ancestor’s legacy to posterity, and you’re supposed to safeguard it, but mainly that’s down to other people now, and you’re just a ghost yourself now, living in a house that isn’t really a home anymore?

That’s the situation Viveca Quinlan, last surviving adult relation of Burwick Moody and Russell Thurbush is, on the night of the blizzard, when Dortmunder & Co. arrive to do a bit of quiet thievery of the valuables downstairs, while Murch’s Mom (real name Gladys), posing as a traveler stranded in the snow, keeps everyone occupied, and obtains the needed hair sample from the bathroom, easy as pie.

And she needs to give the boys some time to browse through the gift shop, if you know what I mean, so she and Viveca and Viveca’s girls and the security guard all play Uno together, for hours, and there’s plenty of time in-between to talk, and she’s the type you just know you can confide in, and Viveca has been so lonely, as ghosts in decaying isolated Victorian piles tend to be, you’ve read the stories. This story involves a husband who decided he didn’t feel like being a ghost, and went back to New York to practice law, and there’s another woman, to which ‘Margaret’ merely says “Men.”

And obviously Murch’s Mom’s only real mission statement is to make sure nobody finds out there was ever a burglary going on there, but there’s more to her than that–we found that out in Drowned Hopes, same time we found out what her real first name was.   So even while she’s hiding who she really is, she’s still showing her true colors.  Anyway, just like her boy, she’s a born know-it-all, lives to hand out advice.  Stan will start pontificating on the best route to take on the New York City thoroughfares at the drop of a hat.  She’s giving a somewhat different type of navigational assistance here.  Anybody can hit a dead-end.  You just turn around and get back on the main road.

So by the time she’s ready to go, she’s saved a marriage, and possibly as many as four lives, and she never bothers to tell anybody about it, except to say she thinks maybe she did some good in there, when she gets picked up by the stolen snowplow they’re using for the heist.  Stan just takes to mean they all made out like bandits, which is fine with her as well.  Exeunt ‘Margaret.’

The narrator informs us that Viveca and her girls moved into her husband’s apartment two days later.  When the volunteers returned in the spring, when the museum reopened, and noticed a few items missing here and there, they assumed Viveca had just taken them with her as keepsakes, or they’d been sold off by the foundation that runs the mansion, and so they said nothing about it to anybody, because it was none of their business.

(The stolen items end up with Arnie Albright, the fecklessly offensive fence, who gets his own minor subplot here, and who will take some time unloading the loot, but the gang will see a nice bit of cash. Eventually. Someday.)

The omniscient deity of this universe concludes the chapter, with great satisfaction–At last, the perfect crime.   He might as well have added, I’m here, ‘Margaret.’

And that leaves us nothing but–

A not entirely satisfactory conclusion, except for Benny Whitefish (lucky horse):

The DNA test proves beyond any doubt that Viveca Quinlan is related to Burwick Moody, though that’s not what the court decision will say.  Roger and Frank have a little discussion about what will happen to to them once the tribes find out they’ve been cheated of tens of millions of dollars, and the general consensus is they’d be lucky to just get lynched on a street corner–if the mob goes with the traditional punishments, things could get really unpleasant.

Before that happens, however, there’s a cross to deal with.   Dortmunder knew from the start that Fitzroy and Irwin wouldn’t be willing to pony up their hundred large apiece.   There may be honor among thieves, but not among grifters–Jim Thompson could tell you that (Lawrence Block is a bit more on the fence about it).

But see, a grifter has to know his or her limitations–you’re supposed to win with the tools of your trade, namely lies.  Not with guns, which is what Fitzroy and Irwin try–they figure they can follow Stan back to where the gang is dividing up the loot from their heist, surprise them, take them out hard with the Glock machine pistols they’ve acquired (mainly for Tiny’s sake, one assumes), and then they just need to make sure Little Feather doesn’t develop selective amnesia, like the real fake Anastasia.

And when the dust has settled RosenGabel and Guilderpost (I’m starting to lose count of how many ways Westlake found to reference that famed Shakespearean duo who thought they were the leads, and ended up relegated to a mere Stoppard play) are not dead, but they have been disarmed, and exiled, and frightened out of their wits, and left in a very poor position to ever make any claims on Little Feather’s good fortunes.  One can’t really say they learned their lesson, but they still end up in detention.

As to the other nefarious duo in this book, it comes down to one last identity puzzle.  Roger knows he’s a thief, and thieves have exit strategies–his is an offshore account in the Turks and Caicos Islands.  He’s going to take the money and run.  Frank says he can’t do that, his family is here, his home is here.  He never really processed what he’d become, so he stays, and burns the books that prove he’s a thief.

And you remember Mr. Westlake had mentioned, in several previous stories, how casinos like to pump a bit of extra oxygen in there, to keep the suckers, I mean customers, lively and active and ready to lose more money at the tables? Well, turns out Silver Chasm Indian casino does that too. By the time Frank has finished rolling around in the snow outside, to put out his burning clothes, the casino is gone.  With the wind.

So a while later, Little Feather comes downstate in her mobile home, which Kelp thoughtfully helps her hook up to the city power supply, and they all meet there one last time, to hear the bad news.  There’s no casino.  It will take a decade or more to get the money to rebuild it.   She’s accepted as the last Pottaknobbee, the tribes will take care of her, she’s found a home of sorts (and does this mean she now has to spend a third of the year chairing the Tribal Council?  Those meetings are going to get a lot more interesting).

So no hundred g’s apiece for the gang.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that Benny Whitefish is now her official protector, and he’s brought in briefly, still not quite able to process his good fortune.  And since he’s in the next room in a mobile home while she’s telling them the bad news,  I’m going to assume he’s Nephew enough for Little Feather to have told him the whole unfiltered truth about who she is, and Nephew enough not to give a damn, as long as he gets to see her naked.   Attaboy.

So that’s the first of the Final Five.  It may well be, as Greg Tulonen thinks, the best of them as well.  I’ll decide that as I work my way through the next four.  I may have found any number of little flaws in it, but Westlake put so much into even his most ill-conceived efforts (which this is not), that it feels churlish to cavil and complain about that. Lagniappe isn’t about getting the very best. Lagniappe is about getting something extra.

And what we’ll be getting next time will be the last of my “Mr Westlake and (fill in name of decade here)” pieces.  Because as I see it, this here is the last of his 90’s novels, whether it was written in ’99 or ’00.  The next book in our queue was published in 2002, and it’s also a heist story–but not with Dortmunder.  Or Parker.  Or even Grofield.  A new beginning, you might say. Cue Lord Tennyson. Yeah, I’ll explain that.  Later.  After we’ve dug ourselves out.  Stan, could you loan us that snowplow?  Aw c’mon, just for Lagniappe.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Brothers Keepers


Why was everybody Traveling so much?  Where was the need?  Was it even remotely possible that so very many people had just discovered they were in the wrong place?  What if everyone in the world were just to call up everyone else in the world some morning and say, “Look, instead of you coming here and me going there why don’t I stay here and you stay there,” wouldn’t that be saner?  Not to speak of quieter.

Like babes in a boiler factory, Brother Oliver and I huddled close to another as we set off, Traveling south along Park Avenue.  Scrupulously we obeyed the intersection signs that alternately said WALK and DON’T WALK, though no one else did.  Slowly we made progress.

Park Avenue stretched half a dozen blocks ahead of us, as far as Grand Central Station, with the hilt of the Pan Am Building sticking out of its back.  We would be taking a train eventually, but not from that terminal; the Long Island Railroad connects in Manhattan with Pennsylvania Station, quite some distance away.  Eighteen blocks south and four blocks west, slightly over a mile from the monastery, the farthest I had been in ten years.

We crossed 51st Street, jostled by hurrying louts, and I gestured to an impressive church structure on our left, saying, “Well, that’s reassuring, anyway.”

Brother Oliver gave me the tiniest of headshakes, then leaned his cowl close to mine so I could hear him over the surrounding din.  “That’s Saint Bartholomew,” he said.  “Not one of ours.”

“Oh?”  It looked like one of ours.

“Anglican,” he explained.

“Ah,” I said.  The sanctum simulacrum; that explained it.

There was a very large part of Donald Westlake that was, for want of a better word, curmudgeonly.  Resistant to change of any kind.  Desirous of quiet contemplation, eschewing noise and commotion and the common crowd.  And this is a very strange attitude for any New Yorker to have, but it may well be that the great majority of New Yorkers feel this way, at least some of the time.  Being surrounded by change, we want some things to stay the same.  “New York will be a great city when it’s finished” was an old joke when your great-grandparents were young, and of course it never will be.  That’s why we landmark buildings. To give us a tenuous sense of permanence in a state of constant flux.

One of the many little architectural dramas that unfolded in my city over the years involved the beautiful St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, mentioned in that quote up top.  St. Bart’s, as it is typically referred to, now nearing the 100th anniversary of its completion, was only about half a century old when it was given landmark status–a move its rector and parishioners vigorously objected to at the time, because they hoped to someday sell the air rights and part of their rather tiny plot of increasingly valuable real-estate to developers (leaving the church itself intact, but hopelessly overshadowed).   They had many socially admirable reasons for wanting this, I should hasten to add.  They tried to get around the landmark thing later on, and failed.  Take a look, and see if you think there was room for a huge skyscraper right next to that church, and what the overall environmental impact would have been.


Episcopalians do tend towards this kind of thing here–the never-to-be-completed Cathedral of St. John the Divine, over near Columbia University, has a rather ugly pile of condos going up to its immediate left right now.  They had a fire a while back, which depleted their resources.   Land-rich, cash-poor.   I still like them, because they blessed my dog on the Feast of St. Francis.


Westlake would have read about the early stages of the St. Bart’s controversy in the New York Times, that most stately of local edifices (we even call it the Grey Lady), which could probably do with some landmarking of its own (Westlake wouldn’t like that I turned landmark into a verb, but we’ll get to that).

And he would have felt a pang for poor St. Bart’s, whose own people wanted to sell their bailiwick for a mess of pottage, force this grand structure to rub elbows with some vulgar glass tower.  Yes, for good reasons.  It’s always for good reasons.  And look where it gets us.  Hemmed in on all sides.  Nowhere you can stop and take a breath.  Is there so much beauty and symmetry and space in the urban landscape that we can afford to lose any of it?   Chuck Jones’ favorite mutt had a point.  Self-serving though it might have been.

This book is about much more than architectural conservatism, though.  It’s about identity, naturally–the ‘Nephew’ this time has figured out who he is before we meet him, but then a crisis challenges him, forces him to reassess his choices, to reject or recommit to them.

And this is partly a religious crisis, because he’s a monk.   Brother Benedict, of the (wholly fictitious) Crispinite Order of the Novum Mundum, founded by a Half-Moorish/Half-Jewish converso named Israel Zapatero, who while fleeing Spain for the New World in the 18th century had a sincere conversion along the way, inspired by two martyred shoe-making brothers, Saints Crispin and Crispinian, whose Saint’s Day is October 25th.  Same day the Battle of Agincourt was fought, which is why Shakespeare’s Henry V made such a big deal about it.

Only wouldn’t you know, the Catholic Church took that Saint’s Day off the calendar after Vatican II, which would of course have only further endeared it to Westlake the Shakespeare buff and curmudgeon on general principle.  Yes, it’s a very involved backstory; with Catholicism I’m afraid there is no other kind.

How religious was Donald E. Westlake as an adult?  Not very, I think we’d have to agree.  Not in any conventional sense, for sure.  He was born and raised in a highly Catholic environment–Irish Catholic, to be specific (and yes, it makes a difference).   He went to a Catholic High School, the Vincentian Institute in Albany–his first published work was for their literary journal.  His confirmation name was Edmond (mine is Paul, not that you asked), which his mother insisted upon, so that her scheme of having his initials spell something not be thwarted.

He was too much of an independent thinker to ever feel comfortable within the confines of any organized faith.  And yet he seems to have left himself a lot of wriggle room with regards to the existence of some higher power.  He stated in no uncertain terms that the world is not simple enough to be understood, and that is a religious attitude.  Wherever we don’t know, we can only believe.   And we’ll never know everything.

It’s also debatable how Irish Westlake was–he talks about that in this book as well.  It’s part of his identity, and he cares about it, but somehow it’s hard to imagine him drinking green beer and singing Danny Boy on Paddy’s Day.  Of course, any Irish-American who does that has already become hopelessly alienated from his or her ethnic identity.   As indeed most of us are.  Part of the melting pot experience, but like so many others here, we resist assimilation, futile though it be.

One gets the impression that he sometimes felt like the cuckoo in the nest of his Irish family (361 in particular exudes this feeling). I would say, generally speaking, that Irish Americans are most Irish when they’re not trying to be Irish.  If that makes any sense at all. And if it doesn’t, that’s the Irish in me talking.

But please note–the protagonist in this book is not Irish at all.  He’s just hopelessly besotted with an Irish American girl.   As Westlake himself would have been, on more than one occasion.  They tend to have that effect on men of all ethnicities.

Westlake certainly would have noticed, in the mid to late 60’s, the attention generated by two very different books, seemingly written for very different audiences, by very different authors (in very different eras, but the author of the first had died suddenly in 1968, generating new interest).


The exploration of inner space via deeply isolated, quiet, lonely contemplation–and the fight to avoid being overwhelmed and swept aside by change in the outside world, which invariably requires true and loyal friends to fight beside you.  They seem like incompatible narratives, but clearly Westlake didn’t think so.   His contribution would be to combine these two stories–one very real, the other a mere flight of fancy, and in so doing he created one of his finest novels, as well as possibly the hardest one to pigeonhole–though there is actually a murder mystery in it–the victim being trust within a sequestered community of spiritual seekers.   Who love each other more than they could ever possibly express.

And there is also a recurring theme of Travel–always capitalized in this book, as it shall be in this review, and I would hope we would all hold scruplously to this rule in the comments section–Israel Zapatero, when founding the Crispinite Order, made it their special mission to contemplate the effects of Traveling upon the soul–the good and the bad of it.  And Westlake, as we know, was constantly Traveling, for business and pleasure, and viewed it with a mixture of eagerness and disquiet–to be constantly on the move can be damaging to the identity.  How can one combat the spiritual consequences of Travel?  On the one hand, it broadens the mind, as my favorite Doctor used to say (before the Beeb ruined him–I’m something of a curmudgeon myself).   On the other, it can be a way of running from yourself.

So in this one book, Westlake tackles the changing urban landscape, religion, Irish America, the joys and trials of male bonding, and the deeper meaning of our shared modern obsession with Travel.  As well as his usual identity puzzles. Oh this will be a two-parter, bet on it.

As the book opens, Brother Benedict, our first person narrator, is making his confession to Father Banzolini, who comes by to unburden the monks of their sins twice weekly–and the worst sin he has to confess is that he stole an orange Flair pen from Brother Valerian, who did The Sunday Times crossword puzzle, which is supposed to be Brother Benedict’s purview.  Confession is one of those sacraments that plagues all Catholics, laity and clergy alike, because most of the time you have nothing terribly interesting or original to confess, and Father Banzolini is clearly bored to tears with these monks and their silly little sins.  By the time this book is over, he’ll learn that monks can have hidden depths.

Benedict informs us that his original name was Charles Rowbottom, and that he had only converted to Catholicism originally because he was engaged to a Catholic girl, who then left him for a Lebanese Muslim (he says Mohammadan, because he is given to a somewhat archaic mode of self-expression).   Having put so much work into becoming Catholic, it would be a sin to let it all go to waste, and he’d never much felt at home in the modern world, so he joined the Order.   He is currently thirty-four years of age–not quite a virgin, but not very experienced, either.  Of all the prior Nephews, he probably most resembles Fred Fitch, the hero of God Save The Mark.  But this time, it’s an entire monastery that’s being conned.

Benedict loves monastery life–Israel Zapatero built a delightfully eclectic and welcoming living space for his monks, on leased land, which has since had a huge bustling city grow up around it.  The monks rarely go anywhere (because this would be Travel), but Benedict takes a special pleasure in walking a short distance to a local newsstand, to pick up the Sunday Times for himself and the others to read.  Truth is, he experienced much less of the world before he joined the Order than most of his brother monks, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, all of which come into play in this story.

He settles down to read the Arts & Leisure section, and perusing the architecture column, he is stunned to learn that the monastery is going to be torn down to make room for an office building.  He assumes there must be some mistake, but he goes to see Brother Oliver, the abbott (Westlake making a slight gesture towards Oliver Abbott, the hero of Up Your Banners–he knew perfectly well these ‘Nephew’ books were of a piece, even if he didn’t refer to them as such).

Brother Oliver is likewise flabbergasted, and immediately convenes a meeting restricted to himself, Benedict, and three others whose skill-sets may prove helpful–Brother Clemence (a former Wall St. lawyer), Brother Dexter (scion of a prominent banking family) and Brother Hilarius, the monastery’s resident historian, whose name does not in any way reflect his personality.  Brother Oliver says he can’t find the lease for the land the monastery is on.  Because the lease goes back to the Revolutionary era, no copy was ever registered with the city.

He talked to Dan Flattery (Westlake has a lot of fun with Irish names in this one), the rich building contractor whose family has owned the land for some time now, and all he could learn was that the land has been optioned to something called Dwarfmann Investment Management Partners (otherwise known as Dimp).  It takes some explaining by Brothers Clemence and Dexter, but finally Brother Oliver is made to understand that the intent is to buy up the entire block the monastery is situated on–they need all the different plots in order to construct the proposed office building.

Brother Oliver is worth the price of admission all by himself–a mix of wordly and unworldly wisdom, mingled with quiet exasperation, and maybe the best father figure Westlake ever created for one of his protagonists.   If they had ever made this one into a film, I know just who should have played him (and he’s still alive, albeit eighty-five years of age at the present time).  I’m sure he must have played a monk at some point in his career, but I couldn’t find a photo of him in the appropriate garb, so–


The great Philip Bosco.  I saw him in multiple Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.  Mainly Shaw plays.  His Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara put Robert Morley’s to shame.  But I digress.

Brother Oliver decides that the best approach would be to confront Dan Flattery directly, and so he will Travel to the Flattery home in Sayville Long Island–he needs a Traveling companion, and Benedict is elected.  He has very mixed emotions about this–Travel is exciting and frightening.   His ten years in the monastery, never going more than a block or so away, have allowed him to forget just how tumultous and confusing the outside world can be.

So they walk to Penn Station (the original beautiful version of which was demolished in 1963, to make room for one of the ugliest and most depressing train stations in the western world), and take the Long Island Railroad–and walk from the station.  It’s about two miles to the Flattery house, and there’s a cabbie offering to take them, but Crispinite Brothers never ride when they can walk, walking being the least disorienting form of Travel.  And along the way, a minor miracle happens–at least in the cynophobic world of Donald Westlake.

South of the business district we came on grander houses, set well back among lawns and old trees and curving driveways.  Occasional large loping dogs, dalmatians and Irish setters and suchlike, romped out to study us, and one German Shepherd trotted at our heels until Brother Oliver had to stop and tell him firmly that he should go home, that we were not prepared to accept responsibility for him.  He smiled at us, and went back.

If this were a Parker novel, the Shepherd would attack, and Parker would kill him.  If a Grofield, the dog would look yearningly at Grofield’s throat.  If a Dortmunder, the dog would be this comically intimidating presence, thwarting Dortmunder in some way.   And here he’s offering his companionship, his protection–which they can’t accept (though in light of later events, they probably should have).   Maybe he thought they were a different order of monk.  This is certainly a different order of book than what Westlake normally wrote.  He’s getting infected by his characters.  Perfect love casteth out all fear.

The visit to the Flatterys does not go well.   Dan Flattery, a large bluff man of a very pronounced Irish type (think Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man, only with a Long Island accent and fewer of the social graces), is clearly determined to go through with the sale.  But perhaps more disastrously, Benedict meets Dan’s daughter Eileen Flattery Bone; rebellious, unhappy, divorced, perhaps thirty, “with a black-haired delicate-boned slender beauty that would undoubtedly keep on improving until she was well into her forties.”  One of those.  Benedict’s a goner.

Eileen has a male companion, an undeserving, weak-chinned, mustached lout named Alfred Broyle (heh), and for somebody who has devoted himself to a celibate life (though he has taken no vow of chastity), Benedict seems awfully pleased when she quarrels with Alfred and he leaves abruptly.  Benedict and Eileen have a talk in the garden, and then Brother Oliver says it’s time to go home.  And though he’s been longing for the monastery ever since he left, he doesn’t entirely want to return.   He and Brother Oliver are both being corrupted by Travel.

The next day they walk to the Solinex Building in midtown, “one rectangle repeated seven million times.  In glass, in chrome, and in what might have been but probably was not stone.”  In front of it there’s a statue which “seemed to represent a one-winged aircraft with measles which had just missed its landing on an aircraft carrier and was diving nose-first into the ocean.”  This is the building where Dimp is headquartered.   Obviously.

Mr. Dwarfmann being unavailable, they are met by Elroy Snopes (a rather pointed reference to Faulkner’s fictional family of venal grasping social climbers in Yoknapatawpha County), who is all smiles and solicitousness and corporate Newspeak.  Benedict, something of a language maven, much like his creator, is in mental anguish listening to Mr. Snopes make free with the Bard’s mother tongue.

The man’s use of the English language, his apparent belief that any word could be turned into a verb by a simple effort of will, was starting to make me squint.  “Contact,” “schedule,” “garage,” and “complex” had all become verbs at his hands so far, and who knew what else he might say before we got safely out of his office and back to our monastery?

(Sorry to tell you, Benedict and Donald both, but except for maybe “complex,” the Snopes’ of the world won that war of words in the long run.  Back to the exchange.)

The other problem, aside from his form, was his content.  What in fact was he talking about?  Brother Oliver now asked this very question: “Exactly what are you talking about, Mr. Snopes?”

“Why, relocation, of course.”

Brother Oliver stiffened.  “Relocation?”

“Not that there’s any hurry,” Snopes said smoothly.  “The way it looks now, we won’t be at the demolish stage with your facility at least until next September and possibly not until the following spring.”

Demolish stage: so now he had begun to redress the imbalance in the language by taking a verb and turning it into. . . what?  An adjective, modifying “stage”?  Or its own noun?

But it was the gist that Brother Oliver concentrated on.  He said, “But we don’t want you to demolish us.  We don’t want to be relocated.”

The Snopes personality wound itself up another forty watts, to include sympathy and human understanding.  “Boy, I know just how you feel, Brother Oliver.”  Flash: “You, too, Brother Benedict.”  End of flash.  “You people have been living there for years, haven’t you?  You kind of get attached to a place.”

“Precisely,” Brother Oliver said.

“But we’ve got ourselves almost a year lead time,” Snopes told us,  and his flashing eyes told us how happy that made him.  “We’ll come up with just the right relocate long before we get deadlined.”

“Un,” I said.

Snopes raised a gleaming eyebrow at me.  “Brother Benedict?”

“It’s nothing,” I said.  “I was just getting gastricked there for a second.”

Dimp is already looking at an abandoned community college campus in New Paltz, “Brick buildings, in what you might call your Ivy League style, only more modern, if you know what I mean.”  “I’m afraid I do,” Brother Oliver responds dryly.

Before the brothers leave, they are treated to a sneak peek at a model of the structure that will replace their monastery.   “On a more or less square surface stood two featureless white slabs.  They looked like tombstones on a macrobiotic diet.”

Snopes says he understands they’re more comfortable with an older style of architecture.  “I’m comfortable with style,” Brother Oliver told him, “And I’m comfortable with architecture.”  He is more resolved than ever.   This will not stand.  Literally.   It will not.   As they leave, Brother Oliver asks if Mr. Dwarfmann, who is in Rome, is trying to buy up St. Peter’s or the Vatican.  No, and not the Coliseum either, laughs Snopes.  “Well, you wouldn’t,” Brother Oliver said.  “That’s already a ruin.”  Later, he shall meet a foeman worthy of his steel.

Brother Benedict’s sense of himself is reeling from these two journeys into hostile terrain, and we see him trying to come to terms with it–the pearl of insight forming within the aggravated oyster.

I sat for quite a while on my bed, once we returned from our journey to Dimp, watching the slowly changing trapezoid of afternoon sunlight on my floor and thinking about my recent experiences of Travel.  How complex the world is, once one leaves the familiar and known.  It contains–and has for years contained, without my knowing it–both Eileen Flattery Bone and Elroy Snopes.  If one were to Travel every day, would one go on meeting such richly intrusive personalities?  How could the ordinary brain survive such an onslaught?

I was meditating on the possibility that perhaps ordinary brains did not survive such onslaughts, and that the coming of the Age of Travel produced by the end of feudalism and the social changes of the industrial revolution had in fact created mass psychosis (a theory that would explain much of the world’s history over the last hundred years), when Brother Quillon, our resident homosexual, knocked on my open door and said, “Pardon my interrupting your meditation, Brother Benedict, but Brother Oliver would like to see you in his office.”

“Our resident homosexual.”  Westlake the language maven has still not come to terms with the repurposing of the word ‘gay’ (I’m sure he’d hate the word ‘repurposing’ just as much), and five years after A Jade In Aries, his views on gay men don’t seem to have evolved any further–the problem with token characters is that no one person can properly represent a group.   There are things to be said in favor of some changes in the world around us, and things to be said against curmudgeonliness.   Brother Quillon is a fine sympathetic person, a true brother, and much admired by the Order for his willingness to quell his inner longings in the midst of so much temptation, but he’s a somewhat condescending portrait, for all that.  The only false note struck in this book, much as Dostoevsky struck a false note in The Brothers Karamazov, when speaking of Jews and Poles.  We all have blind spots–that’s why we need each other.

Now might be a good time to run down the remaining roster of monks, who must now be made aware of the threat to their future as an order.   There’s Brother Flavian, the firebrand, the agitator.  Brother Eli, the woodcarver, who deserted while serving in Vietnam, wandered southeast Asia, and ended up with the Crispinites after hearing about them in a lamasery in Tibet–he told them he was a fugitive from the government but what do such wordly things matter to those who live the spiritual life?

There’s Brother Jerome, the handyman, who mainly expresses himself with furtive gestures and one word sentences (he provides valuable intelligence on what’s going on with the other buildings set for demolition, since he’s in touch with all the superintendants and janitors and what-all).  Brother Silas, a reformed thief, who believes their copy of the lease is missing because it was stolen.  Brother Peregrine, a former actor, who can be a bit of a drama queen, but a rock in a crisis.

There is also the aged Brother Zebulon, who remembers things everyone else has forgotten.  Brother Thaddeus, a former merchant seaman.  Brother Mallory, a professional pugilist before joining the Crispinites, who is using the Calefactory as a sort of make-shift gym where he conducts boxing lessons (where nobody actually hits anybody else).  The bearish Brother Leo, who for reasons known only to himself, is an aviation buff, who does plane-spotting from the courtyard. And Brother Valerian, whose orange Flair pen Benedict stole the other day in vengeance for the illicit filling out of the Sunday Times crossword, but what does that matter now?

What does matter?   Preserving their home, their way of life, their collective identity.   But how can they possibly do this?  The answer may lie with Eileen Flattery Bone, who accosts Benedict in her sports car, and says she needs to talk to him.   After getting permission from Brother Oliver, Benedict ends up in Central Park with her, bedazzled by her tantalizing proximity.  Driving around in circles, she asks him why she should give a damn what happens to this useless order of holy woolgatherers.

She is troubled, he can tell–her loyalty to her family is struggling with her sense of right and wrong.  She tells him, with no apparent jest intended, that she is the ‘sincerest of Flatterys,’ (yes, Westlake is having way too much fun with Irish names) but she can’t help him unless she’s sure it’s right.  She swears that if he can convince her his arguments are better than her father’s, she knows how to save the monastery.  Then they get mugged.

Two skinny young black men pull them out of the car (it’s the 70’s, Central Park is still a no-go zone in the evening), and the light being poor, and Eileen wearing pants, and Benedict wearing robes that could be considered a dress, the muggers get their genders confused, and in that confusion, Benedict, his protective instincts engaged, chases both of them off.  And then he embraces her.  And now things are really confused.  And maybe this is a good point to wrap up Part 1, while it’s still St. Crispin’s Day.

These few.  These happy few.   This band of brothers.  Would you believe Westlake let that pun remain implicit for the entire book?  He doesn’t even mention Henry V, though Shakespearean references abound.   October 25th has already come and gone when the story begins, but for these sixteen embattled monks, every day marks a new battle to remain themselves.   The odds are vastly worse than five to one against them.  Fearful odds indeed.

But they have God on their side, and by God, I mean Westlake, who loves them all (yes, Brother Quillon too), as fiercely and bigotedly as he did the intrepid people of Anguilla, when he wrote Under An English Heaven.  Only now he’s in the realm of fiction, where he is all-powerful.  He will offer them all possible aid, but it will be up to them–and Benedict in particular–to follow the slim leads he gives them, that lead to redemption and victory–as well as confusion and doubt.

And never mind that the real Henry V was actually fighting to take somebody else’s home away–that’s neither here nor there.  These sixteen men of peace must fight their holy war without the shedding of blood, but there may be just a dash of violence in there somewhere, because after all, this is a Donald Westlake novel.  So sometime before the end of this month I shall return to finish synopsizing the battle, and those that come not back to read it shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their fanhood cheap whiles any speaks, that read with us upon SAINT CRISPIN’S DAYYYYYY!!!!!

(I always wanted to do that–this Irishman maybe does it a little better).


Filed under Brothers Keepers, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Part 2


The dinner party itself was a bit unreal.  Alice Dombey, wife of a convicted professional forger, produced an incredibly complex and tasty dinner (Gourmet was one of the magazines she subscribed to) for eight AWOL cons who sat around making polite conversation with one another.  Alice beamed genteelly at everybody, used her knife and fork as though it was an intricate skill she’d learned from a correspondence course, and actually extended her pinky when lifting her coffee cup.

At the other end of the scale, and the table, there was Billy Glinn, absentmindedly snapping chicken bones and crunching through his food as though he’d wind up by eating the plates.  Jerry Bogentrodder became silly and giddy in Marian’s presence, coming on with her in the style of a collegian who has drunk too much at his first beer party.  Max also came on with her, though both more subtly and more seriously; I was beginning to feel a bit ambivalent about that fellow.

As to the others, Phil and Joe spent most of the evening talking shop with one another: guns, alarms, lawyers, stolen goods.  And Eddie Troyn kept popping in and out of his Captain Robinson persona–never in quite far enough to call me Lieutenant, but in enough for me to recognize the genial authoritarian style.  And Bob Dombey, our host, was so clearly madly in love with his wife and his home, so patently proud of both, that the great warmth of his feeling filled the room with a kind of amber Dickensian glow.

Afterwards, Marian and I rode to her place in her Volkswagen, and she said “I keep thinking it has to be a put-on. I know you’re a practical joker, and this is a whole elaborate rib.  No way on Earth those people are crooks.”

“Oh, they’re crooks, all right,” I said.  I hadn’t mentioned the bank robbery, or the stings by which the others supported themselves, and though I was tempted now I once more refrained.  Even with Marian, I didn’t feel that trust could be one hundred per cent.

I am a straightforward man, with no crime on my conscience,
But I was accused of being a spy for China.
So life, you see, is never a very smooth business,
And now the present bristles with difficulties.

Ho Chi Minh, Prison Diary

It is good to remember that this is a book written by a man who had just recently fallen madly in love–again.  The dedication in the first edition reads “for Abby–the jentle jailer.” I’m tempted to say he was love[sic], but the intended misspelling was corrected for my Ballantine paperback reprint, and probably many other editions I have not seen.

So perhaps not so coincidentally, there is a sort of amber Dickensian glow about the whole enterprise, which Westlake tries to correct for a bit (as always in the Nephew books, if there’s no real danger, there’s no real laughs), by making it very clear these guys our hero is working with mainly have pretty violent pasts.  But since this is a comic caper, we don’t see them be violent, we merely hear about various acts of physical mayhem they have previously perpetrated.

You get a hint of the soon-to-debut Tiny Bulcher in Jerry Bogentrodder and even more in the monstrous Billy Glinn (who likes to tell blood-curdling stories about the unhappy fates of people who annoyed him in some way)–maybe Westlake made Tiny by combining the two into one fine Fomorian felon.  Waste not, want not.

Phil Giffin, by contrast, is very much like Dortmunder, as we first met him coming out of prison in The Hot Rock–not the demoralized sad sack we saw later, but a tough as nails planner.  In many ways, Phil is the the most formidable member of the gang, but repeatedly frustrated by what seems like bad luck.   Even though he was the first to befriend Harry, Harry senses that Phil would likewise be the first to do Harry seriously bodily harm if he thought his new recruit was not strictly on the up and up.

But in many ways, the funniest and most frightening hard case in this gang is Eddie Troyn.   He’s the other identity puzzle of the book (the first being Harry, of course).  Eddie has such a large role in the middle of the book, that he even got his own cover, in the first Italian edition–


Among the most misleading cover art Westlake ever got, but that is actually a scene from the book–maybe war novels were really big in Italia that year?   The next Italian cover (different imprint, same publisher, same title) was more pacific by far.


Eddie’s shadowy military background makes him the ideal person to go into the nearby army base, Camp Quattatunk, and liberate the implausibly portable and powerful laser the gang somehow knows they have stored there.  He needs a second man, and Harry is elected, because he’s the only one who fits the other uniform they stole.  A stroke of ill fortune for him, but fortunate for us, this being a first-person narrative.

They enter the base on a bus that runs between the town and the base, using cheaply made fake military ID’s that the guards barely glance at–hearkening back to the lax security in The Green Eagle Score, and one assumes to Westlake’s own experience on real Air Force bases in the Mid-50’s.   Harry is playing a lieutenant, and Eddie is ‘Captain Robinson’, because, as he informs Eddie, there’s invariably a Captain Robinson at every military base in America.

Once inside the base, an increasingly disconcerted Harry begins to notice changes in Eddie’s behavior–he’s not playing Captain Robinson, he is Captain Robinson.  Merely putting on the uniform has triggered an identity switch.  He jokes with the younger men at the Officer’s Club, spinning various colorful military yarns, as if he’s been doing this all his life, which for all we know he was before he got sentenced to Stonevelt.

When Harry speaks to him in private, and forgets to address him according to his proper military rank, or at least ‘sir’, Eddie acts like he’s ready to clap Harry in the stockade if he doesn’t shape up.  Or possibly just shoot him.  Technically, if he tried to have Harry court-martialed, they’d both end up in the stockade.

The pretext for the visit is that ‘Captain Robinson’ is conducting an inspection, particularly of the quonset huts where military supplies are kept.   He’s been in and out of the base for a week now, has made lots of strategically placed friends, and he knows where everything is stored.   Various poison gases, plague germs, guns, all manner of ordinance, and of course the laser.  Which believe it or not, is in a 15×6″ box, plainly marked ‘Laser.’  Well, nobody’s asking you to believe it, lighten up.  Maybe the military found it at the Roswell crash site, and figured they’d store it in upstate New York, along with the Ark of the Covenant, and other assorted MacGuffins.

So they take a carton filled with one amazingly small laser, some extra guns, and a few hand grenades (‘useful materials’, Eddie calls them), and of course the sentry in front of the building wants to see a proper signed order for them to take this stuff, at which point Eddie pulls a gun on him, they tie him up, and let’s just say I hope security wasn’t this lax on our real bases back then, but I have this unpleasant feeling Westlake wasn’t entirely kidding.  It’s probably better now…..

They walk over to a closed and unattended gate, where some members of the gang equipped with wire cutters are supposed to meet them.  Only the gang is late.   Harry is all for dumping the swag, and catching the last bus out of Dodge, but Eddie–I’m sorry, Captain Robinson, sir!–tells him they will not abort the mission.  His exact words.  He says they’ll have to improvise.  By which he means using a hand grenade to blow a huge hole in the fence.   Wow, they really are useful materials.

Of course the explosion is noticed, and uniformed men come roaring up in a jeep–Captain Robinson (there’s no point putting in the quote marks anymore) tells them that armed radicals, probably Weathermen, have attacked the base, disabled a sentry, and quite possibly planted a bomb that could blow them all sky high.  He’s particularly upset about the sentry.  “If they’ve killed that man–” he says, emotion choking his manly voice.

The Captain somehow regains control of himself, and says he and the Lieutenant will have to commandeer the jeep to pursue the villains, while the other men go check on the sentry and look for the bomb.   He being the ranking officer present, they don’t argue.  And he and Harry drive right through the hole in the fence.

They meet the gang further on down the road–there was a snafu at the prison–an unexpected shakedown.   Harry recounts Eddie’s genius (he’s back to normal, or what passes for normal with Eddie), and Phil wants to know what they used to blow the hole in the gate.   When he finds out what, he turns a bit pale, and says Eddie should get rid of the hand grenades immediately.  At which point Eddie pulls the pin out of one and throws it to one side of the road they’re driving over.   He didn’t want a child to find it and injure himself, you see.

(If they’d done a movie shortly after this book came out, do you think they could have gotten Henry Fonda to play Eddie?   He doesn’t match the physical description, but it would have been so cool.)

So with all the necessary materials procured, the gang is ready to rob the banks–two of them, disguised as typewriter repairmen, will gain access to the modern bank on one side of the street just after it closes, and the gang will take control of it–then they’ll use the laser to drill through the wall of its vault to get to the other bank’s vault right next to it.   Piece o’ cake.   And Harry is desperately trying to find some way to make the cake inedible.

And it finally hits him–he can do what he knows how to do best.   He sneaks in before the heist, and plants improvised delayed-action stink bombs in the waste baskets.  By the time the job’s ready to start, the bank is in chaos, and the mission is scrubbed.  The other gang members are furious when they learn what happened, and in Harry’s presence, start talking about their own experiences with practical jokers, some of them surprisingly recent, and the general sentiment of the group is that no punishment could possibly be too severe.   Harry just tries to blend in.  It’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t have ulcers before this is over.

This brings us to Chapter 25 in this 49 chapter book, and with not much more than a hundred pages left, we still have to try to rob the bank several more times, solve the mystery of the repeated “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message gags that Harry is not pulling (but keeps getting the blame for anyway), and meet the delightful Marian James, who is The Girl in this book.  And about time, too.

Of the ten versions of The Girl we meet in the ten Nephew books, I’d put her squarely in the top three, alongside that bohemian raven-tressed reckless driver, Chloe Shapiro, from The Fugitive Pigeon, and that blonde busty put-down artist, Gertie Divine, The Body Secular, from God Save the Mark.  Never the same Girl twice.  One of the more diverting aspects of these books.

Harry meets her at a party he goes to with Max, held at the house of a local divorcee Max is hooking up with.  She’s a history teacher, blonde, amply-proportioned, elfin-faced, and full of laughter, much of it directed at Harry, who she takes an instant liking to. Harry likes her just as much, but is too afraid of saying the wrong thing to say any of the right things, and he’s well on the way to screwing up his chances with her.

Only one of the prison guards, Fred Stoon, turns out to be at the party, so Harry has to suddenly grab and kiss Marian, so as not to be recognized–an old gag, but it works for the purposes of fast-tracking their romance, as does Harry spilling out his heart to her at her apartment, explaining about his practical jokes, the name thing, the prison sentence, the tunnel, and everything (except the bank robbery).

She’s a smart, good-hearted, humorous girl, with a fine sense of the absurd, and they’re both quite drunk by this point, and they wake up next morning in bed, and now Harry has a girlfriend.  Who he has to leave post-haste, because it’s almost dawn.  It’s times like these I devoutly wish life were like a Westlake Nephew book.  Perhaps it is for some.

She sat up and switched on the bedside lamp.  Squinting at me, she said, “I’ve known some weird guys, Harry, but you’re the winner.  I’ve had them wake up and say, ‘I’ve got to get back to my wife,’ ‘I’ve got to catch a plane,’ ‘I’ve got to go to Mass.’  But I never in my life heard anybody say they had to go back to prison.

Given that Marian’s role in the book is not that big, she’s probably too big a star now (fame-wise, I mean) to be cast in the movie version that will never happen, but–


I’m just saying.

Amazingly, Harry’s already been set-up with two other women since he joined the tunnel gang (I mentioned this book is very plot-heavy), and it was hopeless both times.  And he just meets this girl at a party he got dragged to, and they click.  So he finds true love and gets laid (repeatedly), well before the book is over–previously, the only nephew to achieve this before the book ended was Eugene Raxford of The Spy in the Ointment, and he and Angela Ten Eyck were an item before the book started. Westlake messing around with the formula again.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, particularly when one of the lovers is serving five to fifteen in the joint.  Harry gets called back in to see Warden Gadmore, only this time the meeting is on the roof of the prison, where somebody has etched “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” in the new-fallen snow. Guess who the Warden thinks did it?  You’d think the same thing in his place, admit it.

But see, Harry thought that Fred Stoon had recognized him at the party, and realizing that instead he’s once more being accused of something he didn’t do, he makes a little too free, asks the Warden (who is forgetting the umlaut in his name) how he’d like it if Harry called him Warden Gadabout, and that does not go over well.   It’s a prison.  He’s a convict. There’s no presumption of innocence unless the authorities feel like presuming it.  Harry gets clapped into solitary confinement for a few days, and has to see a prison shrink.

The warden then relents, and let’s him out, but takes him off gymnasium duty for two weeks, which is the only way Harry can access the  tunnel.  He’s also being given a new cellmate, Andy Butler, the elderly prison gardener, a very long-term resident who looks and behaves like Santa Claus in a prison uniform, and in fact he plays Santa in the prison’s Christmas Pageant every year.  Like Harry’s previous cellmate, Andy’s soon going to get the old heave-ho into the outside world, having spent most of his life behind bars, and having no way to support himself once he’s out there–all his friends are dead, or in prison with him.  Compassionate release, they call it.

Now not for the first time or the last, I note a sly little dig at a more famous writer.   Alice Dombey, wife of Bob, wants to make Harry’s lonesome Christmas a little more bearable.

Then Bob Dombey came around in the afternoon with two Christmas presents for me.  His wife, Alice, the reader, whom I had not as yet met, was making Christmas dinner for the boys, which of course I wasn’t going to be able to attend, so Bob had smuggled in a piece of fruitcake for me.  That made me feel both better and worse.  Bob also had a present for me from Alice, and it turned out to be a copy of Mailer’s Armies of the Night.  Holy Christ, the woman really was a reader!

So I spent a part of the day immersed in a writing style that combines the torturousness of Henry James with the colloquialness of Rocky Graziano, until Max showed up with a message and a present, both from Marian.  The message was that she’d be waiting for me when I got out of prison, which I suppose ws a pretty funny line under the circumstances, and the present was another book; The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh.  That was very funny under the circumstances, and more fun to read than the other.  But too short.

So Harry misses the next bank shot, which manages to get fouled up without his help.  But that just means he’s got to participate in the next attempt, and the attempt after that, and so on.  The same plan, over and over, until it works.  Phil simply will not give up on his vision of robbing two banks in one night.  So Harry will have to reach down deep into his practical joker’s bag of tricks to keep it from happening.  Over and over and over.  At one point, Phil says “Sometimes, I think God doesn’t want us to rob that fucking bank.”  Oh he does, Phil.  He really does.  But not before he’s ready.  You’ll have to earn it, like Dortmunder did.

And there’s yet another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message.  Harry’s on double secret probation now (oooh, John Vernon as Warden Gadmore, perfection, except he’s dead now–details, details).  If there’s just one more incident, Harry’s going to lose all privileges, including that most enviable privilege of bedding down with Marian James when he’s supposed to be paying his debt to society.

Then again, he’d get out of having to do the bank robbery, but if the tunnel gang finds out why he’s the prime suspect in the practical jokes, they’ll put two and two together–it’ll come out “Kill Harry Kunt,” and they won’t even remember the umlaut.  Maybe they’ll bury him with it.

Finally, Harry’s tricks run out, along with his luck, and the bank robbery happens.   And it turns out to be a bit of a dud.  They get the money from Fiduciary Federal (the modern bank), but not Western National (the imposing structure with the pillars).  The laser melts the layer of steel separating the two underground vaults, but there’s also a lot of reinforced concrete, and lasers aren’t so good with that.  It’s a valiant little implausible military laser, and it does its best, but too much has been asked of it.  Eddie darkly mutters that if he’d been allowed to keep those hand grenades…..

Would you believe at one point while they’re working on the vault wall, the bank staff (who have phoned their loved ones to say they’re working late on an audit) ask if they can get take-out food from a local restaurant?   And not just any restaurant, make sure it’s from Durkey’s because that luncheonette across the street is terrible.  Well, if you’ve read any Dortmunder novels, you probably would believe that, yeah.

So they get about nine thousand apiece, which is enough for Phil to at least feel like he’s beaten the jinx.   They can retire with dignity from the field of plunder, but there’s a general feeling amongst the gang that while crime may pay, it doesn’t pay nearly well enough to justify all that hard work, and there must be a less frustrating way to make a living.  The fact is, they’ve set up their own unauthorized halfway house, and by admittedly very gradual degrees, it’s reforming them.

So Harry has gotten past the one thing he was most afraid of–he performed well under pressure, even though he tells us that inside his head he was going “EEEEEE!!!” the entire time, and in a much larger font too.

So now he just has to make sure he stays on gym duty, and he can wait out the next few years, dating Marian to his heart’s content (among various other bodily organs–hey, what happens if she gets knocked up while he’s locked up?  oh never mind.), and then settle down with her.  You all know it’s not going to be that easy, right?

There’s another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner”, and this one’s a real doozy–it’s on the paper used to wrap the communion hosts.  The prison Chaplain, Father Flynn, found it.   Father Flynn is not a forgiving man.  No, he does not care to be told that attitude is inconsistent with his beliefs.  Warden Gadmore, his patience wearing thin, removes Harry’s privileges once more, and now Harry comes to a stark realization, and yes the pun is intentional.

The month between Wednesday, April 27 and Friday, May 27 was the most horrible month in my life.  In the first place, I was in prison.

Well, I hadn’t been before.   I’d been a visitor, a roomer, hardly a prisoner.   But starting the twenty-seventh of April, I was a prisoner, and no mistake.

What does a prisoner do?  He gets up at seven-thirty in the morning and cleans his area.  He eats breakfast.  He exercises for an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the morning in his cell.  He eats lunch.  He exercises an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the afternoon in his cell.  He eats dinner.  He spends the rest of the evening in his cell.  He goes to bed.  Much later, he goes to sleep.

What else does a prisoner do?  Once a week he gets permission to go to the library and get three books.  If he has full privileges  he works at a job somewhere in the prison, but if he only has partial privileges he at least gets to wander around much of the prison area during the day and he gets to see a movie once a week, and he gets to sit down in the library and read a magazine.  But if he has no privileges he sits in his cell and tries to read his three books a week very, very slowly.  No movies, no wandering around, no job, no nothing.

It is all extremely boring.  Boredom is a horrible punishment, just about the grimmest long-term thing you can do to somebody.  Boredom is very boring.  It’s very bad.  I don’t know how to establish this point without becoming boring, and God knows I don’t want to do that.

See, you don’t know what freedom really is until you don’t have it anymore.  Westlake himself knew that full well, having spent a few days in jail after stealing a microscope from a college lab, more or less as a prank.  He had a hard time understanding how people could spend years, decades of their lives in confinement, and not lose themselves.  Many do, of course.  Then we let them out.  Good plan.

Many of us strangely choose to live lives almost as constrained and predictable as those of many real prisoners (with considerably less risk of being raped, or stabbed), but the difference is, we choose those lives.  And we could, if we so willed, choose different ones.  Prison removes the choice from life.  And life without choice, without freedom, isn’t life at all (meaning that one of the most bitterly divisive political controversies of the past four decades is based on a hopeless contradiction in terms, but I’m not dumb enough to get any deeper into that minefield).

And in choosing this moment in this comical yet compassionate work to express that brief moment of inner torment he himself had experienced, Westlake was, knowingly or not, echoing a long chain of protest poetry stretching across the centuries of history his Irish cousins had undergone, and were undergoing even as he wrote this, though the language he used was far from poetic, since his hero is no poet.  Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Brendan (and possibly Dominic) Behan’s The Auld Triangle.  Francie Brolly’s H-Block Song.   And this, of course.   I wonder if he knew that last one?  The album that particular recording made its debut on came out the year before this book.

And yeah, he was probably thinking more about Ho Chi Minh, Mandela, and most of all all those crooks that wrote him letters from prison, and were reading Richard Stark novels like they were how-to manuals.  But it’s all the same thing, down deep.  It’s all the same ancient refrain, keening away in every captive heart, and we need to listen to it more.  Pity the soul that’s not free (that’s from Fraggle Rock, they can’t all be Irish rebel songs).

A month of hell passes, and there are no further messages.   Seemingly proving Harry’s guilt.   He’s summoned back to the Warden’s office, and it’s bad.  Really bad.  His sentence could be lengthened.  There’s some ‘good Catholic boys’ in the prison Father Flynn has incited to go after him in vengeance for his alleged sacrilege.  And the Warden won’t be able to cover up his past history any longer, meaning the tunnel gang will, at the very least, withdraw their protection.  Marian will have to forget about him.

Harry’s life is passing before his eyes, and then he sees something out the window of the Warden’s office–and what passes from his lips then is the oldest cliche in the history of the mystery genre, and the narrative flips back to comedy, but not farce this time–high comedy, I think you’d call it.  And that’s all I’m going to tell you.   I’m playing fair here–the clues are present.  But rather than trying to guess, why not read the book?

This book ought to be in print, even if it’s only in ebook form.  I don’t know why it isn’t; that’s somebody else’s department.  I would certainly rank it among his ten best comic novels that don’t feature Dortmunder & Co.  It’s interesting in that it’s set in a small upstate New York town, much like the ones Westlake grew up in, and he writes with easy familiarity of life there.   And with a certain clear-eyed fondness that makes me think he sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if he’d remained there.  But part of him always did, I guess.

At one point in the book, Marian shows Harry another book, that she thinks contains some of the answers to the riddle of his identity crisis.  The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology by Paul Radin.  It’s a real book; I’ve got a copy of it in front of me.  It’s a classic in its field–a bit dry and academic at points–but Marian, with her gift of laughter, makes it sound downright riveting–and who is The Trickster, anyway?

He was both creator and destroyer, both good and evil, both helpful and harmful, and by the end of the cycle he had outgrown his pranks and gone to work to make the Earth a useful place for mankind.  “The Trickster is the undifferentiated form,” Marian told me, after I’d read the book.  “He doesn’t know who or what he is, or what his purpose is.  He gets into a fight with his arm because he doesn’t realize it’s part of him.  He wanders and gets into trouble because he doesn’t have any goal.  At the end, he matures into self-awareness and finds out he’s supposed to help human beings, that’s why he was sent to earth.  I think maybe you were like that, all practical jokers are like that.  They don’t know who they are yet, it’s a case of arrested development.”

And that’s all well and good, but if you happened to see that especially woebegone manifestation of The Trickster named John Dortmunder, after the events of his next adventure, you’d be most ill-advised to bring it up.  He’d probably punch you right in the nose.  Thing about Tricksters is, they often get tricked.  And the one who tricks him this time could be accused of many things, but arrested development isn’t one of them.

PS: One last run of covers, from around the world (all but one of the covers you see here were snipped from the Official Westlake Blog)–some nice ones for this book.   Its prison theme clearly struck a responsive chord.   Of course it did.

The artist for the Swedish edition, you will note, did his own jesterly take on the original cover art–not sure which I like best:


Czechoslovakia (it was still called that then) and Denmark.  The Danish artist emphasizes the darker side of the book, the Czech is more satiric, as perhaps he or she had to be at the time, if life were not to imitate art:


And finally the German cover art, which somehow manages to be even more misleading than the first Italian edition.


I would have thought for sure they’d change Harry’s last name for that edition.   Well, they remembered the umlaut.  That’s what matters.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner


SOMETIMES I THINK I’M good and sometimes I think I’m bad.  I wish I could make up my mind, so I’d know which stance to take.

The first thing Warden Gadmore said to me was “Basically, you’re not a bad person, Kunt.”

“Künt,” I said quickly, pronouncing it the right way, as in koont.  “With an umlaut,” I explained.

“A what?”

“Umlaut.”  I poked two fingers in the air, as though blinding an invisible man.  “Two dots over the U.  It’s a German name.”

He frowned at my records,  “Says here you were born in Rye, New York.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  Wry, New York.

You will remember my piece of some months back about the much-publicized escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton Correctional Facility, more commonly known as Dannemora–a prison (and a town) that Westlake knew something about from his upstate days, and occasionally referenced in his books.  They managed to tunnel their way through the prison infrastructure, crawling through a pipe, and coming up through a manhole cover on the suburban street that faced the prison wall.  They actually did this twice, deciding not to escape the first time they came up–they went back to their cell to wait for a better moment.

It did not work out well for either of them, as was widely reported.   Stories about escaped prisoners rarely have happy endings, at least not for the escaped prisoners.

But suppose, just suppose, they had been living out a different kind of escape fantasy.  Suppose they had managed to somehow conceal their escape route indefinitely, arranged to have money from Matt’s successful sideline as an artist made available to them locally–they already had civilian clothes they were allowed to wear in the prison.

Suppose they had just now and again come out through that manhole, strolled around as free men, gone to local bars, had a few drinks, chatted up local girls, maybe gone home with a few of them (the question of ‘your place or mine?’ could be tabled indefinitely)–and then returned to their cells, nobody the wiser?   Even if they’d been found out eventually, all that would happen would be the loss of privileges (they were already serving life sentences), and they sure wouldn’t have been shot to death by the cops, as Matt was.  Security and freedom–the best of both worlds.   And if they’d committed crimes out there and avoided being captured and/or identified–who’d have ever suspected them?

And think how differently we’d have reacted to that story, if it ever came out.  Can you imagine such a thing?  Donald Westlake could.  With maybe a bit of help from some readers of his (or Richard Stark’s) who were themselves prisoners, and wrote him letters about prison life.  Including one about a prison so networked with tunnels that a truck parked outside the prison wall ended up sinking into the ground as some of those tunnels collapsed under it.

This is the eighth ‘Nephew’ book Westlake published, and in many ways the happiest of the bunch.  He breaks a lot of the rules of his own sub-genre in it, but we’ve seen him do that before–it often seems he created rules for the sole purpose of breaking them.   He managed to find a surprisingly large number of variations on the original theme he established in The Fugitive Pigeon, almost ten years before this book came out, and this is one of the most charming and off-beat variations he ever came up with.  And one of the funniest.

And truth be told, it’s still not as funny as the best Dortmunders.  Westlake was coming to the end of his rope with these books, as he already had with Parker, Grofield, and Tobin.  He had one more first-rate Nephew in him after this, at which point he let the form lapse for a very long time, only to kindasorta revive it at the tail-end of his career (it’s debatable, and we will debate it).  But taken as a whole, they represent a very important component in his overall production.  These peripatetic picaresques paved the way for his more mature comedic writing, and had things to say that he couldn’t have gotten across with Dortmunder.  Anyway, we can talk more about that when we get to the next one, which was published the following year.

Westlake, as we all should know by now, is a devout anti-authoritarian.  Authority figures make him itch.  He can’t see an imperious face without wanting to lob a pie at it (or, in the Parker novels, a bullet).    He’s aware of this prejudice, and tries to allow for it–we need some structure of authority in this world.  We also need to keep putting it in its place.   He felt this was a universal trait in humankind, with one significant caveat, which he mentioned in Dancing Aztecs.

Hispanics have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Come to that, the Irish and Italians and Jews also have a long tradition of defiance against authority. Thinking it over, everybody has a long tradition of defiance against authority. (Except the Germans, of course.)

Of course that’s a grossly unfair exaggeration made for satiric effect, but having been to Germany, I feel I can say with authority (which you should all rebel against!) that it’s not made up out of whole cloth.  And yet, there are German rebels, always have been–Martin Luther comes to mind, Oskar Schindler more recently, but their patron saint would probably be Marlene Dietrich.   A German rebel, by definition, has to be the most determined and resourceful of all, just to survive the consequences of rebellion in a heavily pro-authority environment.  And for whimsical reasons of his own, Westlake chose to make the hero of this book the American son of German immigrant parents.  Though to be sure, that’s partly just for the name.

Harry Künt is an American citizen because his parents fled Germany during the Nazi Era, being appalled by Hitler and the Nazis, and yet not wishing to stay and rebel against authority, particularly not an authority that has death camps and guillotines (you see what I mean about German rebels needing to be a cut above the rest).  Harry’s parents are honest decent people, who raise their one son lovingly and well, but the one thing he most wants, they will not let him have–a name that does not incite general mockery and derision from his fellow Americans.

See, in German, the equivalent word for ‘cunt’ is spelled ‘fotze’ (two syllables, accent on the first).  If your name happens to sound like fotze, you are probably in for some ribbing in German-speaking lands, unless maybe they don’t go in for puns there.  The fact that Hitler not keeping his birth name of Schickelgruber is considered such a vital element in his rise to power leads me to think that name-based mockery is not unknown in those parts.  But the name Künt presents no difficulties in Teutonic territories.   With or without an umlaut.

Harry’s parents (who, aside from one phone call from Harry to his mother, are not really characters in this book) just can’t understand why he’d want to change his proud old German name, and he doesn’t want to hurt them, so he’s had to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous classmates and army buddies, and even worse, with girls he’s sweet on, who keep breaking up with him because they don’t quite fancy the sound of ‘Mrs. Kunt,’ or the prospect of perpetually reminding people of the umlaut.

This had a bit of a warping effect, you might say, on Harry’s otherwise rather decent and likable personality.  Unlike Fred Fitch, in God Save the Mark, always getting fooled by others, Harry has decided to be the one who makes others play the fool.  Because God, as he sees it, played a practical joke on him, he’s spent most of his life compulsively pulling practical jokes on those around him, and has gone largely undetected while doing so, since nobody expects a guy whose name looks like cunt to act like such a dick.  So he keeps getting away with it, until one of his more spectacular stunts rather spectacularly backfires.

One afternoon, Harry parked a car with a naked female mannequin suggestively posed on the hood of a Chevy Impala, on the shoulder of the Long Island Expressway.  The resulting multi-car pile-up led to a number of people being non-critically injured–including three children–but public indignation regarding this is not the only reason Harry ended up with a five-to-fifteen year prison sentence at Stonevelt, an upstate penitentiary near the Canadian border (pretty clearly modeled after Dannemora, an aerial view of which you can see up top).

See, among the victims of his gag were two U.S. congressmen.  Each of whom was accompanied at the time by a young lady to whom he was not married.  Hell hath no fury like a politician burned. Strings were pulled, and Künt was screwed.

But he’s decided to take his incarceration as a positive, not having any choice in the matter.  With good behavior, he can get out in a few years, and he’s hoping he’ll be able to get his pranking disorder under control before then.  And as he leaves Warden Gadmore’s office, he leaves a big wad of gum on the doorknob.   This bodes not well.

A short while later (just to remind us not all pranks are harmless, and not only authority figures get pranked), he hides the lower plate of his elderly cellmate who he likes very much–and then realizes, with great remorse, that the man, having just been released for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, before the prison dentist could complete his upper plate, or Harry could tell him about the gag, now has no plates of any kind.  Out in a cold world, with no family, no job, and no teeth.  Harry really doesn’t know if he’s a good person or not, but he rather suspects not.  He’d like to be, but he hasn’t figured out how.  Join the club, man.

Warden Gadmore doesn’t quite know what to make of Harry, who isn’t really a criminal, but clearly is some kind of social misfit, so he assigns him to making license plates–and then calls him back to the office–seems that somebody snuck a message into one packet of plates–“Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.”  Warden Gadmore warns Harry that this kind of thing had better stop.   Harry tells him he had nothing to do with it, which he didn’t–of course he’s not believed.  But it’s a first offense, so he’s simply reassigned.  To the prison gymnasium.

And it is there that he inadvertently stumbles into the most frightening and exhilarating experience of his life–the prisoners who run the gym, notably one Phil Giffin, are not happy with his presence, and he finds out why when he sees a man in civilian clothes step out of a locker.  The man points a gun at him, and he faints.

He’s locked up in an equipment room, until Phil can explain the situation.  Years ago, a prisoner doing a ‘five and dime’ (five to ten years) had a wife, who had a cousin, who was the contractor building the gym, back when there was money for that kind of thing.  The wife bought a house across from the prison.  The cousin built a tunnel (with carpeting, lighting, and everything) from the gym to the house.  Three of the lockers are actually doors to the tunnel, that can only be opened with a special key.

The guy had no intention of escaping–what’s the point? He’d just wait for some free time, go through the tunnel, have a nice lunch, watch some TV, take his wife to bed, go back to his cell.  It’s a short commute.  Plenty of working stiffs would envy such a life, not to mention such a wife.

Over time, the secret has been shared with a select few prisoners, each of whom has to buy his way into the club, then cash out when he gets released–there’s currently seven of them.  The wiry hard-eyed Phil Giffin, informal leader of the outfit.  The near-albino giant, Jerry Bogentrodder (somehow nobody ever makes jokes about his name).   A monstrous menacing mass of muscle named Billy Glinn.  The knobby-knuckled hard-boiled Joe Maslocki.  Eddie Troyn (the guy who pointed the pistol at Harry), a former military man imprisoned on mysterious charges.  Bob Dombey, with a name and personality borrowed from Dickens, whose wife currently owns the house the tunnel ends up in.  And the counter-cultural Max Nolan, a bit of a playboy in his off-time, regarding whom Harry has this bit of trenchant social commentary to impart to us–

There’s a funny double progression going on in prison these days, as more and more radicals arrive, sentenced for drugs or politics.  The rebels are radicalizing the criminals, which is why there’ve been so many prison riots and strikes recently, but at the same time the crooks are criminalizing the radicals.  A college graduate who enters prison for smoking marijuana or bombing an army recruitment office comes out knowing how to jimmy apartment doors and crack safes.  A few years from now the world in general may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

(Sidebar: This is a very white prison novel.  I mean, there’s not even any Italians in it, though the guy the tunnel was originally built for was named Vasacapa.  There are no African American or Hispanic characters at all, though there is a reference to the civil rights movement.  One assumes there are persons of color in there somewhere, but no reference to them is made.  In the 70’s, this monochromatic mixture is not the least bit realistic, if it ever was, and realism is not what Westlake is going for, obviously.  It’s not like minority advocacy groups would thank him for depicting their people as inveterate prison rats, right?  Race would be a distraction from the story he wants to tell.  And if they made a movie of this today, they would clearly have to go the Orange Is The New Black route [Oz is way too dark], but I really doubt there’s ever going to be a movie.  Though I would go see it.)

Anyway, this elite group within the prison can normally keep outsiders from getting assigned to the gym, but the warden’s unusual interest in Harry caught them off guard.  Arranging for his accidental death would be a hassle (so much red tape, and please don’t ask where the red comes from), so they vote to invite him into their group, and enjoy the benefits of the tunnel.  The ‘or else’ is left implicit.

They have no idea what Harry did to get locked up, but some prisoners who work in the office smuggled out his file for Phil to read, and here’s the thing–the authorities were a bit embarrassed to be giving such a stiff sentence to a practical joker to appease some humiliated congressmen, so they made it sound pretty dire, and weren’t all that specific in enumerating the charges.  Endangering the public welfare, menace to society, like that.  So the tunnel gang thinks Harry’s a desperate character, such as themselves.  Worthy of membership.   Harry knows otherwise, but if he tells them that, he’s 1)Not getting to go outside and 2)Probably dead.   So he doesn’t tell them that.   What they don’t know won’t hurt him.

However, he has not been able to restrain his pranking impulse, and even members of the tunnel gang are not immune from itching powder, shoelaces tied together, saran wrap stretched over toilets, etc.  And Harry does all this being painfully aware that in prison, the known practical joker’s chances of survival are just slightly better than the known child molester’s.  He really can’t stop himself. Because he’s still confused about who he is, and who he’d like to be, he can’t leave his old practical joker identity behind.

He does, however, get a new name, courtesy of Phil–see, he has to set up a bank account–with savings his his mother sends him after a confused phone call–to cover his membership fee for the tunnel group, and other miscellaneous expenses–and at the bank, Phil offhandedly identifies him to the teller as Harry Kent.

I almost corrected him.  Then, in a blinding flash, what he had done blossomed in front of me.  He had given me an alias!  For the first time in my life, with utter justification, I could be somebody other than Harry Künt.  With an umlaut.

She gave me a huge smile, saying “How are you?”

I gave her a huge smile right back.  “I’m just fine,” I said.  Oh let my prison term never end, I was thinking.  What did I care what they called me inside those walls; in this wonderful world outside I was Harry Kent.  What a beautiful name, what a noble name!  It sounded like something out of Shakespeare.  Harry of Kent awaits without, milord.  Without what, varlet?  Without his fucking umlaut, milord.

So it’s all good, right?  He’s got the toughest gang in Stonevelt to protect him from groups like the shower-haunting ‘Joy Boys’ (there’s plenty of references to gay sex in this book; it’s not that 30’s-era Warner Brothers), a pass to go outside and live like a free man for a few hours whenever he wants, and a brand new name that he loves.

And there’s just one little catch, that they can’t tell him about until he’s already part of the group, and can’t safely back out–he has to participate in a bank robbery.  In the town the prison is in, likewise named Stonevelt.   A bank heist.  In a Donald Westlake novel.  What could possibly go wrong?

And it’s not just one bank–the gang plans to hit two the same night, then go back to their cells–the literally perfect crime.   Directly across the street from each other, one a traditional stone-pillared temple to Mammon, the other a modern glass and steel affair.  Their underground vaults are adjacently situated, separated by a single wall, which the tunnel gang plans to breach with–get this–a military laser.   That they’re going to steal from the nearby army base.

(Yes of course there’s a nearby base, it’s a comic caper–there could be a submarine docking station if the story demanded it.   And of course the army had easily portable user-friendly lasers stored at rural upstate New York bases, that could melt through steel bank vaults.  In the early 70’s.  Let us now concede that the science fiction geek in Donald E. Westlake never did quite completely die out.)

Now Harry has already proven himself to them by pulling a little ‘sting’ in town, as they all do from time to time, but what he did not tell them is that he got the money through his own specialty–practical jokery.  He put up a sign on one of the banks saying that the slot through which local businessmen can deposit their daily proceeds after banking hours is out of order, and late-night depositors can use the provided bin, which normally is used for milk bottles, that he nabbed from a nearby house.

He gets one sucker, from a local bar, but that’s all he needs.  It’s enough to pay his share of the electric bill for the tunnel lights and stuff, and establish his street cred with the boys, and in future he can just use his own personal savings and say that he stole them.  But you can’t fake a bank robbery, and you can’t get out of it through the application of practical joke expertise.  Can you?

Now I hadn’t planned to make this a two-parter, and it’s a bit short for a Part 1, but seems like a good spot for a break, and I haven’t posted anything in almost ten days.   And there’s a lot of story packed into this not terribly long book, and I’ve done enough 6,000+ word articles already.  So I’m going to post this, then tunnel my way out of the office, and be free from self-imposed deadlines for a little while, before returning to my cell to write Part 2.

By the way, do any of you happen to have Prince Albert in a can?  Well for the love of God, don’t eat him, he died in 1861!

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner

Review: I Gave At The Office



First of all, let me say here and now that I am behind the Network on this, and I do mean totally.  I have been a Network man for twelve years, and I would never purposefully do anything to harm the Network or stain its name.  Its initials; stain its initials.

I’m not even going to use its initials.  We know who we’re talking about.  You, whoever you are from the legal department, listening to this report, you know what Network you’re in the legal department of; you know in what building you are riding up and down in the elevator listening to this report.  Why should I tell you things we both already know when there’s so much to tell you that  you don’t know and should know if we’re going to get the Network off the hook on this thing.

From I Gave At The Office, by Donald E. Westlake.

There came the point when Random House (which had published my first eleven books and was already doing the Tucker Coes) had to decide whether or not to extend a little more for me or not.  My agent put them into a competitive position with Simon & Schuster, who promised me the world and the stars and the moon, and Random House dropped out of the bidding, though Coe stayed there and later the Parker series went there.  (Parker is still there.  Lee Wright, the woman editor at Random House, is the top of the pyramid in the mystery field and has been ever since she started Inner Sanctum at Simon & Schuster, back in the thirties.)  S&S turned out not to have the moon and the stars, nor much of the world, and after five books we skedaddled (that’s not the editorial we, that’s my agent and I) to M. Evans, where I’m just so happy I skip and dance and go tra-la-la all day.

Donald E. Westlake, responding to Albert Nussbaum.

Donald Westlake did not have a long or happy tenure at Simon & Schuster, as he made clear in the commentary above (which can be found in The Getaway Car).  After a promising start with The Hot Rock, he published Adios, Scheherazade, then this book we’re going to be looking at now, then Dortmunder’s second outing, and Under an English Heaven, his only substantial foray into non-fiction.  I doubt any of these but the Dortmunders sold very well.  And his new publisher might well have looked a bit askance at his repeated efforts to get outside what was perceived as his proper domain.

He does not specify in that response to Nussbaum what the precise problem was, but we can hazard a guess by his specifically mentioning that at Random House he’d worked with Lee Wright.  Ms. Wright, as regulars here should know by now, was Westlake’s all-time favorite book editor, whose praises he took every possible opportunity to sing.

Since he doesn’t mention any editors he knew at S&S, having just invoked Ms. Wright, I would deduce that his editorial relationships there were less productive.  If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

True, he wrote some great books for them–three of my personal favorites.  You’d think having started his most successful franchise there, he’d have warmer memories, if only for that, but he was writing Dortmunder novels as Westlake–and maybe he didn’t want Westlake (as opposed to Stark, or Coe) to get saddled with a series character, at least not right off the bat.  So even there, his emotions might have been mixed.

As evidenced by the creative frustration of the protagonist of Adios, Scheherazade, he was feeling hemmed in as a writer–he could write Parker novels as Stark, or he could write ‘comic capers’ as Westlake, and he wanted to stretch out more.   Presumably, he’d hoped a new publisher would let him achieve that end.  He didn’t need their help to write the kind of book he was already known for–he needed their help to craft and promote the more difficult to pigeonhole work he was itching to put out under his own name.  The kind of work a Lee Wright might be able to help him with, but now only Stark and Coe could make use of her services (and it shows).

So the end result was that having written a very un-Westlakeian type of book for M. Evans as Timothy J. Culver, he ended up going over to them for the rest of the 70’s, and it turned out to be a great partnership.   But we’re not quite there yet.

Now there’s something else needs be said before the review commences–we here at The Westlake Review (that is very much the editorial ‘we’) take our responsibilities seriously.  Even though every Westlake novel being reviewed here has been previously read at least once (and if a Parker novel, probably multiple times) before this blog ever got started, it is always and invariably (and redundantly) read once more just before the review is written.

But not this time.  I skimmed this book (that’s the personal ‘I’).  Just could not summon the attention span to read it word for word.  I reread Who Stole Sassi Manoon cover to cover, and found it worse than I remembered, and called it the worst novel Westlake ever wrote under his own name, and I hold to that statement.   But it’s not the least readable novel he ever wrote under his own name.  That dubious honor may very well belong to I Gave At The Office.

And I still would say it’s far better than Sassi–more original, more developed, with an intriguing premise, an innovative presentation, and many individual moments that are searingly funny, topical yet timeless.   It’s a more mature work, but it possibly needed a few more drafts, and perhaps the tender ministrations of Lee Wright–or Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s other favorite editor at Pocket Books in the early 60’s–ironically, the paperback reprint of this book was published by Pocket (with cover art recycled from the hardcover), which was acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1966–around the same time Parker moved over to Gold Medal, and I tend to doubt that’s a coincidence.

I think, in short, that this could have been remembered as one of his better comic novels if he’d had more time to work on it, and maybe a bit of help figuring out what was wrong with it.  But that may just be me rationalizing why I don’t like it more. It is very rare for me to be rushing through any book of his.  He is one of the most enjoyably re-readable authors I know, but not this time.

Westlake was still in his hyper-prolific stage when he turned this one out–he published four books, including this, in 1971–five, including Under an English Heaven, in 1972.  After that, the work tapered off to what might be called a human level.   Still far more productive than most novelists still worth reading, but human.   It is worth pointing out that 1973 was the year Mr. Westlake turned 40.

And now I have to force myself to talk about the book.  Honestly, it isn’t that bad.  You just get used to them being better, is all.  The thing is, as has often been the case with his lesser books, it contained the seeds of greater ones.   So we can’t bypass it.  Even if we want to.

This is, to my way of thinking, the seventh of the ten ‘Nephew’ books, featuring a naive yet sympathetic male protagonist delaying maturity, who gets drawn into strange and dangerous intrigues, discovering his true self along the way, and typically finding love with a great girl.

And other than the strange and dangerous intrigues, none of that happens in this book, so why do I think that?  Because I think Westlake was getting bored with the Nephew story (I don’t know what he called it, or if he called it anything), and wanted to turn it on its head, find some way to make it new again.   So in a sense, this is an anti-Nephew novel.   Whose hero is, naturally enough, an anti-Nephew.

Jay Fisher is a news announcer, working for an unnamed network.  He is, as he will tell us many times in the book, a company man, undyingly loyal to the network, defending it even when it refuses to defend him.  He has never been one of its top talents, and in fact is best known for going to a fancy Italian restaurant called The Three Mafiosi (Westlake loved good Italian food almost as much as he loved a good joke), located in a corporate office tower, and taping lunchtime interviews with various minor celebrities–their answers to his questions will then be edited together with the same questions Jay asked them being asked by a more famous TV news personality, who doesn’t have the time to come to the restaurant himself.

So self-evidently Jay is not your typical Westlake protagonist–not only is he not his own man, he doesn’t remotely aspire to be–reminiscent of Clay in The Mercenaries, but this is no cool sexy mob enforcer–he’s played for laughs this time.  Jay, like Clay (hmm!) has achieved success as a company man–he’s also a full adult, nearing middle age, with two children and a failed marriage to his credit.   He’s not some young slacker who hasn’t found himself–he’s a grown-up who intends to go on hiding from himself for as long as possible.

He’s no dummy–we see again and again that he’s actually pretty sharp.   But as he insists at one point in the book, he doesn’t have any opinions of his own–he’s not supposed to.  He claims that he, like the network he serves, is ‘a neutral observer of the passing scene.’  He just goes along to get along, and does what he’s told, figuring that’s the only way to live.   And even though his complacent worldview is badly shaken by the events of the book, he never abandons it.  See, you hate him already.   When does the real hero show up?

The book’s story was inspired by a real story about an NBC News Team funding and then filming a group of East Germans digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall.   It was perhaps not the total fiasco the (presumably) fictional venture in this novel is, but seems like it came close at times.   What Westlake would have found fascinating was the way that these journalists were not merely reporting the news but making it, shaping it to fit a narrative, then confounded when the narrative took on a life of its own (which involved at least one very real death).  Trend-setters, you might say.

Jay gets conned by some shady acquaintances into pitching an idea to the network–that they film gun-runners supplying Cuban Anti-Castro rebels with arms that will be used to overthrow the government of Ilha Pombo Island, a fictional Caribbean country, inhabited by former slaves, and run by a  fat brutal dictator named Mungu, who bears a startling resemblance to Idi Amin (startling because Amin took over Uganda after this book was written, and because Westlake would write a much longer and better-received book about Amin and Uganda a decade later).

The idea is, they use the guns to overthrow Mungu, replace him with Colonel Enhuelco, an exiled former associate of his (who is clearly just like Mungu, only less adept at the use of power), and then the island can be used as a base of operations to take down Castro.   Nobody reading about this is expected to believe it could possibly work, of course.  And how many people still think something like this could work?  Yes, I’m looking at you, Senator Rubio.

In the months that follow, Jay meets and falls for the beautiful blonde Linda McMahon, who entices him by losing her top in the swimming pool, and asking him to retrieve it.   He dates her incessantly, and she gives every indication of being receptive to his ardent advances, but never lets him get very far–with one exception–when he meets her at a rowdy feminist rally, which was probably inspired by the Women’s Strike for Equality, and here we get a rare statement from Mr. Westlake (via Mr. Fisher) on what was then being called Women’s Lib.   And don’t ask me how much of this represents Westlake’s real opinions–Jay is not supposed to be a completely reliable narrator.   Or a politically correct one.

Frankly, I like the Women’s Lib women.  They always make me horny.  They move their bodies around a lot, and jump up and down, and the more excited and strident they get the softer their bodies look.  There’s something very interesting in there about opposites, or action and reaction, or something like that.  Also, most of them in the midtown area are secretaries or researchers or whatnot in the office buildings, and when they’re going to have a demonstration they all take their bras off and leave them in the desk drawer, and when they hit the street their breasts are loose under their blouses or sweaters or dresses, and I kind of like that too.  And then when they jounce around, a lot of them get themselves excited, and pretty soon there’s all these nipples pressing against cloth everywhere you turn, which is also pleasant.

I would say, generally speaking, that I’m in favor of the things the Women’s Lib women want.  I think they ought to get equality of the sexes, I think it would make things a lot easier for men as well as women if we all moved through life with an equal handicap–but not yet.  I’d like to see some more demonstrations first.

(Such a shame Mr. Westlake never lived to see this demonstration.)

So he sees Linda at the rally, seemingly caught up in the excitement, and somehow they end up nearly having sex in a nearby phone booth (still some of them left in 1971, though not for long–remember that gag from the first Superman movie in 1978?), but Jay can’t quite seal the deal, so to speak.   He is, nonetheless, encouraged to go on pressing his suit, now that he knows what a wildcat she can be with the right kind of stimulation.   Viva feminism!

It’s increasingly evident to Jay that the Cubans being recruited for ‘Operation Torch of Liberty’ are not, shall we say, the keenest machetes in the shed, though they often seem smarter than the people documenting their operation.  There are several very funny interviews with them and certain other persons presented throughout the book, and perhaps now is the time to talk about the book’s rather odd format.

The entire book is basically a collection of transcripts.   Most of it is Jay himself, recording his experiences on cassette tapes, which are supposed to be listened to by influential people at the network, who must be made to see that this gun-running debacle was not in any way his fault, and that he remains loyal to the network (even while insinuating that some of the people running the network are perhaps not all they should be).

So each chapter is one side of a cassette, and since Jay can’t tell exactly when the tape will run out (reel to reel had its advantages), the chapters usually end abruptly, in mid-sentence, then he apologizes for that on the next side.  The exception to this is the interviews, which he encourages his colleagues to listen to at certain points in his narrative, to illustrate the problems he was up against.   None of the interviews ever goes the way it’s supposed to go, and I’d say overall they represent the most successful part of the book.

My personal favorite interview is not with the Cubans, or with Mungu (far and away the smoothest interviewee Jay runs into, since he actually understands he’s not talking to Jay but to the American public, and he chooses his words accordingly).  It’s with Mr. Jaekel “Jack” Grahame, the rich arms manufacturer who is providing the guns (at a profit)–who by a strange coincidence, has sold his company to General Texachron (heh, good one), the same humonguous all-encompassing multi-national corporation that owns the network Jay works for, and is headquartered in the same office tower The Three Mafiosi is in.  Small world, huh?

Jay finds this most disconcerting–he can’t summon any feeling of loyalty to a faceless many-headed entity like this, though he is technically their employee.  He just decides not to think about that.   He does that a lot, when faced with troubling revelations.

The dedication to this novel (yes, I know, I digress, it’s that kind of a book) seems to somehow refer to this extreme oddity in a Westlake novel–a very wealthy man whose intellect (as opposed to morals, of which he has none) we are not necessarily supposed to despise–think of him as Westlake’s equivalent of Andrew Undershaft in Shaw’s Major Barbara.

The dedication runs thusly–“To Lee Johnson, who rekindled my faith in the American businessman, I fondly dedicate the following doorstop.”  I know a joke of some kind is being made, but I lack the proper context to decipher it.  And I can’t figure out who Lee Johnson was.  I tried googling him, and came up with didley.  Anybody out there know more about it?  Anyway, here’s a key passage from Jay’s interview with Mr. Grahame, who makes Andrew Undershaft sound a bit lily-livered by comparison.

Q: What would you say, Mr. Grahame, is the morality of the gun?

A: The morality of the gun?  What an odd phrase.  I would say–I would say that the morality of the gun is the morality of its user, wouldn’t you?

Q: Then guns themselves have no moral value?  It depends how they’re used.

A: Guns…The fact of the matter is, you know, the gun is the cornerstone invention of our civilization.  I’ve heard the argument that the automobile is the center, and even heard that television, your medium, is the center, but in point of fact the center is the gun.

Q: Really?

A: The gun is power, that’s obvious.  It is the raw material of power, and power is ultimately the only civilizing influence in the world.  It was the handgun that brought civilization to the American West, for instance.  The gun is the primary tool in situations of mob control, which is to say, in the formation of societies.  The gun determines territorial claims, which is to say national boundaries.  The gun determined that you and I would speak English now, rather than French or Spanish or Portuguese.  The gun determined that we would be here at all, and that the Indian would not be.

Q: The Indian is still here, though isn’t he?

A: Herded into reservations, by men with guns.  If there were no guns, men would not be able to build cities, because all the bricks would be stolen the first night.  If there were no guns, estates like this would be overrun by the scruffy mob.  And as population gets more and more out of hand, the gun will be increasingly the only determinant of which of us will live which sort of life.

Q: You credit guns with the sort of power that most people give to money.

A: Without the gun, most people wouldn’t have their money.  Not for long. And with the gun, it is possible to get money, women, or whatever else you fancy in life.

Q: Excuse me, Mr. Grahame, your words could be misinterpreted there. I know you don’t mean to imply approval of armed robbery or rape or—

A: Why not?  I am hardly in a position to favor arms restrictions.  Once we accept the idea that society is valuable, that our civilization was worth the building and continues to be worth the saving, we must take the next step and agree that the tool which built our civilization is also valuable and, to use a moral term, good.  That tool is the gun, and no usage of the gun could be considered evil.   Now, if some dolt takes a pistol and holds up a bank, I would disapprove, but only of his tactics, not his choice of equipment.  His tactics will put him directly in opposition with a superior force of men armed with more guns; that is to say, he will be caught and perhaps shot.  The gun is power, true; it is the central tool of civilization, true; but as with any tool and any form of power, some intelligence must be employed by the operator.

Q: Well then, what should he do instead of robbing a bank?  He wants money, he wants a better life, and your prescription is that he go out and get a gun.  What should he do with it?

A: He should first learn military science, which is, after all, the science of the use of the gun.  And one of the first lessons in military science is, Never attack a superior force.

Q: Except in guerilla warfare.

A: Hit and run, exactly.  Rather than robbing banks, our dolt, if he is a determined loner, would be much better off mugging stray citizens in dark alleys.  You notice how many of our fellow beings in the major cities have independently come to this same conclusion; bank robberies are down, muggings are up.

Q: And you don’t disapprove of mugging.

A: Certainly not, unless I am the one mugged.  But if I strongly needed money, and I had a gun, and you had not, I would certainly mug you.

Q: Heh heh.  Well, then, I guess it’s lucky for me you’re doing well in your business.

A: Yes, it is.

Q: Yes.  Well— Uh—

It goes on like that.   Grahame is not saying “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”–he’s saying “People kill other people with guns, and what else would you expect them to do?”  I think it’s very unlikely the NRA would ever ask him to be a spokesperson.

He has one other key observation to make–

We are all parts of giant American corporations these days.  The world alters, and we all adapt to the new conditions.  As a matter of fact, I foresee the day–probably not in my own lifetime, but perhaps in yours–when the question of money vs. guns as the seat of all power will be given its decisive test.  The conglomerate corporations, which are already interindustrial and international, will eventually begin to think of themselves as having formed a new kind of social structure making national boundaries obsolete.  Those whose survival depends upon national boundaries such as generals and senators, will naturally reject this idea, and the inevitable result, it seems to me, will be a new kind of war.

Westlake can be downright eerie at times.   Though honestly, most of the generals seem fine with the evolving state of affairs (you remember how all the corrupt corporate heads in Anarchaos were ex-military men?), and quite a few of the senators.  Personally, I’d say money still has the edge over guns, but only as long as the old civilization holds up.  Once things fall apart, as they have in parts of the Middle East–well, back to the review.

As Jay’s account of events continues, we see him head out to Ilha Pombo Island, to get the other side of the story.  He’s got a whole news crew with him, of course, including an overzealous producer named Joe Singleton, who seems to think there’s a Pulitzer out there with his name on it, if he could just find the right story.

(At one point, back in Florida, Joe insists Jay interview a man who claims to be Field Marshal Erwin J. Rommel, still alive, contrary to all prior reports, and hoping that Israel might want to make use of his services, even though he speaks no language other than English.   Jay brings this slight discrepancy up, and Joe irritatedly responds “you’ll try anything, won’t you?” It’s not a good working relationship.)

After visiting the island preparatory to interviewing Mungu, Jay manages to fall off the boat on the way back to their hotel on a nearby island.  He swims to shore, and after getting mugged by some of the island’s starving residents, he’s knocked out by Mungu’s security people, and he wakes up strapped to what he realizes is an autopsy table, with grooves in it specially designed to channel the flow of blood and other bodily juices.  They think he’s a spy for Colonel Enhuelco, you see.   But when Mungu arrives, he screams that he’s Jay Fisher from the network.  Mungu, who was about to have him ripped limb from limb, looks confused, and says he thought the interview was tomorrow.

So they send him back to the other island on Mungu’s luxurious yacht (paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as is his palatial mansion, though everybody else on the island seems to live in shacks).   The yacht comes complete with full bar, and red-headed Irish barkeep, who asks Jay what poison he prefers.  “Nepenthe”, Jay responds.  “Would that be Irish nepenthe, Scotch nepenthe, or Kentucky nepenthe?”  It’s starting to get a bit disorienting.   All the more so the next day, when Jay interviews him, and Mungu claims to have no recollection of their previous night’s encounter at the autopsy table.  “I meet so many people”, he murmurs apologetically.

Skipping ahead, the revolution is, of course, a total bust.   They never even get to the island, and we’re left in no doubt that if they ever had, they’d have ended up on that autopsy table.   It’s unclear whether they were ever supposed to get there.  It seems like there were all these different groups, CIA, General Texachron, the network, and self-serving crooks (Jay’s ‘friends’ who pitched the whole idea in the first place) just out to make a buck for themselves, and nobody really knew what was going on, or had any coherent plan, other than getting paid.   The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and vice versa.

Jay interviews Ramon, one of the surviving guerrillas (none of them actually died, but he’s one of the few who didn’t desert) in Miami.  He tells Jay about how just as they were going to set out for Ilha Pombo, all of a sudden the authorities showed up and arrested them, took them to a compound, laid them out on the blacktop, and rapped them on the feet with billyclubs.  Then interrogated them, then back to the blacktop, then made them sign statements, then back to the blacktop again, and etc.

Q: Just a second.  They charged you with some stuff?  What stuff?

A: I ain’t a lawyer, man, how the hell do I know?

Q: But you were the one being charged.  What did the judge say?

A: A lotta bullshit, man.  I know it wasn’t Spanish, and it sure as hell didn’t sound like no English.  One fellow said it was Latin.  Anyway, they charged us and took us off to jail.

Q: And you were there until this morning?

A: Fuckin A well told

Q: Did they question you some more?

A: Shit, yeah, all the time.  They asked a lotta questions about you people, you know.

Q: They did?  You mean the Network?

A: I mean you people.  You people in a shitpot of trouble, man.

Q: We are?

A: Oh, yeah.  A shitpot of trouble.  I don’t envy you, man.

Q: You want another beer?

A: Thanks, man.  You’re okay.  You know what you oughta do?

Q: What?

A: Skip the country.  Thanks for the beer.

Q: You’re welcome.  I don’t think it’s that bad, you know.

A: Yeah, okay.

Q: There’ll be some questions asked of the Network, but after all, we’re simply a news-gathering media, we simply observe.

A: You’re gonna like that blacktop, man.  You’re gonna love it.

Q: Shut up and drink your beer.

Jay might have preferred the blacktop to what actually occurs–he gets back to his motel room, and finds Linda–who is there to arrest him.  Her name isn’t Linda McMahon.  It’s Mary Marie Conroy.  She works for the FBI.  She was at the feminist rally because she was infiltrating their ranks, trying to get them to commit crimes they could be arrested for.  She’s been dating Jay for similar motives.  And she’s a virgin.  She feels that purity is important–Director Hoover certainly keeps himself pure.

Jay asks her if nothing that passed between them–even in the phone booth–meant anything to her.   She refuses to give him a straight answer, then she starts rattling off lines from the end of The Maltese Falcon, only Jay is cast in the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy.  I’ve mentioned that in all Nephew stories, there must always be The Girl–this is The Girl–but as Jay is an anti-Nephew–well, you get the point.   The Nephew gets the girl he deserves.   Nothing more, nothing less.

So he and the other network men get put through the wringer, but nobody knows what to charge them with.   There’s also another matter–seems like Jay’s friends who got him to pitch the idea of covering the gun-running operation were just using it as a cover to smuggle things.  Namely stoles.   Stolen stoles.  When the regular police drag him in to question him about that, Jay misses the big meeting where all the network guys point fingers at somebody else (all corporations have these meetings), and since he’s not there to give his side, guess where all the fingers are pointing?  Fuckin A well told, man.

So this long rambling monologue has been Jay Fisher trying to save his career–prove his loyalty to the network, prove that he was a good organization man all along.   He’s being accused of having engineered the whole thing just to make a few bucks on the side, and that isn’t true, but nobody will believe him.  He hopes the tapes he’s made will set the story straight, and put him back in the good graces of his employers, though he’s increasingly troubled by the realization that the network was making news, not reporting it.  Well, I’m sure that was just a passing trend.

He’s been suspended from active duty, and is stuck in his apartment, fending off the weird advances of Mary Marie Conroy, who seems to be in love with him, but can’t express it by any other means than spying on him, opening his mail, telling him girls he’s just met are bad security risks.   So really, just like a regular girlfriend (rimshot).

Then at the very end of the book, we see a brief memo from her to a superior at the Bureau–she’s intercepted the tapes.  They never reached the network.   She recommends they put the lid on.  The End.

So that’s the book, and as I said, I think it could have been a lot better than it is, with a few more drafts and the help of a good editor, but there is one problem in it that could never be be solved–Westlake doesn’t believe in his protagonist.   He was trying to see if he could bring himself to identify with an unapologetic organization man, see things from the side of a guy who has devoted his life to a corporation, and he can’t.

Jay isn’t a bad guy–you do like him, you do root for him–but his story tends to flag because Westlake has a hard time getting the voice right.  His attention is flagging, and therefore so is the reader’s.   The individual moments of rather penetrating satire get lost in the shuffle.   It doesn’t hold together as a story that well (something you can’t say of most of Westlake’s novels).   The thing is, Nephew stories are farces, not satires–so this is a satire of a farce.   Is that necessarily a good idea?   I guess there was only one way to find out.

Jay Fisher made a brief cameo in a much later book–one of the Sara Joslyn novels, I think?  Not really sure.   I’ll have to wait until that one comes up in the queue.  He’s that kind of character.   Not memorable enough to stick in your mind.

Much more memorable is Jack Grahame, who in his single-minded pragmatism, reminds one more than a little of Parker–except Parker would never bother to worry about the future of civilization.   It’s a useful amenity and all.  To Grahame’s assertion that armed robbers are just dolts without a workable plan, Parker would have no response at all.   He doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks.  That’s his edge.   And it’s deadly.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Up Your Banners, Part 2


There is a typical piece of dialogue between Herzen and Louis Blanc, the French socialist (whom he respected greatly), which Herzen quotes, and which shows the kind of levity with which Herzen sometimes expressed his deepest convictions. The conversation is described as taking place in London somewhere in the early 50’s. One day Louis Blanc observed to Herzen that human life was a great social duty, that man must always sacrifice himself to society.

‘Why?’ I asked suddenly.

‘How do you mean “Why?” [said Louis Blanc]–but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?’

‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’

‘You are playing with words.’

‘The muddle-headedness of a barbarian,’ I replied, laughing.

From the essay Alexander Herzen, by Isaiah Berlin.

“That school is hell, don’t you understand that? The school and all those people and the television and all, that’s a bad dream, except it’s a kind of bad dream that can hurt people. But this is real, this rotten backyard and that swing. When I kissed you, that was real. The only time you’re real is when you’re doing your own thing, when you’re being absolutely yourself. Society is something somebody made up, it’s a fantasy, and when you start working as a social creature you make yourself part of the fantasy.”

She stared at me. “Do you really believe all that?”

“Definitely,” I said. “Just as I believe the entire universe began with the instant of my birth and the whole damn thing will snuff out at the instant of my death. I believe that people should work for the general good, I really do, but it should never be anything other than secondary. Once you start thinking that humanity is more important than you are, you’ve become the worst kind of traitor in the world, because you’ve betrayed yourself.”

From Up Your Banners, by Donald E. Westlake

This is a truly unique book in the Westlake canon (and I know I say that a lot, but it’s not my fault he wrote so many unique books).  It’s his only book that directly addresses racism, or poverty, or the educational system.  But more importantly, it’s his only book that is devoted almost entirely to a love affair between two people–indeed, one of very few books where his hero meets a girl, has (frequent) sex with her during the course of the plot, and clearly intends to marry her by the end, if she’ll have him.

Actually, this kind of story was featured pretty often in his early ‘sleaze’ novels written under pseudonyms to pay the bills, but that’s just him adhering to the conventions of that short-lived genre–a dollop of morality to excuse all the hijinks, so the book doesn’t get labeled as porn–have lots of sex with lots of people, then settle down with The One.

In his books written under his own name (and several others), the sex angle is almost invariably present, romantic subplots abound, but in this one the romance almost perversely insists on being the A-plot.  The story hinges on whether this boy makes it with this girl, making it by far Westlake’s most romantic book ever–and it’s an interracial romance.   At a time when they really weren’t common at all in any fictional medium.   Today, we’re pretty much over it.   But it was still fairly taboo back then.

Eugene O’Neill famously broke that taboo back in the 20’s, with All God’s Chillun Got Wings (people were getting the vapors that Paul Robeson actually touched a white woman’s hand onstage) but that story ended tragically.   The marriage is perfectly legal, no crosses are burned at their doorway, but society’s mores, ingrained at an early age, won’t let this mixed-race couple be happy, any more than society will let Romeo and Juliet be happy, or Othello and Desdemona.

Later on, Chester Himes wrote a novel about a similarly doomed interracial relationship, The End of a Primitive–rendered a bit ironic by the fact that Himes himself made a success of his second marriage to a white woman he met in Paris, a relationship that began in 1959 and lasted until his death in 1984.   But no doubt Himes felt the pull of society just as strongly.

And this book is basically Westlake telling society to go screw itself, and creating two characters with enough mutual attraction, self-understanding and strength of character to pull it off.   It’s nobody’s damn business who loves whom.  An opinion, by the way, that he shared with Malcolm X, at least towards the end of Malcolm’s life.  They would probably have had some heated debates on certain other subjects.

But let’s give Westlake some credit here–he’s not going to write a whole book just to defend interracial love–not in 1968, roughly a year after the Supreme Court had ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.  Nor is he really that interested in public education, though as a father with young children, he knows it’s important, and that parents should band together to insist their children be properly schooled, and parents from under-served communities most of all.

Very little of the book takes place inside a classroom–contrary to all the best-selling ‘heroic young teacher’ books I mentioned in Part 1, Westlake carefully writes the story in such a way as to make sure his heroic young teacher never works one full day in an actual school in his entire life.  He’s got a big point to make here, one that matters to him a great deal, but it’s neither racial, nor political, nor pedagogical–it’s philosophical.   Mr. Westlake was an individualist above all else, and the target he has in his sights here is collectivism.   Anyway, let’s get back to the book.

Oliver Abbott has shown up for work on the first day of school at Schuyler Colfax, in the fictive Brooklyn nabe of South Romulus, only to find that community activists have mobilized the locals to boycott the school–because he, Oliver Abbott, was hired in preference to a qualified black teacher currently working in a white school nearby.   It takes him a long time to figure this out, though–because everybody and his uncle assumes he already knew about it.

He did not.  His dad never told him.  A variety of journalists from publications ranging from the Times to the Village Voice, all of whom have names that sound to him like ‘Bibble’ (one of Westlake’s beloved running jokes), keep calling to get a comment from him, and hard as he tries, he can’t get any of them to let him know what the story is they’re asking him to comment on.   They already know who Oliver Abbott is (one seemingly far-right publication thinks he’s a hero of the white race), and he can’t seem to convince any of them that he’s been badly misunderstood.

The only one he can convince of this–with some difficulty–is the beautiful and self-assured Leona Roof, a black phys-ed instructor, who is involved in one of the activist groups pushing for local community control (her group is integrated–not looking to push out white teachers who actually want to teach).   Trapped in the school by a raging mob of protesters (waving banners, hence the title), he convinces her to drive him home, which she does so that the police won’t have to crack people’s heads to get him through.

She assumes he’s lying about his innocence at first, but he’s so obviously bewildered and clueless, she finally realizes he’s more worthy of her sympathy than her disdain–and anyway, he makes her laugh.   He also makes her very aware from the start that his interest in her is anything but platonic.   Oliver figures out early on that if he lets Leona friend-zone him, he’ll never get anywhere, so he keeps making passes, which she, being a judo expert, easily deflects–but she’s flattered, all the same.  He’s appealing to some part of her that’s tired of living for everybody but herself.   And she, by contrast, starts making him question his own life choices–or lack thereof.

He only meets two of his home room students (nobody else shows up on the second day of school)–one is Henrietta Clark, a young black woman with a fiercely determined expression, who firmly states that she’s only there because her mother told her she can’t afford the risk of being expelled after the protests die down.   She needs a diploma to go to nursing school, but she thinks that’s the only reason anybody would ever have to go to Schuyler Colfax.  “If it wasn’t for TV and movies and comic books, there wouldn’t be one person in this school knew anything at all.”   Kids never change–just the slang, and the available technology.

The other is James Meegan, a young man with a sort of bobbing walk that Oliver tells us he himself used to practice in front of the mirror when he was younger, because of course the coolest thing in the world to a white kid is black urban culture, and that hasn’t changed either, has it?  James has no family, and supports himself by running an illegal bookmaking operation inside the school–he’s there because he sees no future for himself without an education.  He seems barely literate, and Oliver writes him off as a moron.

Then as both students leave (because all he’s there to do is certify who showed up), he suddenly realizes–James is running a large bookmaking operation all by himself–all those names and figures–he’s got to be really smart!  He runs after him, but it’s too late.  He had a moment there, where he could have reached out, made a connection, and he blew it.

And this is one indication that Leona is right in what she tells Oliver–that he’s not a teacher–he’s been routed into the wrong profession. He lacks the temperament, the instinct for it. “Those who can’t do, teach” may be correct in the sense that a lot of rather unimpressive people end up in the teaching profession–but the fact is, being smart and capable, in and of itself, doesn’t make you a good teacher.  Oliver has taken the path of least resistance, laid down for him by his father (who for all his flaws is a good administrator, and probably a good teacher in his day).   But this isn’t who he is.

Oliver is what you might call a belatedly reliable narrator.  He keeps jumping to conclusions about the people he meets, black and white, just as they do about him, and he keeps realizing after the fact that he’s misjudged them, or at least that they’re more complex than he’d given them credit for being–he constantly gets it wrong, but he never stops trying to get it right–his good instincts are constantly thwarted by his social programming.  And this is basically the human experience, isn’t it?   We have prejudices for a reason–they save us a lot of hard work.   And that will probably never change.   But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting it.

The school is shut down entirely, until some kind of compromise can be hammered out between the various groups.  And over the next week or so, temporarily liberated from adult responsibility, Oliver and Leona start going to the beach together–she wears a yellow two piece bathing suit (her favorite color), and he loves seeing her in it–but when he ogles a blonde in a bikini, Leona is hurt and offended–only to have Oliver point out that she was looking at a young black man whose physique puts Oliver’s to shame.  The revelation of their mutual insecurity somehow brings them closer.

What’s going on between them started out as curiosity, but it’s evolving into something more–frankly, if they were both working at the school, the speed at which their relationship develops would be impossible (the entire story unfolds over maybe three weeks).   Westlake has deliberately put them into a sort of speed-dating mode–so they can learn more about each other in a week than many couples do in years.

Wanting Oliver to learn more about the young people he’d be teaching–and about himself–Leona manipulates  him into teaching some classes held at a local church, thrown together as an emergency measure by community groups and teachers, so Schuyler Colfax students who want to go on being educated don’t miss out too much during the strike.

He asks her what if they recognize him as the hated ‘Junior Abbott’–with much amusement, she tells him to wear sunglasses. He ends up organizing them to do a live reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus–because that’s one of the few things they have enough copies of to go around–the events of the play, and the enthused reaction of his students to it are, to say the least, unsettling for him–well, the Bard does speak to all generations. I feel this scene merits an extended quotation.

I lowered my eyes to the book. “Act one. Scene one,” I read aloud. “Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

Silence. Nobody said a word. I didn’t dare look up. I jut sat there and stared at that one sentence while a fog of paranoia crept over me on little cat feet. Or were those little cat feet not the fog?

“Oh, yeah!” somebody cried. “It’s me, I forgot.” He cleared his throat and began to read, and once again I will not attempt to reconstruct the dialect, but will stick with Shakespeare’s spelling:

FIRST CITIZEN: Before we proceed any further, hear me speak.

ALL: Speak! Speak! Lay it on us, Daddy! Tell it, man! Give us the word, baby!

I raised my head and looked at them, and gradually they settled down once more. My First Citizen gave me a pained look, as though to say that he and I were the only mature adults in the room. I nodded at him, and he went on.

FIRST CITIZEN: You are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish?

ALL: Resolv’d, Resolv’d!

ONE SMART ALECK: You bet your ass, baby!

It’s tough to glare through sunglasses–if the sun can’t, how can we expect people to? Nevertheless, I tried.

FIRST CITIZEN: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.

ALL: We know’t, we know’t.

SECOND CITIZEN: You mean Junior Abbott, don’t you, baby?

ALL: You know it, you know it!

I lowered my eyes to the book, I shielded my face with my hand.

FIRST CITIZEN (with gusto): Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is’t a verdict?

ALL: No more talking on’t! Let it be done! Away, away!

Away, away. Would I ever get to say exeunt omnes?

But he sticks with the class over the coming week or so–who fail to recognize him, and of course these are the students who chose to go to school when they didn’t have to, so really unlikely they’d have done him any harm–sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But in spite of everything, he can’t help liking them.  And they’re fine with him–not knowing who he is.  But that can’t possibly last.

He comes home one day, and there’s a protest rally–banners and all–marching outside his house!  And they’re all holding glasses of cold lemonade–where’d those come from?  He goes inside, and finds his mother with the leader of the protest, Mrs. Letitia Quernik–squeezing lemons!   Well, you can’t expect people to march in the blazing September sun without refreshment, right?

The situation he’s in keeps getting more and more insane, but he has to keep updating his opinions on it every other minute.  Mrs. Quernik is maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer–neither is his mom–but they each have something to contribute to his understanding of what’s going on.  When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.  And at the end of the day, people of similar temperaments understand each other, no matter how society tries to divide them.

Next, Leona drags him to a meeting at a small black church, where a variety of factions (including the small integrated activist group she’s a part of) are going to discuss strategy and objectives–and it quickly becomes clear the black community is far from monolithic on this issue–and very passionate about it.   And like people of all races who are passionate but not necessarily well-informed, they fall prey to a con man–one Prescott Wade Sinclair (“Pres” for short, and I can’t believe a jazz fan like Westlake gave him the same nickname as Lester Young), the tall thin sardonically grinning fellow with the Lucifer-beard, who told Oliver’s home room school was out.

Playing on racial divisions, mocking anyone of either race who wants real dialogue, he quickly fixes things so that his group–which just wants social chaos, so, you know, the revolution can come–is in control of the process.   Most of the people just want compromise, will settle for incremental change, but that always sounds so weak–whether you’re on the left or the right.   It’s much more fun to be extreme, and Pres is having the time of his life.   Leona is disgusted–but it’s starting to be noticed how close she and Oliver are becoming, and it’s compromising her position in the movement.

Things are now very serious between her and Oliver–who she starts calling “Matt”, because he’s always wished his name was Matthew–and one night they go out to the then-deserted beach, and make love.   Actual sex scenes are rare in Westlake’s books that aren’t about sex (he usually cuts over to the post-coital scene), and this one has a lyric quality you’d almost associate with Hemingway–

There was no stopping this time, and no hurry.  And no surprises.  Only the slow rhythm of the surf to guide us, and everything else already familiar and known, as though this was where we had been for a thousand years and we’d only forgotten for one brief hour.

While we were still joined she whispered in my ear, “It’s so hard to trust you.”

“I love you,” I whispered, having no idea whether it was true or not, whether she could trust me or not, whether I could trust her or not, whether I could trust myself or not.  “I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing else exists.”

She sighed, and her body relaxed into new softnesses, and I realized belatedly she’d been controlling herself against me, reining in, not wanting to let go and be vulnerable.  And now she had, and my immediate fear of the responsibility she was thrusting on me was smothered in the luxuriousness of her unfettered self, and for a while we couldn’t hear the surf at all, and when at last we could hear it again, it was a lullaby.

And then it all starts to unravel.  They both start getting threatening calls–from black men, there’s no Ku Klux Klan in Brooklyn, though an agitated Oliver snaps at one caller that he’ll sic the Klan on him–just looking for a way to hit back.

As the black community sees it, Oliver has trespassed where he is not welcome, and Leona is betraying her people. As Jacob Abbott’s son, him dating her is a bit too much like the young master having his sport. Never occurs to anyone this affair might be serious–and neither of the lovers is 100% sure it is, yet.

If he weren’t a symbol for every crappy thing that the establishment ever did to black people, and she weren’t a public spokesperson for the movement to give the community more control over how its children are educated, it wouldn’t be such a big deal.  Leona’s female roommates all think Oliver is okay–but that’s because they’ve met him.  He’s going to learn now just how much it sucks when people prejudge you on the basis of things you can’t help.   When your skin tells them all they think they need to know about you.

Then Oliver’s parents start to talk to him, and that’s much much worse–his mother seems to have no racial prejudices to speak of–she wants everybody to get along–but she’s upset that her new friend Letitia is angry about Oliver and Leona being together.  She’s also worried her husband’s career will be ruined–a very real possibility.

His father, who in spite of their many differences, Oliver respects the hell out of–well, he’s a disappointment.   A lot of us have experienced that kind of disappointment, haven’t we?  Oliver finds out that even though his father genuinely wants to do right by the minority kids he’s responsible for, he believes he has to keep tight control over the school in order for it to receive major funding from a private foundation.

And he has very limited expectations of his pupils–Leona has it right again–the elder Abbott doesn’t believe black children are teachable.  They aren’t a fire to be lit or a slate to be written upon–they’re a problem to be controlled.  He makes a lot of very nasty sexual assumptions about Leona (never occurs to him his son might have been the pursuer), and you can imagine how well that goes over with Oliver.   But there’s worse coming.

Oliver’s car is stripped and burned by black kids–he and Leona get into a fight with another group–and then Oliver comes home one night and finds a group of white kids trying to burn a cross on the lawn of his family home.  The tension between the communities is getting out of control, and he and Leona have somehow ended up at the center of it.

Oliver shows up at Leona’s house and finds what I think in modern terms we’d call an ‘intervention’–a contingent of black people who know and work with Leona, bearing a ‘Dear Oliver’ note from her–she’s breaking it off.   She’s been made to understand that anger over their relationship is making negotiations impossible–so she’s choosing the common good over what she personally wants.   Oliver takes this the way any young man in love would take it.   He refuses to believe she wrote the letter–but he can see that she did sign it.

He hangs around the house for the better part of a day, hoping she’ll come back–then he walks home through the South Romulus slums, wishing to hell he’d come across some Nation of Islam organizer handing out “White Man is the Devil” pamphlets, so he could start a fight.  He just badly needs to strike out at somebody–but the enemy isn’t any one person, black or white.   The enemy is group-thought.  How do you fight that?   He tells his parents it’s over, sees their relief–and then proceeds to get drunk, and stay drunk for some days.

As I’ve already mentioned, Oliver is the hero of this book, but a decidedly flawed one–his quest is for self-actualization, not social justice–and Westlake wants us to know that the poison of racism is very much alive in him.  In his anger over being jilted, he calls Leona every name in the book inside his head–yes, including that one.  He feels betrayed, even though he knows on some level she wasn’t being given any choice.   He doesn’t want to hear any Humphrey Bogart speech from Casablanca.  The problems of two little people mean a hell of a lot more than a hill of beans to him–as they should to everyone.

How did E.M. Forster put it–“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”   But suppose your country is more than just some state structure–suppose it’s a group of people who have fought and bled and died for equal citizenship, over hundreds of years?   How then, Mr. Forster?

Oliver sobers up, and goes to a meeting in midtown Manhattan with his father (who has been atypically considerate and downright apologetic to his son, who he can see is in mortal pain).   The meeting is at one of those little surviving brownstone townhouses in an area full of big glass office towers, which invariably signify enormous wealth and power.  They’re meeting with the men who have promised a big financial grant to Schuyler Colfax, and who have been wondering if their money should be invested elsewhere.  Oliver is there with his father to reassure them that this unpleasantness is coming to an end.

Westlake’s deep-seated hostility and outright contempt for the very wealthy is on full display here.   Oliver sees his father walking a fine line between begging for money and maintaining his self-respect.  He’s little more than a trusted servant in this company–the actual servants are all black, of course.   Phantoms, flitting in and out with trays of refreshments.   They get no lines.  Nobody worries about what they might overhear.

What we overhear from this assemblage of social pillars (only one of whom, Mr. Butler, is from the south) is basically warmed-over Thomas Carlyle.  Westlake did not preface this novel with that lovely little bit of vintage racism from him just to offend people.   Again, I feel a lengthy quotation is called for.   This is an unusually clear political statement from a man who generally avoided them in his fiction.  And I suspect few of his more conservative readers (or, for that matter, the liberal ones) have ever seen it.

Mr. Duncan, the corporation lawyer, said, “Let me make one thing perfectly clear.  I judge every man on the basis of his ability as a man, and I always have, and I always will.  Many of these people have a great deal of natural ability, singers, for instance, athletes.  I want to make it absolutely clear that for my part I do not believe in denying any man the right to fulfill his own abilities to the best of his, uh. But if any of these people prefer to stay in their own areas, I believe they have the right to decide that for themselves.  I don’t want to push any man into any situation that he knows or believes himself not to be ready for.”

Mr. Whitney said, “It is a question of education, of course, education and diet.  Members of minority groups aren’t inherently unable to compete on an equal basis, but they do have two strikes against them. Fourth-rate education, for one thing, the very problem we’re here to try to do something about.  And diet.  I don’t know if you gentlemen are aware of the neurological studies that have been made on the effect of low-protein diet in the formative years, but a great deal of the answer to the problem of minorities lies right there.  And it is up to us, to the affluent, to make it possible for these people, or if not this generation then at least the next generation, to upgrade themselves to the point where they can participate, where they can be accepted on equal terms.  You might say it’s the affluent man’s burden, and I’m sure we all shoulder it gladly.”

General Winterhilff said, “Of course we do.  And our experience in the military is that these people can be trained, they can even be placed in positions of responsibility.  Give a man the proper incentive, don’t push him along too fast, and he won’t let you down.  And we didn’t do it by bringing them all along to the Officers’ Club, I assure you.  I shudder to think what that would have done for morale on both sides.”

“My point exactly,” Mr. Butler said softly.  “In any social situation where one side is uncomfortable and feels out of place, you can usually be sure the other side is just as troubled.”

“I’ve certainly seen that to be true,” Mr. Duncan said.  He wore an earnest face as though he’d just bought it at Lord & Taylor.  “Now, the golf club I belong to in Maryland integrated recently, and I want to make it perfectly clear I am absolutely in favor of integration in principle, but our colored member is not at all comfortable at that club, and everyone knows it.  I suppose he feels he has to prove a point, and I respect his position, but there are times when it seems to me he’s putting himself to a great deal of trouble for very little gain.”  He chuckled, not as though anything were funny but as though some counting machine in his head had told him it was time to chuckle now, and said “With the condition of the greens the last few years, I’ve been expecting members to be fighting their way out, not in.”

Mr. Butler said, “Fred, that’s exactly the point.  That man isn’t gaining anything, and deep down inside he knows it, but he feels he has to make a gesture.  Too many of these people have been convinced they’re somehow missing something by not being allowed on those shaggy greens of yours–” everybody smiled, in comradely fashion–“and the result is embarrassment and inconvenience for everyone.  But I believe it’s a phase, merely a phase, and it will pass away.  In fact, it’s already started to pass, these people are beginning to realize they’re much more comfortable with their own kind.  As in this current school controversy, for instance.”

Then a servant shows up with the coffee, and this spirited exchange of identical views subsides.  And I can’t help but think similar exchanges are going on in similar townhouses, even as I type this.  Maybe they’ve gotten a bit more well-encoded.  Of course, now they’re probably talking about that poor well-intentioned man in the White House.  And perhaps the sorry state of the gardens there.

So it all goes well enough, and the money for the school seems assured, and Oliver, who has been pretty quiet up to now, decides to tell a really disgusting racist joke.  Something about Rastus and the watermelon–he doesn’t want to go into details with us readers about it.  He says it’s some gremlin inside of him–some imp of the perverse that won’t leave him alone.  The money men all laugh politely, but uncomfortably–you don’t say those things out loud anymore, doesn’t this young fellow realize that?  His father asks him afterward why he told the joke–Oliver says “I thought it was funny.”

So with Oliver and Leona broken up, the factions work out a compromise (Oliver can go on teaching at Schuyler Colfax, though he has no intention of actually doing so, because he’s decided he’s not a teacher after all), and the community activists schedule a big meeting at a grand old movie palace in some part of Brooklyn white people just do not go–but Oliver manages to get himself there, because this Candide has decided it’s time to become David Copperfield (no, not the one in Vegas), and be the hero of his own story.  Though the only one he really wants to be a hero to is Leona.  Who he knows will be at the meeting.

He gets up on stage, and he tells the sea of astonished black faces that they were right to fight for their children, that nobody is going to fix the problems in their schools but them, but they’re going about it the wrong way–that the path to a better future doesn’t lie in answering hate with more hate.   Honestly, it’s a good speech, but it does feel a bit like he’s talking to the wrong people.  Not likely anybody there slashed his tires, or made obscene phone calls, or tried to beat him up.

But again, the only one he’s really talking to is Leona–she’s the only person, black or white, who is real to him in that moment, and he’s calling out to her, telling her that she has to be true to herself, and to what he and she have found together, and it’s all very Matthew Arnold.  And she answers him.   And if you want to know how, read the book.

This is the longest novel Westlake had published up to this point, and the most complicated.  It’s been a struggle to review it, and I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.   The thing is, it’s an easy book to  misunderstand.   I wish I could have found some reviews of it written by black people–it seems to have mainly vanished into the racial foment of the late 60’s/early 70’s with nary a ripple.  I think most people didn’t know what to make of it.

It was more warmly received overseas, I think–there was a brief but  glowing notice in the Times Literary Supplement.   The reviewer (anonymous, as were all the TLS reviewers back then) said “You would hardly think it possible at this stage of the game that an American could write a funny and intelligent and fundamentally loving novel with black-white strife as its background.”  He (or she) seemed confused as to why this ‘novelist of romantico-sociological bent’ (whatever that means) was being put forth as a writer of thrillers.   TLS didn’t review much crime fiction back then, I guess.

It got a much longer and very negative review in the New York Times (not written by Anthony Boucher, Westlake’s champion there), which so badly misses the point, it’s almost laughable–the reviewer–whose name is not Bibble, but one feels somehow it ought to be–indignantly asks how Westlake could possibly not know about what happened in the Brownsville public schools just recently, somehow failing to grasp that the novel is a direct commentary on that battle that divided so many well-intentioned people from each other.   Westlake was saying everybody was to blame there, because they were too busy waving their goddam banners to listen to each other, give each other at least some benefit of the doubt.

And in the process of letting themselves be divided, by the likes of the cynical Preston Wade Sinclair (whose comeuppance is brief but satisfying), they were only making themselves perpetual victims to the people with real power–the Duncans, Whitneys, Winterhilffs, and Butlers.  As we all still are, to some extent.  To a very great extent, actually.

There’s genuine respect in the novel for those Westlake considers the true activists, black and white–the ones who are trying to build something, not just destroy–the ones who bridge the gaps, learn to understand each other, work together.   Leona is one of them, and even though she’s somewhat giving way to Oliver’s more individualistic philosophy, she doesn’t surrender her principles at the end, doesn’t abandon her people–she’s just going to take a break, come down off her pedestal.   She reclaims her sense of self, her right to choose who she loves, a choice without which freedom and equality are quite quite meaningless.

And Oliver, the most serious of the Westlake Nephews, conquers his fears of adulthood and commitment, even as he abandons the life plans his father had made for him.    Because you’re only real when you’re being absolutely yourself.  And being real is all there really is, isn’t it?   The Velveteen Rabbit would certainly say so.  Eh, google it.

Obviously the book in its entirety doesn’t begin to address the black experience, the undeniable facts that made black activism in America necessary then, as it is necessary today.   But there were an awful lot of other books coming out on this subject–Westlake hardly had to say it all himself.   He wasn’t equipped for that, and he knew it.  But you can’t tell me Westlake, a lifelong jazz buff (ie, a worshipper at the altar of African American genius), wasn’t reading the black authors of that general time period–Invisible Man is the supreme novel of identity–I don’t just mean black identity–Westlake must have devoured it hungrily, and understood its points perfectly.   And had a few points of his own to make.

Not long after Westlake finished this book, Chester Himes, a writer Westlake admired very much, started work on the abortive and posthumously published Plan B, the last of his Harlem Detective novels–in which (spoiler alert) he vividly imagines the race war everybody thought was coming back then, and in the process kills off his two greatest creations, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, those great intercessors between black and white America, in a sort of despairing gesture–what hope is there for America, for humanity?   We’ll never work this shit out. Just too far gone to care.

And his despair was understandable–we still feel it, sometimes.   But it was wrong.   He knew that it was.  That, I think, is why he never published the book in his lifetime.   And of course, he lived most of his life as a writer in a loving if troubled relationship with a white woman–in Europe.   Safely away from the fray.   Cultivating his own garden, like Candide.  And suffering from survivor’s guilt.

My favorite work about racial turmoil from this period was written by somebody who really didn’t have a tribe of his own–the novel Chien Blanc (White Dog), from Romain Gary.   In that deeply painful (and only partly factual) account of his and his wife Jean Seberg’s experiences with a German Shepherd conditioned to attack black people on sight, this supremely alienated French Jewish writer (who wasn’t really French, or Jewish, and often didn’t even seem to want to be human), saw us Yanks with objective clarity, like Tocqueville before him–he said the main thing about us is that we can’t ever leave things alone.

We have an image of how we’re supposed to be, an ideal we need to live up to, and no matter how racist we undoubtedly are at times, we simply can’t accept that’s how it will always be.  We keep fighting the conflict, worrying at it like a dog with a bone, trying to resolve it.   In a time where many thought America would tear itself apart, Gary said we’d find some way to fix it, seek some way out of a shared nightmare.   On November 4th 2008, we proved him right–not for the first time, or the last. E. Pluribus Unum. Damn straight.

But see, Gary also made it very clear that the toxins of race hatred linger in our collective bloodstreams, passed from one generation to the next.   George Orwell would agree, and might add that the only way to fight the smelly little bigotries vying for your souls is to recognize them for what they are.   To confess to their existence, and allow for them, because they only get more dangerous when you pretend they aren’t there–that it’s just those other people who have a problem.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a racist–early in the book, Oliver talks to a policeman guarding the school, who talks quite soberly about how black people have thicker skulls than white people–that’s why they’re a bit less smart, but can take a much harder crack on the head.   He says he’s got nothing against the colored.  And neither did the policemen who choked Eric Garner to death, and left him to die in a public sidewalk, for selling loose cigarettes.

And man, this was a long review–my longest yet–took me three weeks to finish, and I broke my self-imposed rule over never letting a single post go over 6,000 words (the long quotes really killed me here), and that’s not including Part 1.   But all in a worthy cause.

And now I really feel the need for something less worthy, more frivolous.   What would you say to two Grofield novels in a row?   Well as it happens, that’s what’s up next in the review queue.   Though I should mention there’s a lot of black people in the second book, one of whom Grofield ends up in bed with, but he ends up in bed with everybody, sooner or later.  So, having set the scene, exeunt omnes. 


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: Somebody Owes Me Money


“That’s very funny,” I said.  “Abigail.  You don’t look like an Abigail.”

“I’m not an Abigail,” she said.  She was getting irritated.  “Everybody calls me Abbie.”

But I was enjoying needling her about it, maybe because of the trouble I have about Chester, maybe just to get some of my own back with her.  “Abigail,” I said.  “It’s hard to think of you as an Abigail.”

“Well, you’re a Chester, all right,” she said.  “You’re a Chester if there ever lived one.”

“That’s it,” I said, twisted around, started the car, and we moved out onto Flatlands Avenue again.

“I think you stink,” she said.

“The feeling is mutual,” I said.  “In fact, the feeling is paramutual.”

In the mirror, I could see her looking blank.   “What?”

It had been a pun, on pari-mutuel, of course, the betting system at race tracks.  I’d meant “para” like more than or above, like parapsychology or paratrooper.  But try explaining a pun.  Explanations never get a laugh.  So I didn’t say anything.

This was, for quite a long time, a forgotten Westlake.   It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted in the U.S. for decades after it came out–which is unusual–Westlake almost always got at least one paperback edition for his Random House hardcovers.  This one got reprinted in Playboy, of all places–it’s maybe just a little bit sexier than the average Westlake, though there’s no actual sex in it (typical for a ‘Nephew’ book, where the hero mainly gets laid after the final curtain falls), and maybe that had something to do with the lack of reprint editions?   The rights got screwed up somehow?  They figured everybody just read it in the magazine?   I’ve no idea.


Book sales were probably not that great.  And honestly, look at the cover Random House gave it–can you blame people for not buying it?  What the hell is that garish headless down-pointing torso even supposed to signify?  Was the artist dropping acid at the time? Did he read the book?

Back in 2008, Hard Case Crime took pity on this poor orphan, and gave it the paperback edition it had always merited, with a cover from Michael Koelsch that leaves little to be desired.  Sexy blonde in orange fur coat, blue miniskirt, yellow Checker Cab at her feet.  Maybe a deck of cards or a racehorse wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it covers enough of the bases.  How hard is that?  Apparently too hard for whoever was in charge of seeing this book to market when it first came out.

Random House and Westlake were increasingly on different wavelengths by this point.  This is his last book for them under his own name.  His agent got a bidding war going between Random House and Simon & Schuster, and it wasn’t a very protracted tug of war–Random House just let go the rope.   The end of what had been a mutually profitable ten year relationship–but not quite–because Random House would publish the next four Parker novels, and the remaining three Mitch Tobin mysteries.  So Westlake was outta there, but Stark took his place, while Coe remained where he’d always been, and they both published some of their best work there as the 70’s got into gear.  Such ironies abound in the multifarious world of Donald E. Westlake–and the publishing industry in general.

But is it just a case of a book that wasn’t properly packaged and sold?  This is an entertaining story, make no mistake.  It got good reviews, as Westlake’s comic crime novels nearly always did.  But it’s still one of his weaker efforts–fun–interesting–more than worth the time it takes to read–but of his non-sleaze books to date written under any name, I’d rank it near the bottom.  Much better than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which was a new thing for Westlake–a genuine comic caper.  But not up to the standard he’d set with the four previous Nephew books, which are basically criminal picaresques.  And indicative that this little sub-sub-genre he’d created for himself was already showing its age, and needed some serious revamping.

It’s a bit take one from column A and one from column B.   Affable if somewhat clueless young working class New Yorker who has been delaying maturity runs into trouble with organized crime, has a wild adventure, and meets a great girl along the way–The Fugitive Pigeon (Westlake’s biggest seller up to that point, and maybe ever).  He’s got a little quirk–he’s a sucker for the ponies–then he unexpectedly comes into a lot of money, and that gets him into trouble–God Save the Mark (Westlake’s only Edgar-winning novel).  And the girl in question, a leggy stylish blonde, is basically a smarter tougher blue-collar version of the endearingly ditzy Angela Ten Eyck from The Spy in the Ointment (his best comic novel of the 1960’s–because I say so).  So that would be column C, I guess.

Westlake basically hit the jackpot with The Fugitive Pigeon–struck a vein of pure gold, when he thought he was just indulging himself by letting what was supposed to be a serious crime book turn into a comic romp.   But having found this goldmine, he didn’t know quite what to do with it.  He experimented with different ideas, different approaches, and while his technique improved, the books mainly didn’t.

There’s a spontaneity, a conviction, to Pigeon, that doesn’t quite come off in the subsequent six comic novels–that always end up feeling a mite too contrived, though Spy succeeds by dint of its fascinating ideas, and a unique protagonist (who is really only half a Nephew, since he’s already found his life’s work and his true love, and merely has to recommit to both).   It’s a bit like a chef who more or less on a whim cobbled together a pièce de résistance out of an unlikely blend of ingredients salvaged from the kitchen shelf–and then keeps trying to do it again.  He can’t quite get the flavor right–but he keeps working at it.   Just need to find that missing ingredient.

Like all but one of the ten Nephew books, this is a first-person narrative, and our narrator is one Chester ‘Chet’ Conway, a New York City taxi driver, 29 years of age (so just on the cusp of adulthood, as Westlake sees it), who lives with his retired father at their small house at 8344 169th Place, Jamaica, Queens.  There is no such exact address, of course, but there is a 169th Place in the Jamaica section of Queens, as well as a 169th Street, which is entirely different.  Hey, I’ve lived in New York City most of my life; my mother was raised in Jackson Heights, and I’ve yet to figure out the street grids in Queens.   I’m not convinced anyone ever has.  Maybe we’re not supposed to?

Chet is yet another charming garrulous slacker, like his not-terribly-distant ancestor, Charlie Poole.  He’s perhaps a bit more sophisticated and experienced than Charlie–as well as a few years older in calendar terms–but still basically living out a cheerfully undistinguished protracted adolescence. He reads a fair bit, and can hold up his end of a conversation with just about anybody he happens to pick up in the course of his workday, but of formal education he has only the minimum. He’s an inveterate gambler; playing the ponies, the numbers, Sunny Dollars (whenever he needs to fill up the gas tank), and he’s got a running poker game going with a pretty disparate assortment of friends, who figure into the story pretty significantly (and yet not quite enough, in my opinion).  Oh, and he hates being called Chester.  Well, who wouldn’t?

One day he picks up a fare from JFK, heading into Manhattan, and the guy, very prosperous looking indeed, seems to be connected in some way–when it’s time to pay up, instead of a tip–as in money–Chet gets a tip–as in a winning horse.  Purple Pecunia, running that very day in Florida, and currently listed at twenty-two to one.  Charlie is skeptical, but then again, this fare who gave him the tip seemed to be able to work out odds in his head like an IBM machine, and he didn’t have any reason to hand Chet a bum steer, and hey–Chet’s a horseplayer.  And this guy says the horse can do, can do, can do……

Chet phones in the bet to his bookie, Tommy McKay, who agrees to cover him for thirty-five bucks (Chet already owes him fifteen).  He keeps track during the day with a transistor radio he keeps in the cab, and just as he’s shuttling around a racist old biddy (reminds me of my Great Aunt Bridie, who lived in Jackson Heights too, and boy would she not want to live there now, were she living at all), he get the good word–his horse came in.  And how–twenty-SEVEN to one!  Taking out the fifty he owes Tommy, that leaves Chet with nine-hundred and thirty dollars–a working man’s fortune.  Cue the Pogues!

But when he shows up at Tommy’s place in Hell’s Kitchen (West 46th between 9th and 10th, and would you believe I used to live around there?  If you could call it living.), he gets two nasty surprises:  1)His money isn’t there.   2)Tommy’s dead bullet-riddled body is.   And hence the title of this book.

After a comedy of errors in which he reports the murder to the police, while Tommy’s wife (now widow) Louise accuses him of being the murderer and says she’s going to call the cops, which he’s already doing, and he meets a rather unnervingly laconic detective named Golderman, and is (almost) cleared of complicity in the crime (obviously he can’t come out and tell them he was there to pick up his illegal winnings, which makes things a bit awkward), Chet goes home, and finds out later his complete address has been printed up in the papers, as a material witness (Do they still do that?   Why would they ever do that?   Oh never mind).

He goes over to the McKay apartment a few times, hoping to find out who he goes to in order to get his money, which arouses Detective Golderman’s suspicion.   Then he gets picked up by two armed hoodlums (the old recurring pattern of the Nephew books–always two), who take him to meet a ganglord named Droble, who tells him a poker buddy named Sid Falco works for a rival of his named Solomon Napoli, and so does Chet, so why did Napoli tell Chet to whack Tommy–Chet vigorously denies all these dangerous assumptions they’re making about him, and they (eventually) kind of believe him, so they take him home.

He’s thinking all the time that if he was Robert Mitchum, he’d show these guys a thing or two.  Chet is absolutely not Robert Mitchum, and he knows it.  This is important, by the way–Chet may not have figured out what he’s going to do when he grows up, but he knows his limitations–he’s got a pretty good sense of himself.  It keeps him alive.  For the time being.

Next thing he knows, he’s picking up one hell of a cute fare–see the paperback cover up above for a good visual approximation of her general pulchritude.  If they’d made this into a movie around the time it came out (and it might have actually worked as one), they should have cast Blythe Danner–she was a vision in the early 70’s.  She doesn’t look half bad today, actually.

Her name is Abigail McKay–that’s right–Tommy’s sister.  She prefers to be called Abbie, and though she wasn’t that close to her brother, he was all she had in the world, so she’d also prefer whoever killed him to end up behind bars.   And she thinks Chet killed him.  Probably because he was having a fling with Louise, Tommy’s wife, who put him up to it (he wasn’t, and he’s insulted more at the implication he would have such desultory taste in female companionship than he is about the murder thing).

She tells him this while holding a gun on him.  Chet gets the gun away from her (as he puts it, there’s a little Robert Mitchum in all of us), and much to her surprise, starts talking about taking her to the nearest police station.  So now she knows Chet didn’t do it.   She changes tack, and asks him to help her find out who did.  She’s very aware of the way he’s been looking at her (she gets those looks a lot), and she kind of likes him anyway, so she’s going to play that card for all it’s worth (I’d call it a hole card, but that would be in poor taste.)

They agree to meet at Chet’s card game that night, after she goes to Tommy’s funeral–she wants to sit in (she’s not exactly in deep mourning here, which cuts into her motivation a bit, but what the hell).  And as Chet arrives at the game, we finally meet his poker buddies, and an interesting bunch they are.   The game is being held at Jerry Allen’s apartment this time, a fifth story walk-up on the Upper West Side (yeah, I lived there too, and I remember those walk-ups–not fondly).

Jerry is gay, not that the word appears in this book.  He owns part of a flower shop–and I just want to state for the record that from what I’ve seen, a lot of NYC florists are actually pretty butch–I remember passing one down in the 30’s one time (lots of plant shops down there), unloading some wares out on the sidewalk, and he gave this cold hard stare at someone nearby and said “Gimme those fucking begonias” in a classic Noo Yawk accent, and a tone that would have intimidated John Gotti.  I would not want to mess with that florist, regardless of sexual persuasion.  But I digress.

As Chet puts it, “it’s possible he isn’t entirely heterosexual, but he isn’t obnoxious about it and none of us care what he does away from the card table.  I think in losing to us and hosting the game he’s sort of paying for the privilege of being accepted by a bunch of real guys, whether he realizes it or not.”   And whether Mr. Westlake realized it later on or not, passages of this general ilk in books of this general time period, and the attitudes that lay behind them, are among the many reasons why some gay men decided it was time to get really obnoxious. Come to think of it, this book was published right around the time of the Stonewall Riots.   The times they are a’changin.  Westlake will be catching up with them a bit, not too long from now.

This is a twice a week game, with a rotating group of regulars, including the henpecked Fred Stehl, schoolteacher Leo Morgentauser, gas station manager Doug Hallman, and the aforementioned Sid Falco, who has been outed as a connected guy to Chet.  Chet makes the sixth man, and then in comes Abbie, puffing a bit from the stairs, but still making quite an impact on everybody there (except maybe Jerry).  Abbie says her game is seven card stud.  They’re more than happy to oblige her.

She didn’t find out anything at the funeral–except that Louise didn’t show, which just confirms her suspicions.   Turns out she’s got a hidden talent (as well as the obvious ones).  She’s a blackjack dealer in Vegas.  By the time she’s finished showing the gang some of the tricks she can do with cards, they’re all eating out of the palms of her dainty clever hands.   But Chet actually has a great night himself–wins 53 bucks.  His luck is changing, he thinks.   If he only knew.

Abbie drives him back to his house in her rented Dodge Polara (do I need to post an image?–nah).  Abbie realizes they’re being tailed by somebody, and then demonstrates a knack for creative driving that rivals her Packard-equipped predecessor from The Fugitive Pigeon, Chloe Shapiro (apparently women with suicidal driving habits turned Westlake on–well, it takes all kinds).

Dodges have more pep than they used to.  We took off like the roadrunner in the movie cartoons, shooting down the Expressway like a bullet down the barrel of a rifle.

“Hey!” I said.  “We have cops in New York!”

“Are they staying with us?”

I looked back, and one pair of headlights was rushing along in our wake, farther back now but not losing any more ground.  Fortunately there was very little traffic on the road, and our two cars wriggled through what there was like a snake in a hurry.”

I said “They’re still there.”

“Hold on,” she said.  I looked at her, and she was leaning over the wheel in tense concentration.  I couldn’t believe she meant to take that exit rushing towards us on the right but she did, at the last minute swerving the car to the right, slicing down the ramp without slackening speed.

There was a traffic light ahead, and it was red.  There was no traffic anywhere in sight.  Abbie got off the accelerator at last and stood on the brake instead. Bracing myself with both hands against the dashboard, I stared in helpless astonishment as we slewed into the intersection.  I believe to this day that Abbie made a right turn then  simply because that was the way the car happened to be pointing when she got it back under control.

Chet pays Abbie a number of very nice compliments in the course of the story, but the one she likes best is when he says she’s just driven a car in such a way as to terrify a New York City cabdriver.

As exciting at this all is, it’s reminding Chet that this girl is maybe not as survival-oriented as one might hope, and he tells her he won’t be helping her find Tommy’s killer, and she should just leave that to the cops.  They are about to part on somewhat frosty terms, in front of Chet’s house, when somebody shoots him in the head.

Okay, maybe more alongside the head.  He wakes up in Tommy’s apartment of all places, with a bandage on his head–he got grazed pretty bad.  Abbie is tending to him–she got a doctor to come and look after him.  He’ll be okay, but he’s pretty weak, and he can’t go out for a while.  And this is where he’s going to spend about a third of the book, believe it or not.

It’s actually made into a metatextual joke–Chet says he’s like Nero Wolfe, with everybody coming to him for answers–only he doesn’t have any, and does Abbie look like Archie Goodwin to you?  Droble and his people, Napoli and his people, Detective Golderman, Louise McKay (who turns out to be having an affair with one of Napoli’s top men, Frank Tarbok, who had kept her incommunicado a while, since she was hysterically accusing him of killing Tommy), keep trooping in and out of the place, making all kinds of bad assumptions, but also providing some possible answers about what was going on with Tommy that might have gotten him killed.

If this was a play that got adapted into a movie that then got turned into a novel, this long strange stationary interlude would all make perfect sense, but it’s a novel, and on the whole, I think it slows down the plot a bit too much. Interesting choice, but perhaps not an entirely successful one.

It does give Chet and Abbie a bit more chance to get acquainted–the first night, she actually sleeps next to him, and they wake up in each others arms the next morning–then she figures he’s recovered enough for her to start worrying, and somehow in the Nephew books, when the hero meets his dream girl in the course of the plot, the deed is never done until after the curtain has fallen.  Which is the one thing I like least about the Nephew books.

Chet has to keep explaining to both sets of mobsters visiting the McKay residence for answers that he doesn’t work for either one, and he has to explain all these suspicious happenings to the increasingly skeptical Golderman, and he and Tarbok strike a pact to find Tommy’s killer together, but then Chet realizes what’s actually going to happen, once these warring gangs get their heads on straight, is that they’ll realize he and Abbie know too much to go on breathing, so they both go up the fire escape, and over the rooftops, and into a passing cab, which happens to be from Chet’s company.  It’s freezing cold, and they have no coats.  And the mob guys are in hot pursuit.  But they’re together.

This is one thing I will applaud about the book–it doesn’t split up the cute couple it’s created for our entertainment, as The Fugitive Pigeon did with Charlie and Chloe (who I happen to like better than Abbie, if only because Abbie is such an obvious shiksa Chloe clone–mental note–must check later to see if Google can find this article with just the phrase ‘shiksa Chloe clone’).  They stick together all the way through the final part of the book, which is mainly them looking for answers while the mob looks for them.   Only fair, since the nominal mystery of the book is who killed Abbie’s brother.  Chet has basically given up on getting his money.

They end up at Detective Golderman’s house on Long Island (seems all the NYC cops who could afford it were living there, even then).  He turns out to have made his basement into a sort of monument to suburban kitsch, and he seems a lot less impressive a character now that he’s off-duty.

Only is he ever off-duty?  After telling him the whole story, figuring he can trust him not to be on the mob’s payroll (because he’s sure seemed like he’s on the up and square up to now), Chet suddenly realizes–he’s on the mob’s payroll.  And he’s just tipped the mob off as to where Chet and Abbie are.  Abbie distracts him, and Chet knocks him out with a bottle of Black & White Scotch Whisky.  A nice brand.  With terriers, yet.


As they discuss their next move, Chet figures something out–he was shot with Abbie’s now-missing gun, which he’d brought to the card game in his coat pocket.  Golderman informed them that the gun used to kill Tommy was a much more powerful weapon, that would have blown Chet’s head clean off.  He also thinks the real target was Abbie–since her gun shoots pretty badly to the left.

They spend maybe a bit too much time talking this over, because as they’re sneaking out of Golderman’s house, after borrowing a lady’s coat and a hunting jacket (and a ridiculous looking hunting cap for Chet), the mobsters show up, and we’re off to the races again, through the dark chilly streets of Westbury.

So not to interrupt the big chase scene (which involves jumping onto a moving Long Island Railway train, and then falling off it, and then Chet is getting choked by a mob guy, who then gets knocked out with a shovel by Abbie), but let’s cut to the chase already.   Back to the card game–still at Jerry Allen’s place.   Chet’s problem, as the reluctant detective, is that he knows one of these guys must have taken the gun out of his coat pocket, which would seem to mean one of them is the killer.  But he doesn’t really believe any of them would do such a thing.  And you know what?  Spoiler alert–it was somebody else.  Read the book to find out who.  And here’s Abbie, to speak for all of us–

“But that isn’t fair,” she said.  “How can I solve the murder if I don’t even know the murderer, if I never met her?  The woman never put in an appearance!”

“Sure she did,” I said.  “She walked right by me with a baby carriage.”

“Well, she never walked by me,” she insisted.  “I say it isn’t fair.  You wouldn’t get away with that in a detective story.”

Westlake never does tire of poking fun at the genre he earns his bread with. Overall, the solution to the murder mystery makes sense, after its own fashion–with the exception of the killer’s punishment.  Hey, it’s the late 60’s–going into a convent is hardly a prison sentence.

But see, that was never the point–in a Nephew book it never is.  The point was for the hero to have an adventure, and to meet a great girl, and to learn something about himself–and wait a damn minute.   What exactly did he learn? Is he going to stop driving hacks for a living?  Not clear.   Will he stop gambling? He and Abbie are sitting down to play cards as the book ends.   She’s the only real change in his life–he asks her to consider moving to New York, so they can get to know each other better (they’ve made a pretty good start already).   Will she move in with him and his dad, who spends all his time trying to work out some way to beat the life insurance companies?   Not clear.

Chet finds out he’s a bit braver and more resourceful than he’d realized, but is that really worth the price of admission all in itself?  As Nephews go, he’s not much of a learner–there’s no real sense of transition here.   He’s clearly ready to give up his bachelor life–for a beautiful blonde card-shark who drives like a maniac, and is self-evidently nuts about him.  That seems more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy than a lesson well-learned.

Maybe I’m being too nitpicky.  There’s lots to like about the book.  I’m glad it got reprinted.  I can see why Westlake didn’t talk about it much, and why it went so long without a paperback edition.  I think he probably wrote it in too much of a hurry–to finish out his book-a-year contract with Random House.  He threw together a bunch of ideas borrowed from his earlier books in this vein, and added in a personal passion of his own–card playing.  Westlake himself played a whole lot of poker with his buddies.  That part of the book works really well, and one wishes there’d been more of it.   What you get from those scenes is how card players learn to size each other up, figure out each other’s weaknesses, their ‘tells’, and that at least partly explains how Chet survives his ordeal.

Read with limited expectations (which may be difficult to manage, after seeing the cover Hard Case Crime came up with), this is a fun read, and that’s all it has to be, but Westlake is capable of much more.   Still–there are a few interesting things about it I haven’t mentioned–like for example–Abbie?

Westlake would, of course, eventually take as his third and final bride, the gardening writer, Abby Adams, who best as I can tell (photos of her are hard to find online) somewhat resembled her defacto namesake in this book.  That’s a hell of a coincidence, and yet given the timeline, I have to assume that’s what it is.  I mean, If he’d already met her in 1968, when he was writing this, and was just recently married to Sandra Foley, who was in the process of presenting him with two more sons, would he really have made her a character in a book his then-wife was presumably going to read–and used her own name, with a slight variation in spelling?   I think not.

But then one must ask–was this a wish his heart was making, which Ms. Adams later appeared to grant?  Like the Abigail in the book, I can’t solve a mystery without knowing all the players, and I never met any of them (except Abby Westlake herself, very briefly, at the signing for The Getaway Car, and very charming and gracious she was, and I never did find a tactful way to ask whether she had a penchant for reckless driving as a young woman).   Much as I like the romantic relationships Westlake created for these books, I think we have to acknowledge that love in the world of the Westlake Nephews is a whole lot simpler than love in real life.  Intentionally so, I might add.

One thing I can say definitively–this is the first Nephew book that doesn’t include a Westlake spouse in the dedication up front–the usual pattern up to now has been for Westlake to dedicate his comic novels to a friend and to Nedra Henderson, his first wife–and as we saw, Who Stole Sassi Manoon? was dedicated solely to Sandra Foley, his second.

My Hard Case edition of this book has no dedication at all, but I got a look at a first edition, and the dedication there reads “This is for Joe Goldberg, a titled man.”   Joe Goldberg, in case you didn’t know, was a very highly-regarded Jazz critic (his book on the Jazz music of the 1950’s is still considered definitive), who also worked in Hollywood and that’s probably how he met Westlake, who shared his passion for the greatest American musical form, and if you don’t agree, that’s your problem.  Goldberg’s the guy who when Westlake complained that Parker had been played thus far in the movies by Anna Karina, Lee Marvin, and Jim Brown, made a joke Westlake never tired of repeating–“The character lacks definition.”

But no mention of Sandra in this one (and certainly no mention of Nedra)–what’s that mean?   Possibly nothing.  Personally, I’d have said the next Parker novel would have been the ideal place to tip the hat to Joe Goldberg, but that got credited to Joe Gores–‘for the hell of it’.   And again, I just don’t know enough to draw any conclusions at all based on Westlake’s book dedications, but maybe I’ll do an article on them sometime.  For the hell of it.

And for the sake of maintaining rough chronological order, our next book is yet another Nephew story–but set a bit more in the real world, featuring a hero with very real problems, which were quite timely back then, and sadly, still are.  And he’s in hot pursuit of a girl who could not be much more different from Abbie McKay–if Abbie might have been played by Blythe Danner in a movie, this girl would have been depicted by Pam Grier or (even better) Vonetta McGee.  And it’s a much better book, all around.  A truly odd duck in the Westlake canon, and we’ll talk about how that happened next week.  See you then, fellow Westlake pupils.  Class dismissed.  Keep those banners flying.


Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: God Save The Mark


1967 was a banner year for the many-headed beast that was Donald Westlake in the first decade of his career.   As Richard Stark, he published two more Parker novels at Gold Medal, and kicked off the short-lived Grofield series at Macmillan.  As Tucker Coe, he continued the Mitch Tobin series of detective novels at Random House.  As Curt Clark, he published the standalone science fiction novel, Anarchaos.   He also had a children’s book come out under his own name, in collaboration with an illustrator.   But when it comes to the six novels of his that were published that year, only one was actually credited to Donald E. Westlake.

That book was God Save the Mark, and it enjoys the distinction of being the only novel Westlake ever wrote that won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.   He won two more Edgars later on–one for the Dortmunder short story Too Many Crooks, and one for his screenplay adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters.  But it’s his novels that defined him as a writer, and made all his achievements in other areas possible.   And while I’d assume he was nominated multiple times for best novel–well, why assume?   I can look it up.

Not one nomination for Stark.  None for Coe.   None for any of his pseudonyms, though pseudonymous novels sometimes won.  The Mercenaries, his first crime novel, and the first book published under his name, got nominated for Best First Novel.  Then he got nominated for The Busy Body, won for God Save the Mark, got nominated for The Hot Rock, and one last time for Kahawa.

Seriously?  The Ax didn’t get a nod, but Kahawa did?   Strange be the ways of Edgar.

Awards can be perplexing, all the more when the winners are chosen by artistic peers.  You look at the list of Best Picture Oscars, and if you’re a film buff, you grit your teeth and mutter obscenities.    Don’t even get me started on the acting awards.

Looking at the historic list of best novel nominees and winners on Wikipedia, I see a whole lot of names I don’t recognize, and a long list of books hardly anyone reads or even remembers today.   As well as some acknowledged masters and undoubted classics.  And a whole lot of espionage thrillers, which pretty dubiously count as mysteries in my book–get your own award, spymasters!

It took Ed McBain 46 years and 50 novels to get just a nomination for his enormously influential 87th Precinct series, which was all about detectives, though not the genius kind.  Paperback originals don’t seem to have gotten nominated at all (so déclassé), and the violent sexy hardboiled stuff Westlake originally was known for was apparently not even considered unless it was written as a mystery of some kind, and published in hardcover.   Sorry, Parker.   No Edgars for you.  Like you give a damn.

Just to add to the confusion, one of the books God Save The Mark beat out in 1968 (the award year) was Rosemary’s Baby.  Yes, that Rosemary’s Baby. Which heavily outsold the winner (over four million copies), and was not written or marketed as a mystery novel.  But Levin had already won the Edgar Best First Novel Award for A Kiss Before Dying, so he was in the club.

Repeat winners in the Best Novel category were rare, and none of them are favorites of mine–Dick Francis is the only three-time winner, and was nominated constantly (lots of horse lovers in the MWA?).   Agatha Christie, by contrast, had to settle for being the first Grandmaster, having produced much of her best work before the Edgars got started, though eventually a more specialized award was named after her.  English mystery writers did really well at Edgar time–Westlake was the first American to win for Best Novel in years, as well as the youngest up to that point.

Votes get split.   The genre is vast and multifarious, and many of its practitioners limit their attentions to their own patch.   Many times an author who should have already won for any number of superb earlier books gets the statue for a less impressive effort as a form of belated recognition.  And authors who got a great reception when they first showed up, thus pulling votes their way, may later end up in the remainder bin of literary history–but they still get to keep the award.  Their books stay on the winner’s list.

And all the many far more deserving books and authors we still read today remain off it.   No Edgar for Patricia Highsmith, though she was nominated three times–I’d guess her writing was too good to ignore, but her notoriously abrasive personality cost her votes.  George Pelecanos has never been nominated for his prose, though he got a shared win for his work on The Wire, along with an Emmy for a script he co-wrote.  I hope his day may yet come.  Life is not fair, and awards nominations are just erratic and often misleading tokens of professional esteem–not proof of enduring merit.   The true winner is the one whose books stay in print.

Westlake had scored the biggest hit of his career with The Fugitive Pigeon, and had done well with his two subsequent comic novels for Random House.   He was building a rep, and had many prominent supporters.  For him to win so young meant that he was increasingly being recognized as a rising talent by his colleagues.   The back of my Signet reprint of this book includes lavish praise from Rex Stout and John Dickson Carr–when these guys liked you, you were in like Flynn at the MWA.

Among the ten ‘Nephew’ books, I’d put God Save the Mark at the top of the bottom five, or on a good day, the bottom of the top five–and well below The Spy in the Ointment, published the previous year, though as I pointed out, Westlake was on well-trodden ground with that one, since comic spy novels and films revolving around mistaken identity were almost old hat by the Mid-60’s.  Comic mysteries were still very nearly Westlake’s personal domain at this point–he had done more than anyone to revive that form.  That no doubt helped him with the Edgar vote.   Everyone loves to laugh.

I certainly love to laugh, but among the six novels Westlake published under various names in 1967, I’d rank this one fifth–just above The Damsel, which I don’t consider a very good book.   This is partly because I think Westlake didn’t really get his comic act together until the 1970’s–he’s still in the journeyman phase here, though learning more with each comedy he writes.   But it’s mainly because he was doing such accomplished original work in a more serious vein–just not under his own name anymore.

I can hear what you’re thinking–“Okay, so why are you ‘fredfitch’, and why is your posting avatar the cover of (according to you) the fifth best novel Westlake published in just that one year?”   What an excellent question!    That I am not going to answer right now.  But for the record, I do like this book quite a lot, and I think it deserved the Edgar–certainly more than Rosemary’s Baby.  Just not as much as a slew of other books Westlake wrote, most of which had no chance of ever winning an Edgar, so why blame God Save the Mark?  It was standing in for all the others, past and future.   That’s how I see it.  And now I think I’d better start the review part of the review.

The hero of our story is Fred Fitch, a freelance researcher, who digs up information for writers, scholars, producers, and such, at the local libraries in New York City.  He makes a decent enough living this way, and dwells quite comfortably in an apartment that takes up the entire third floor of a Manhattan townhouse on 19th Street that he fears is going to get torn down to make room for progress in the near future.   One thing about all the Nephews thus far–they have very decent living accommodations when first we meet them, and they aren’t looking for any kind of personal or professional change in their lives–in fact, they’re all rather averse to change.

Fred is 31 but looks and acts much older.  He has a bit of a potbelly that he tries to walk off by not taking the bus in good weather.  He wears round spectacles, which he thinks is hopelessly square, so obviously not a Beatles fan.  He’s had little to do with women since high school (he did manage to lose his virginity there, somehow), and doesn’t seem to have any male friends, other than a detective on the Bunco Squad named Jack Reilly, who views Fred with a mixture of amusement and despair.   And that’s because Fred’s a mark.  A rube.  A patsy.  A sap.  A dupe.  A chump.  The prize sucker of all time.  King of the Conned.   Prince of Pigeons.  God save him.

It all began, he tells us, when he went off to his first day of kindergarten, and returned without his pants–some classmate had talked him into giving them up.   He has no idea how it happened, and this inherent cluelessness has not much improved in the ensuing quarter century, though he has become something of an expert on the con game–

From that day forward, my life has been an endless series of belated discoveries.  Con men take one look at me, streamline their pitches, and soon go off gaily to steak dinners while poor Fred Fitch sits at home and once again dines on gnawed fingernail.  I have enough worthless receipts and bad checks to paper my living room.  I own miles of tickets to nonexistent raffles and ball games and dances and clambakes and shivarees, my closet is full of little machines that stopped working as soon as the seller went away, and I’m apparently on just about every sucker mailing list in the Western Hemisphere.

I really don’t know why this should be true.  I am not the typical mark, or victim, not according to Reilly, or to all the books I’ve read on the subject.  I am not greedy, nor uneducated, nor particularly stupid, nor an immigrant unfamiliar with the language and customs  I am only–but it is enough–gullible.  I find it impossible to believe that anyone could lie to another human being to his face.  It has happened to me hundreds of times already, but for some reason I remain unconvinced.  When I am alone I am strong and cynical and unendingly suspicious, but as soon as the glib stranger appears in front of me and starts his spiel my mind disappears in a haze of belief.  The belief is all-encompassing; I may be the only person in New York in the twentieth century with a money machine.

Substitute spam emails for the face-to-face approach con men of that era were more often forced to employ, and I think we can all feel Fred’s pain.  But with online con artistry, at least we can read online reviews–assuming they weren’t written by the purveyors of what’s being reviewed.  And we do assume that, don’t we?   We are all Fred Fitch, though hopefully not to the same extent Fred Fitch is Fred Fitch.   Of all Westlake’s protagonists, he may be the most quintessential Everyman.   He’s not brave, brilliant, handsome, sexy, charismatic, or even all that interesting, aside from his mythic credulity.   A curious choice of heroes.

And as the story begins, after having been conned twice in one day, Fred gets a phone call from a shyster lawyer named Goodkind, telling him his Uncle Matt–a man he never heard of before in his life, let alone met–has left him half a million dollars, which after the hefty inheritance tax, will come to three hundred and seventeen thousand dollars–two and a half million in today’s money.   So for the second (and I believe final) time in the Nephew Books, we’re dealing with an actual nephew.

Though Fred immediately and understandably suspects a con, his instincts have misled him yet again.   The inheritance is legit–his family confirms that Uncle Matt was the black sheep of the family, and it seems like he decided to leave his money to Fred because all his other relations had been rude to him.   Word spreads quickly among Fred’s family and acquaintances out west about how badly they’d misjudged Uncle Matt, and of Fred’s good fortune, of course.   Fred, you might want to listen to a little advice from Bessie Smith right about now.

Case in point–Fred’s downstairs neighbor Mr. Wilkins, a retired Air Force veteran, suddenly shows up at his door with a massive book manuscript.  The book is an alternate history of Caesar’s military campaign in Gaul, only now Caesar has WWI biplanes, which he can use to drop rocks and spears on the hapless Gauls.   Because of course guns and explosives haven’t been invented yet.  I mean, it’s the 1st century BC, don’t be ridiculous.   Mr. Wilkins thinks Jack Lemmon will be perfect for the movie adaptation, and there’s this publisher who will happily print and promote the book–just a matter of ready capital, you see………

Fred is wavering–maybe this is a good idea, and anyway it would make Mr. Wilkins happy–then Mr. Wilkins and his book get kicked down the stairs by Fred’s second inheritance.   And by far the better one–we actually met her and the other female love interest in the previous chapter–all of a sudden, Fred is awash in women.   But only one worth talking about, as I see it–Gertie Divine, The Body Secular.   A former stripper, who was his uncle’s companion–probably not a euphemism in this case, since Uncle Matt was old and slowly dying of cancer.

She shows up on his doorstep, looking, as he tells us, like she’s been running through a few choruses of Lili Marlene, and she just bulls her way into his life without so much as a by your leave–though she has a handwritten note purporting to be from his uncle, ‘bequeathing’ her to him.    Fred is irritated and fairly intimidated by her at first, but the more he hangs around her, the more he likes her–she’s everything he’s not; brassy, blonde, bold, and beautiful, in a delightfully cheap and common way.  She’s as much of a hard case as he is a pushover.  Yang to his Yin.

Here’s one of my favorite Gertie moments–after their first meeting, Fred is walking her to the subway, and it suddenly occurs to him he can afford to call her a cab–

She instantly overreacted.  Putting her hand to her heart–a not easy thing for Gertie to do–she pretended to be on the verge of a faint, and cried, “Oh, the spendthrift!  He throws it around like it was pianos!”

I knew how to handle Gertie now, so I said, “Of course, if you’d feel more at home on the subway—”

Her answer was to put two fingers in her mouth and give a whistle that shattered windows as far away as the UN Building.  A cab yanked itself out of traffic and stopped, panting, at our feet.

Now that’s a broad.  And my primary complaint about this book is that she’s only with Fred in a handful of chapters–he spends a lot more time with the other female lead, a rather forgettable girl (probably why I keep forgetting her name) who is involved with Jack Reilly, and since this book is written in the first person, that means we see too little of the divine Gertie by far.   I can understand the reasons for this–Fred has to develop a spine, and that means he has to be left to his own devices for a while, but a life-altering relationship like this merited a bit more space, and to short-shrift such a great character is a crime worse than any perpetrated on Fred in the book.

(Sidebar: I bet if they had actually made the planned film adaptation in the late 60’s–with Bill Cosby as Fred–Gertie would have been much more prominently featured.  And probably wouldn’t have been a blonde.  Cosby, still playing a tennis pro/secret agent on TV at that point, might have been a bit hard to buy as the out-of-shape nebbish in the book.   Personally, I think Westlake name-checking Jack Lemmon was something of a wistful hint to Hollywood, though Lemmon was a bit old by then.  My ideal Fred and Gertie of all time would probably be Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in their 30’s, but it’s all quite quite moot by now.   Back to the synopsis.)

It probably says something about how I feel about the plot of this book that I don’t feel like relating it in much detail–the story, as I see it, is just a convenient excuse for a lot of great gags, and a look at the world of the huckster from the POV of the mark.  Basically, Fred learns that his uncle was murdered, and that he may be next.  What follows is a lot of running and hiding and talking to various people to try and figure out what’s happening, and how he can make it stop happening.

Along the way, we see repeated instances of his famed gullibility, but we also see that it’s mainly just a result of him being too obliging a soul–under the pressures of his current situation, fearing for his life, we see him toughen up, become more aware.  A dreadful girl he had a crush on in high school shows up on his doorstep, brandishing a letter he wrote to her from camp, saying it represents a legally binding proposal of marriage.   He marries her or she’ll sue.  He calls Goodkind, and asks him if she’s got a case–and holds up the phone for her to hear while Goodkind laughs himself sick, and says Fred should try to make her sue–the countersuit would be worth a fortune.  She runs out the door and down the stairs in a rage, swearing vengeance.  Fred feels incredibly good about this.  The worm has started to turn.

The more obvious short cons won’t work on him anymore–a guy comes up to him in Grand Central Station, doing the old Lost Bag Full of Money routine (aka The Pigeon Drop), and he tells the guy to get lost, after kicking him in the shin.  He knew about this swindle, and most of the others, but the old Fred would have fallen for it.  The new Fred, in fear of his life, is becoming more wary.

The problem wasn’t who Fred was–his identity is fine–he’s just a nice decent ordinary guy.  But even a nice guy has to learn how to say no sometimes.   Or everybody and his cousin walks all over you, I mean him.

But unlike many other Westlake protagonists, he will never get the knack of physical violence.  His reaction to being shot at or menaced in any way is to run like hell, which is probably the most valuable survival skill there is, and hardly to be disdained.  Westlake was getting better and better at crafting scenarios where the hero would be forced to find innovative ways to traverse the urban jungle–find escape routes where none seem to be present, make his way through courtyards, alleyways, adult bookstores, across rooftops, down convenient ladders–Fred even makes use of one-way streets to try and foil this black limo that keeps tailing him.

This improvised use of the convoluted vertically oriented Manhattan cityscape often seems to prefigure what would be known as ‘parkeur’ in later decades–which I assume is not a reference to Parker, who did some of the same thing in his books, but never for comic effect.   As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, this is basic slapstick, right out of the movies, and particularly silent comedy.  Westlake isn’t inventing it, or even improving on it–he’s just figuring out how to describe it in prose form, without getting bogged down in detail.

He was always well aware of the fact that filmmakers could show this kind of thing much more easily than he could describe it–but the descriptions can be remarkably effective in their own unique way, playing as they do with our shared knowledge of how something like this would be done in the movies, and somehow making it seem new again, with a sort of wry understatement.   It’s still in its formative stages here, but you can see once more where he learned how to write those paralyzingly funny scenes in the Dortmunder books.   The most important thing is attention to detail–describing how it actually feels to do what the movies only show us.  You’re not just watching it; you’re hearing it, smelling it, feeling it, living it.   Here, Fred describes how in order to escape one group of people he thinks mean him harm, he ends up fleeing an entirely different group of people–

I wouldn’t say I have an abnormal fear of heights, but that’s probably because I don’t consider a fear of heights abnormal.  I mean, you can get killed if you’re up high and all of a sudden you’re down low.  People who aren’t afraid of heights are people who haven’t stopped to think what happens when you reach the sidewalk in too much of a hurry.  I have stopped to think about it and I therefore felt very small, weak, nervous, terrified and top-heavy as I went down those iron rungs on the front of the movie theater, expecting at any second to lose my grip, fall through the marquee like a dropped safe, and make an omelet of myself on the sidewalk.

Amazingly enough, I made it.   The top of the marquee was some sort of thin sheet metal, painted black, which bucked and dipped and went sprong as I walked across it.  Looking back and up, I saw the two men from the bookstore still up there on the roof, looking down; they made no move to follow me, but contented themselves with threateningly shaking their pipes.

What makes Richard Stark’s prose so effective is its ‘flatness’, as Westlake described it–the matter of fact manner in which extraordinary events are described.   But there’s some of this in the way he writes his comedies as well.   His comic fall guys may be more inclined to share their feelings about the situations they’re in than Parker, but there’s still this sense of detachment–perhaps more of a defense mechanism than anything else.   The main difference is the sense of aggrieved indignation the comic protagonist feels at the unruly fates.   A Westlake Nephew is always asking himself “Why Me?”, which of course was later the title of a Dortmunder novel.   Parker has no such existential queries to pose.

Though he’s becoming more assertive as the story chugs along, Fred is still pretty darned passive.   Gertie gets grabbed, and he’s very concerned about her–more than he would have thought possible–but he still isn’t really trying to find and rescue her.  He’s been placed in protective custody at one point by his cop friend Reilly, and he hears there’s a woman there to see him–he immediately thinks it’s her, but it’s the other girl, whose name I still don’t remember.  She’s described as having ‘marzipan breasts’, and I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but it’s probably a good thing.

He spends a lot of time with this girl (I know I could look her name up, but I don’t want to), hiding in her apartment, talking to her about her relationship with Detective Reilly (they are sleeping together, but Reilly won’t divorce his wife because he’s Catholic), and at some point in the story, hearing that the escaped Gertie Divine is coming over to see Fred, tells him he doesn’t have much time to kiss her.   This is not remotely credible, even in a fantastic story such as this.

Gertie comes over, and says “So this is the competition”, even though she and Fred have spent a few hours together.   The romantic aspect of the book feels tacked on, perhaps intentionally so.  It’s not a love story, but you have to have a girl in a Nephew book–I think Westlake was ill-advised to give Fred Fitch two, when it’s hard to swallow that he could get one, even with all that money.

It’s just a long series of MacGuffins.   Fred is being threatened by these Brazilian toughs who say his uncle stole the money from their father, and he has to give it up or be killed.  There’s this crime commission run by a Senator that’s involved.   Fred repeatedly says he doesn’t even want the money, and then it all winds up to a total reversal of everything we’ve learned thus far.   Fred’s been running into short cons all through the book–long cons are only for people with a lot of money, you see.  And then it suddenly occurs to him that he’s somebody with a lot of money now, and the scales start to drop from his eyes.

Crime books about grifters doing long cons were nothing new, but they were always from the perspective of the conners, never the connees.  Westlake’s buddy Lawrence Block had just done a truly nifty one in that vein, published in 1965, called The Girl With the Long Green Heart (to date, my favorite of all the Block novels I’ve read, highly recommended).   Not long before that, Jim Thompson’s searing noir masterpiece The Grifters had come out, that Westlake would someday win his third Edgar (and an Oscar nomination) for adapting.  So the innovation here was to put us in the position of the audience at a magic show, only we don’t know it’s a show–we’re so distracted by the short cons, we never stop to think about the long con.

Fred’s apotheosis, which must come to all Nephews at some point, is to have that moment of insight where a scam that would fool just about anybody fails to fool him.   He is no longer the Mark of Marks.  He’s gotten wise.   And the sweetest aspect of this is that Gertie (who was in on the sting from the start) is proud of him for wising up.

Fred then cons the other girl (Karen!  That’s her name!  I’ll have forgotten it again two minutes from now.) into thinking she’s got a good deal with Reilly, even though he’ll never marry her–this strikes me as a bit mean, and too convenient, but the romantic subplots have to be wrapped up swiftly, along with all the others–it’s just a bit too hasty, and Fred explains to Reilly how he did it–over the phone, if you’d believe it–and P.G. Wodehouse would have done it a lot better, as would Shakespeare, so go read them if you like.

Fred and Gertie seem to be an item, but it’s not entirely clear–when last we see them, she’s making them dinner at her apartment, so she did not move in with him.   We learn that he got the money, and Gertie convinced him to buy the townhouse he lives in with his uncle’s bequest, as opposed to giving it all away (“Are you crazy?  That’s money!”), so the building will never get torn down, and he never has to leave his comfortable digs–other than having Gertie in his life, and no longer being an easy target for grifters, his daily existence seems entirely unchanged.   He’s still got the same job.  He’s still a nice affable unexceptional guy, who will kick you in the shin if you pretend you just found a bag full of money.

We never learn what happened to Mr. Wilkins’ book about the conquest of Gaul through air power.   We do learn who killed Fred’s uncle, and another interesting character we didn’t see enough of–a very short man who appears in one very short chapter.  It’s not really that important, but he probably wouldn’t have won the Edgar for Best Mystery Novel of the Year if he hadn’t put a mystery in there somewhere.

It’s a really important book for Westlake, on a lot of levels.   It’s got an innovative and unique premise, and it’s full of clever funny moments, and some really good writing.  I just don’t happen to think it’s one of his best books, mainly because I think the supporting characters, though fun, are a bit too spottily developed, the best of the bunch is offstage most of the time, and the story feels a bit nailed together at points.

It’s still a book that has something to say about human gullibility, and the fact that the biggest reason we keep falling for all the ridiculous scams out there (some of them a lot more dangerous than others–they found those WMD’s in Iraq yet?) is that most of us don’t really know ourselves that well.   Fred’s basically the same guy at the end, but he’s gotten wise to himself, and thus to everyone around him.

Like Fred, we know there’s no end of liars out there, and yet we still have a tendency to believe what people tell us to our faces.  That’s true of nearly everyone, and on some level we all know it, and I think the way Westlake tickled that particular funnybone is what got him the Edgar.

It would lead to far better books in the future–you can see the building blocks for the great Westlake comedies of the 70’s and beyond being assembled here, as in the previous Nephew Books.  Edgar or no Edgar, I don’t think this book holds a candle to most of them.  And yet I am still writing all these reviews as ‘fredfitch’.   Go figure.

And figure this, if you will–our next book is 42 pages long, including illustrations.   It’s about a little boy and his toy dump truck.  And it’s probably the rarest and most expensive collectible of any Westlake book ever published, certainly under his own name.   I am never owning a copy of this book.   But I’ve read it.  And what’s more, I have it scanned into my gmail account.

And anybody who wants to read it need only respond in the comments section, and give me their email–I’ll forward it to you in its entirety.   Not nearly enough of my readers comment on the reviews, and I hope this will induce some of you to chime in.   I make this one-time offer, you might say, as a fillip.   I expect to do an extra century in purgatory for that pun, but so worth it.

PS: That’s P.T. Barnum up top, next to Bill Cosby.   I put his picture up there because he’s referenced in the book–that old saying attributed to Barnum, that there’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him.   Only it seems he never actually said that.  Conned again!

(Very very belated postscript: I see people are still reading this one, and I feel the need to confess–when I wrote this review, and put Cosby’s photo up top, I was not making a reference to the current scandal regarding his extralegal extramarital exploits–and amazingly, the earliest allegation of drug-assisted rape goes back two years before this book came out! I didn’t really become aware of the allegations–which are a lot more than allegations by this point in time–until some time after I posted the review.  No doubt Cosby fooled a whole lot of people for a very long time.   Not that it really matters so much, compared to what his victims went through, but just as well that movie starring him as the mark of marks never got made.  And all I can say is–conned once more!  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I took the name Fred Fitch.  I may not get born quite every minute, but I come close sometimes.  Shame on me.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels