Tag Archives: Donald Westlake

Review: Comfort Station

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“It is, in every way, a comfort station.  No, it’s sort of like the Oyster Bar — transplanted into a park.  It’s an inspiration for us.  It sets the gold standard for park comfort stations.”

Adrian Benepe, far-seeing New York City Parks Commissioner, quoted in A Resplendent Park Respite, Mosaic Tiles Included, The New York Times, April 4, 2006.

“Look, it’s a just a restroom.”

Daniel A. Biederman, myopic executive director of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, quoted in same article.

The Bryant Park Comfort Station, situated on the south side of West 42nd Street midway between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, stands on land once completely under water, back before the turn of the century when this was the Croton Reservoir.  But progress must come, even to reservoirs, and in the first decade of this, our fast-paced twentieth century, busy workmen from all over the civilized world and beyond gathered together, filled with high purpose, to empty the Croton Reservoir and erect on the site of its former standing the new central branch of the New York Public Library, and the leafy landscape called Bryant Park, and last but not least the Bryant Park Comfort Station.

The Bryant Park Comfort Station, a low granite structure of Greek Revival design, was designed by the New York architectural firm of Carrère and Hasting, who threw in plans for the library as well.  Approximately twenty feet square, the building is dominated by a large opaque oval window on its north face, facing West 42nd Street, and by a large rectangular door on the west face, surmounted by the stirring inscription MEN.  A stone filigree makes a tasty design about the upper walls, alternating ivy garlands with cow skulls, evocative of Death Valley: terribly meaningful in the architects’ overall planned impact of visual and tensile impact.

From Comfort Station, by the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.

There are times when my deep admiration for Donald E. Westlake, fast-typing author of many a thrilling tale of adventure and intrigue, flags somewhat.  The scales of hero worship fall from my slightly blood-shot eyes, and I see the feet of clay that all we mortals possess, and encase in shoe leather to hide our shame and prevent blistering.

This was never more true when I read his shamelessly self-aggrandizing account of the creation of this magnificent literary edifice we are met here today to commemorate.  Note how he pretends to give someone else (namely his agent, the far-seeing Henry Morrison) credit, while actually taking it for himself.  The shameless cad.

Henry Morrison was absolutely responsible on that one.  Because we were at dinner, and I said, “You know what would be funny?”  At that point I had never read Arthur Hailey at all.  I said, “You know what would be funny?  An Arthur Hailey book called Comfort Station, set at the men’s room in Bryant Park.  Crossroads of a million private lives.  Henry thought that was a terrific idea and went in the next day and drove his secretary crazy because he had her do a presentation letter on toilet paper.  Which he then sent in to Elaine Geiger Koster and Nina Finkelstein at Signet.  They took it into a sales meeting, and they all fell in love with the idea of a presentation letter written on toilet paper.  So about three weeks later, Henry called me and said, “I sold the book.”  I said, “You sold what book?”

Oh come now, Mr. Westlake.  Surely you can do better than that, if you wish to steal the credit for a great man’s brainchild, let alone such a man as the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.  Whose style clearly influenced you, since you kept repeating yourself all through that paragraph.  I suppose there might have been another influence in that regard–

The result was, I had to go read Arthur Hailey.  I read The Final Diagnosis–in paperback, that’s three hundred pages.  Hotel was four hundred pages, just almost perfectly, and Airport was five hundred pages.  He’s really a bad writer–really slipshod and slapdash–but it turned out I could read him as one twelve-hundred-page novel.  I’d read thirty pages of Final Diagnosis, forty pages of Hotel, and fifty pages of Airport, and go back.

Little is known about the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham (we don’t even know what the ‘J’ stands for, though I suspect the answer may yet be found in the New Testament).  My coveted first edition paperback (the hardcover has yet to materialize on ebay) does contain tantalizing references to earlier works of his–

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CarportHot ShaftWaiting RoomBig Liner.   No doubt epic tales of man’s ingenuity and ambition striving against the forces of chaos and disorder, not to mention churlish book reviewers who think they’re so damn smart.  Strangely, no trace of these books can I find in the libraries of the world, or on ebay (crossroads of a million private lives).  They don’t even appear in the electronic version of this book we are examining here today, but merely reading the descriptions, we can imagine the vast stirring tableaus they portrayed, apparently with Henry Kissinger (far-seeing escort to Playboy Bunnies, who dabbled in diplomacy at odd moments) perpetually lurking in the background.  Perhaps Henry would have copies?   No doubt inscribed.

It is surprisingly hard to lay hands on a physical copy of even this, presumably the greatest and best-selling of the vibrant Mr. Cunningham’s novels, which we’re told ran to at least ten printings–

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Strangely, no dates appending to the later printings are given, so presumably they were all printed in 1973?  Massive demand.  So why were there no later print editions, perhaps some of them illustrated by Darwyn Cooke?  It would certainly be a fine joke on the far-seeing ebay seller I got this from if he lowered the price on what is often a cripplingly expensive item to obtain, thinking this was a tenth printing, when in fact it was just a metatextual joke being played by the author and publisher, and the book only had one modest print run.   Apologies, my whimsical muse does like to run free at times.   As did that of whoever wrote the author bio, unless of course Cunningham actually was the progeny of two characters from Terry and the Pirates, which would certainly be noteworthy.   Personally, I never thought Dragon Lady was the marrying kind, but no matter.

Aside from Westlake’s glowing blurb on the cover (clearly you did wish you’d written this book, Mr. Westlake, having stolen the credit for it years later, don’t think we’re forgetting that), there were other breathless critical notices reproduced on the inner flyleaf, perhaps slightly edited for space considerations–

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As for the rest,  you can read all that in the ebook version, from the far-seeing proprietors of Mysterious Press (crossroads of a million rejected manuscripts), available now at your better internets.  I just wanted to share with you, in all their slightly water-damaged glory, the pages that are not contained in that electronic edition, for reasons no doubt pertaining to tedious legal considerations, or maybe they just forgot.

So as I may have mentioned, the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham is a mystery wrapped in an enigma tied up in a puzzle skewered by a conundrum soaking in a solution of insolubility.  What then, can we know about this Arthur Hailey person referred to above, who we vaguely gather had some tangential connection to this work?  Rumor has it he was a writer himself, though there has been some controversy on that score.

Hailey’s fiction was not of the sort that inspired doctoral theses: “If Armando had been troubled before, Kettering’s pronouncement had the effect of an incremental bolt of lightning” was a representative sample of its style.

But secure in the knowledge that his books would dominate the bestseller lists (Airport was lodged on them for more than a year), Hailey was sanguine about their reception by critics. “I have never had a good review from the New York Times,” he admitted in 1990. To be fair, others were equally unimpressed.

Reviewing The Evening News (1990) for The Daily Telegraph, Martha Gellhorn, under the headline “Wooden Prose” complained: “it tells us everything at least three times. Solid-wood dialogue is tailor-made for the mechanical characters who, in turn, tell each other what they are doing at least three times … This is not a book you cannot put down; it is a book you can hardly hold up. It will sell in millions and be translated into 34 languages. Possibly it is more readable in Icelandic or Urdu.”

When reading this, one should take into account that it comes from Hailey’s obituary in the The Daily Telegraph.  A high-spirited parting shot, one might say.  The English do so love to jest in the face of death, the alternative I suppose being to die in the face of jest, which is far less enjoyable, as the Irish have long known.

I remember well my first encounters with  Hailey’s inimitably imitable prose when I was a mere boy, covertly leafing through overdue library books on my parent’s nightstand (crossroads of a million frustratingly vague descriptions of coitus).  I recall rugged manly protagonists, of many sturdy upstanding professions; invariably right (also invariably white), invariably victorious, invariably getting laid with improbable regularity.  The one I remember most was called Overload, and never was a title more aptly chosen.

What the young mind (which may at times be found in a decrepit aging body) most appreciates about Hailey is that he explains everything (except the precise mechanics of coitus, dammit); not merely once, but over and over again, until even the dullest reader is tempted to exclaim “Okay already, I GET IT!”  But in this regard, I believe he is surpassed, if only slightly, by J. Morgan Cunningham (forgot to say vibrant, never mind now, have to type out a long quotation)–

Rain.

Rain poured down like water out of the cloud-covered sky, which was above the city.  Every intricate individual drop of the hydrous stuff, composed of two-parts hydrogen for every lonely solitary part oxygen, fell on the already-drenched city like a cloudburst.

It was a cloudburst.

The rain fell everywhere on the city, on rich and on poor, on young and on old, on happy and on unhappy–but not on people inside their houses.  If the roofs were okay.  The rain fell on a tramp steamer of Liberian registry, Serbo-Croat captain and Siamese crew being loaded with rocking chairs for Tierra del Fuego, girlie calendars on a consignment to Ulan Bator, and cartons of Smucker’s strawberry preserves bound for the Cape of Good Hope, at Pier 46, downtown.  The rain fell on the Daily News trucks, gaily green, toting their wares hither and yon throughout the great city, bringing the daily news to the citizens of Metropolis: New York.  And throwing the bundles in puddles outside the candy stores, they should be more careful.

This was the third day of rain, drenching the already-drenched city.  Odd items flowed in the gutters: Popsicle wrappers, good for stockings if you send them in with a quarter; tickets to hit shows; suicide notes; a bottle with a message inside, dated June 7, 1884; a one-inch-long spaceship from the planet Gu which had inadvertently crash-landed at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and West 49th Street and was now being inexorably swept toward its inexorable doom of both itself and its entire microscopic crew; and here and there the three-sixteenths-inch-long roach of a marijuana reefer, dropped by some doomed ten-year-old staggering through the rain in search of cheap kicks.  Oh, the stories those gutters could have told–fiction, perhaps, but a scant raindrop (or could it be a teardrop?) from reality–if only there had been someone, some artisan, some born storyteller, to crawl through them and pick up the nuggets within.

(You will scarcely believe it, but it is, at this very moment in time that I am typing this paragraph, raining heavily across New York City, crossroads of a million aesthetically convenient coincidences, such is the power of J. Morgan Cunningham’s epic prose-poetry: the already-drenched city getting more drenched by the moment, and a damn good thing I brought a rain jacket with me to work, but I got drenched regardless, such is the power of heavy rainfall.  The rain-soaked gutters were indeed overflowing with a multitude of sundry items, along with rainwater.  No sign of any tiny spaceships, but the search continues, the grieving widows of Gu deserving no less.  Picking up again a bit further in the chapter–)

And the rain fell on the buildings.  It fell on the new Madison Square Garden, the cupcake-shaped Hall of Culture where last night was seen Poundage, the new rock ‘n’ roll sensation, and where tonight world-famed Evangelist Billy Cracker would appear, before a somewhat older group. And it fell on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mecca of so many would-be suicides.  And it fell on the Bronx Botanical Garden, which was nice.  And it fell on Grand Army Plaza, with its green statues of the Civil War boys in blue.  And it fell on the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives.

And I already typed the next two paragraphs, up top.  Man, this review practically writes itself!   What were we talking about?  Oh yes, the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham–given the near-total lack of information about him, I believe I will have to write some of this review as if Donald E. Westlake had something to do with this book.   It’s unfortunately unavoidable, but unavoidable nonetheless–unfortunately.  He may have played some peripheral subsidiary tangential minor supporting role in the writing of Comfort Station, and anyway this blog is supposed to be about him, so I do have to mention him here and there.  It would be disorienting if I did not.

So much as you, the far-seeing readership of The Westlake Review, and I, its far-seeing amanuensis, may see this book as an epic rumination on complex issues relating to the life’s blood of a great metropolis, and the functionings of a vital way-station within it, namely the Bryant Park Comfort Station (crossroads of a million private lives, lest we forget), we must pay at least some attention to Westlake’s opinion (to which he had a perfect right) that this is a parody of Arthur Hailey novels, so very popular in that time period (today, not so much). Hardly the first very popular author to be subjected to literary ridicule, and very far from the most revered.

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What is a parody, otherwise known as a spoof, a burlesque, a mimicry, a caricature, a send-up, a pastiche, a lampoon, etc?  What distinguishes it from a satire?  Well, all parodies are satires, but not all satires are necessarily parodies.  They may not be that specific–the satirist may be aiming his arrows of mockery at the foibles of human nature, politics, or religion, subjects that are notoriously difficult to copyright, though I believe Disney has tried, just for the hell of it.

Parody is extremely specific, by definition, and its humorous effect depends somewhat on the audience’s familiarity with whatever is being parodied.   Therefore, the most successful parodies will be of something everybody has read or seen, such as Star Wars movies and Star Trek shows.

But we all like Star Wars and Star Trek, don’t we? (cries of “NERRRRRDDDDS!” from the gallery shall be devoutly ignored).  Why would we want to see them be made into objects of ridicule, over and over again?   Is it true what some commentators have remarked, that parody is merely a means of expressing fond affection towards some form of cultural expression we mutually enjoy?   No, it is not.  Those commentators are wrong, and I will now tell you why that is, because that is a blogger’s primary function in life, one might almost say his (or her) Prime Directive, at least when The Force is with him (or her).

Yes, things people truly enjoy can be successfully parodied, but regardless, parody is not an expression of affection, but of contempt.  So it has ever been, since the days of Aristophanes (we can’t always know for sure what he was parodying because so much the Greeks used to enjoy in ancient times has been lost to posterity, along with their present-day economy, but rest assured he’s parodying something and it was hilarious back in the day).

When Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, he was not aiming a backhanded compliment to the authors of the innumerable mawkish knightly romances that were plaguing his native Spain like a pestiferous pestilence; he was trying to put an end to them by dint of sheer mockery, and he largely succeeded.

When Alexander Pope began to draft The Dunciad, his intent was not to compliment the mercenary scribblers at whom he was directing his satiric barbs, but to tell them they should find other employment, perhaps in the area of public sanitation.  Scholars of that era in English letters lapse into suitably erudite guffaws whenever they read him, because they get the references.  The rest of us, posterity having long since forgotten everything Pope is making fun of, just nod sagely, and try not to look too perplexed.

This is a recurring challenge to the parodist’s grasp on immortality.   The parody can, in some instances, greatly outlive the material being parodied, without which the parody itself may become incomprehensible.  We today are still fairly familiar with the novels of  Arthur Hailey, even though most of us would sooner undergo eight hours of uninterrupted root canal than be forced to read them–but see, there were movies, and TV miniseries, and innumerable other terrible novels written by greedy wordsmiths influenced by those oh-so-lucrative novels, movies, and miniseries.  We know the overall format, even if we’ve never picked up a Hailey novel in our lives.

Clichés can be incredibly durable (that’s what makes them clichés)–so it is that Comfort Station, if seen as a parody (which I want to make it clear once more that I am not in any way suggesting it is), can still amuse present-day readers who are perhaps not vitally interested in the daily workings of a public restroom, though surely there could be no more diverting topic.

We all know what bad writing looks like, and it’s rather fascinating to see a very good writer pretend to be a really bad one.  Even the greatest writers know, far better than the rest of us, how fine the line is between clever–and stupid (to paraphrase one of my favorite film parodies).

So it is that even when we enjoy whatever it is that’s being parodied, the part of us that laughs at it is really laughing at ourselves, if you want to get down to brass tacks (so much easier to find as a popular expression than at the local office supply store).  At how easily we are taken in by bad writing, bad acting, bad directing.  We are laughing at how gullible we were to take this nonsense seriously for even one moment.  Then we go read and watch still more nonsense, and the circle of mirth continues.

That’s why really great writing is much more difficult to parody.  Because it’s harder to seize upon that aspect of it that is ridiculous.  Never impossible, of course.  Because of those feet of clay I mentioned several thousand words back.  Even Shakespeare had ’em.   Probably fleas as well.  That’s what those fancy lace collars the Elizabethans wore were designed to foil.   But I digress (don’t I always?).

So what’s the book about, anyway?  I should probably say something about that.  Basically it’s a day in the life of a great metropolis: New York, centered around (but not limited to) The Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives, as I may have mentioned once or twice.    The dramatis personae are helpfully sketched out for us at the start of the book:

FRED DINGBAT–omnibus operative, proud of his position in interurban transit.  Too proud?

MO MOWGLI–custodian of the Comfort Station.  What was it about his past that haunted him?

ARGOGAST SMITH–plainclothes patrolman.  In responsibility he found anodyne–and the testing of his strength

HERBERT Q. LUMINOUS–bookkeeper on the run.  What happened to him was almost a cliche.

CAROLINA WEISS–onetime Russian countess now A & E mechanic.  In the arms of another man she sought forgetfulness.

GENERAL RAMON SAN MARTINEZ  TORTILLA–deposed dictator.  What was it he wanted to get off his chest?

FINGERS FOGELHEIMER–mobster.  Out of the thrilling days of yesteryear, he returns for vengeance.

LANCE CAVENDISH–Black.  With him and thirty-five cents you can take the subway.

(See now, I can almost detect a faint whiff of parodic intent here, but aren’t all names ridiculous if you look hard enough?)

The narrative’s purpose, seamlessly achieved (or so it seems), is to bring these eight people together in one place, the Bryant Park Comfort Station, crossroads of a million private lives, only that’s just eight people, and two of them never make it in there at all, but that’s nitpicking.  Okay, so six private lives intersect briefly, standing in for the other 999,994, like ships passing in the night.   We will not inquire what precisely they are passing there, because that would be indelicate;  quite possibly something that sounds like ‘ship’.

Fred Dingbat, intrepid city bus driver, picks up Mo Mowgli, dedicated custodian of the Comfort Station, on his way to work.  As Mo arrives at his post, we begin to meet the other characters, each of whom will inevitably be drawn to this way station on the road to their varied destinies.    Yes, just like the Arthur Hailey novels with titles based on public facilities of some sort or other, you picked up on that, very good!   Anyway, Mo is late for work.  Again.

It didn’t always matter if he was late.  Most of the time there was no one around at seven in the morning anyway, no one to care if the Comfort Station was open or closed.  But every once in a while Mo would alight late from the Crosstown bus and find some poor wayfarer hopping up and down on the sidewalk out front, his agony mirrored in his expression, which was agonized.  At those moments of emergency and crisis, Mo always acted with instinctive speed and precision, unlocking the door, switching on the lights, assuring himself there was sufficient paper in the stalls, and at the same time feeling deep inside the gnawing knowledge of his own failure, his own inattention.  He should have been here on time; it was his fault and no one else’s that the poor wayfarer had been reduced to hopping up and down on the sidewalk for ten  minutes or fifteen minutes or even twenty minutes.  At such times, Mo promised himself never to be late again, but his resolution never seemed to last very long: the next day, or the day after that, he would be late again.

I have visited the odd few New York City Parks comfort stations in my time, and I can assure you with great authority that dedicated public servants like Mo Mowgli still staff them, and yeah, they show up late some of the time.  Or in some cases, not at all.

These chapters, you should know, are all time-based–the next is entitled 8:00 A.M., and introduces us to Arbogast Smith, undercover policeman, assigned to the Comfort Station.   He spends most of the book staring moodily into space in front of a handy urinal, brooding on unknown sorrows.  I’m sure we have no idea what crimes he is there to prevent.  It’s 1973, and we don’t talk about that kind of thing openly yet.

(Sidebar: Is it, in fact, 1973 in this book?  That is the year of publication, but it should be noted that due to certain pressing social concerns that might afflict any great metropolis like New York [but New York in particular], the Bryant Park Comfort Station was shut down sometime in the Mid-1960’s, and not reopened until 1988.  The renovated structure on 42nd Street now services both men and women, in adjoining rooms, I hasten to add.   The structure on 40th Street that once served the ladies and their sensitivities [to repurpose Sondheim] is now a parks storage facility.   So at the time this book was written, nobody was going to the bathroom there, though certain unsavory elements were doubtless attending to nature’s call al fresco.  More on this when this review concludes, if it ever does.)

In the chapter chronologically designated 9:00 A.M., we meet Herbert Q. Luminous, embezzling bookkeeper, now fleeing the long arm of the law, due to all the embezzling, which he, a typically honest and upright functionary, performed out of love.  For a woman, I once more hasten to add.

She said her name was Floozey.  She was young and blonde and desirable, and he found himself buying her drinks, telling her his life story (it didn’t take long), and trying to impress her with his ability at shuffleboard bowling.  It was almost a cliché, but it seemed to him he knew from the instant he had seen her that they were going to be very important to each other.

After that first meeting, there had been others.  He went to her apartment in the city.  He went again.  He went some more.  He had gone again and again.

And she was expensive.  She liked the finer things in life: nightclubs, dancing, expensive restaurants.  And gifts: perfumes, clothing, false eyelashes.  Whatever she wanted, Herbert got it for her, because she was what he wanted. It was almost a cliché, really, his falling for her like that.  But he did.

She went through his savings fast, and when he had no more money he was afraid to tell her.  He knew it was almost a  cliché to think a thing like this, but in his heart of hearts he was afraid  that if she knew he had no more money she would leave him.  And he couldn’t stand that, to lose her.

And from here, we launch into a brief but informative aside on white collar crime, an issue of great importance in our fast-paced modern society, which the author has no doubt researched extensively, or maybe he just read about it in the papers, but either way it establishes the upstanding moral value of this work, and is not in any way a paper-thin excuse for its readers who feel embarrassed to be reading about sex, so they can tell themselves these are issues of great importance in our fast-paced modern society, that they (the morally upstanding citizens) need to be informed of, and they can always just skip ahead to the sex if it gets too dull.  It’s almost a cliché to say that, but I felt it needed saying.

The general public, of course, is unaware of how common this sort of thing is in the world we live in.  It’s almost a cliché to say so, but white-collar crime like that perpetrated by Herbert Q. Luminous costs the taxpayers every bit as much as the much more publicized and dramatic sort of crime performed by the Mafia, or what is known as grimy-collar crime.  The white-collar criminal, more often than not, doesn’t even belong to the Mafia, as, for instance, Herbert Q. Luminous didn’t belong to the Mafia.

And there are other differences.

Good to know.

Later (4:00 P.M., to be specific), we meet Lance Cavendish, black, as you may recall from the character descriptions up above.  He appears in just one brief and somewhat puzzling chapter in this puzzlingly short book (there is a prefatory note from the publisher explaining the original manuscript ran to over three million words, but the edition posterity has willed us only runs 124 pages, with fewer than 200 words per page, often much fewer.  I’d say it’s about a 20,000 word novel, in its extant form.  That seems a rather drastic reduction.

The publisher explains there was a “slight trimming of the manuscript, removing only those passages that were unanimously agreed to be extraneous or redundant or in any other way unnecessary to the completed work.”   This is, we can all agree, most unfortunate, and a violation of artistic freedom, but then again we all have lives to lead, don’t we?  It must be said, the book flows very nicely in its existing form.

So as we meet Lance Cavendish (who is black, as mentioned, and has an afro in the shape of  a flamingo standing on one foot, and is dressed as one might expect Richard Roundtree or Fred Williamson to be dressed in a film from this era that might well be playing on the same 42nd Street that is the primary setting of this book), we learn that he is a man of many accomplishments; architect, musician, social activist, entertainer, and no doubt many more occupations than could be detailed in a four page chapter.

He realizes that he is in need of personal relief, (as any African American male of the period would delicately phrase it), and seeing the Comfort Station before him, he strides purposefully in its direction, only to discover, to his dismay, that there is no entrance for him, upon which he shuffles away disconsolately.

Okay, what the hell is that about?   A reference to segregated restrooms?   That was in the south, and was an issue largely resolved by the time of this book’s publication, and indeed probably before the (happily temporary) closure of the Bryant Park Comfort Station.

On further contemplation, I am forced once again to resort to the unwelcome and thus far unproven thesis that this is a parody of Arthur Hailey novels.  And I do seem to recall those being rather–white.  Particularly the early ones.  Yes, African Americans were referred to in them, always in complimentary terms, avoiding racial epithets of any kind, and expressing a fond desire that people of all races creeds and colors live together in peace and equality, and high mutual regard.

And I do likewise recall (courtesy of my parents’ nightstand) that at the end of Overload (1979), the virile two-fisted power company executive is about to adjourn to a nearby hotel room with the sexy black female journalist who has spent much of the novel trying to nail him in a less pleasant sense of the term.  So that’s progress.   I guess.

But most of the time, the black characters would get shuffled offstage right after they got on, because the audience for these books was 99.9999999999% white; black people having better things to do with their time than read some muthafuckin honky Englishman’s jiveass 500 page book about white people who never get to the point about anything.   You feel me?

So this could be a roundabout manner of saying Hailey (Arthur, not Alex) would pay lip service to the idea of equal treatment, but marginalize actual black characters after giving them a big build-up, because he and most of his audience were more comfortable that way.  Hence there being no entrance to the Comfort Station for poor suffering Lance, who was merely introduced to add a splash of color to the proceedings.  It is conceivable that even Westlake himself, (were we to posit that he did write this book), would shamefacedly cop to having occasionally done the same thing in his own work.  Well, thankfully we don’t do that kind of thing in our popular entertainments anymore.   (Okay, that was irony, you caught me).

I am now over 5,000 words into a review of a ~20,000 word book.  Much as I may revere the legacy of the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham, enough is enough already.   Let me conclude with a passage that I sense contains some coded message for the literary cognoscenti.

To set the scene, Fingers Fogelheimer, smalltime mobster, wrote a novel, pure fiction you understand, about a typical day in the life of your typical organized crime outfit in your typical great Metropolis that sounds a lot like New York, and his old cronies are a feeling a teensy bit sore about it.  To dispel this ill-feeling that has come between them, they’d like to ‘bump him off’, as I believe is the technical term, before he can get said book to the publisher that eagerly awaits it with ink-stained fingers, expecting it to be a mammoth best-seller, more on the basis of its tell-all nature than its actual quality as a book.

He is hiding out at the Comfort Station (along with three other fugitive characters, plus the distracted melancholy Arbogast Smith, plus Mo Mowgli, who is wondering why these people don’t finish their business and move on), when in come three intimidating gentlemen, who (our readerly expectations thwarted once more!) are not his erstwhile colleagues.  They are, in fact, his prospective colleagues, and none too pleased about it.

The stocky one is named ‘Norman’, carries a Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special, and is requesting (without apparent irony) a copy of A Farewell To Arms.  Another, tall, elegant, and epicurean, answers to ‘Gore’, carries a pearl-handled pistol, and is asking for Swann’s Way.  The third member of the trio, bald, aristocratic, and known only as ‘V’, carries a Luger, and he wants a translation of Boris Gudonov, but it has to be a recent translation because you see the older ones are not good enough (::rimshot::).

It’s all playing out rather like the restaurant scene from The Killers, which I really don’t think I should have to post a link to, because we all read that in school, right?  Okay, I took some heat here a while back for assuming everybody read O. Henry in school, so fine, here it is, happy now?

These considerably better educated killers, having abandoned all pretense of thinking the Comfort Station is a lending branch of the library, swiftly locate poor Fingers quavering in his stall, and prepare to dispatch him with all due dispatch.  But why?

Within, Fingers Fogelheimer stood cowering against the back wall.  “Don’t!” he cried, clutching the attaché case containing his manuscript to his chest.  “I tried to explain it to the mob, I tried–”

“We are not from the mob, as you phrase it,” the bald-headed one said coldly.

Fingers Fogelheimer blinked.  “You’re not?”

“We are from Literature,” the elegant one said.

The three guns roared.

(*No doubt most of you deduced the identities of these three cold-blooded literary assassins right away, but for those who didn’t, you can find their identities at the bottom of the review, right under the segue.  Hey, this is just like Encyclopedia Brown!   The Case of the Hardboiled Hardcovers.)

The mystery surrounding the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham may never be solved, but this book remains, and is back in print, even if only in electronic form, for which we must thank The Mysterious Press, which you’d think would be better at solving mysteries, but perhaps they know the answers, and just don’t want to share.  The work of Arthur Hailey likewise endures, but in sadly reduced form, most of his formerly vast readership having abandoned him, and in many cases, this mortal coil as well.   He did not hold up to extended scrutiny, but I say without the slightest parodic intent that this book does, and remains a tremendously enjoyable read.

I would have gone to greater pains to compare the vibrant one’s prose with that of Hailey, and in fact there are three very weighty tomes of the latter on my work desk awaiting my critical gaze, and they shall await forever, because I decided life is short, and those books are really really long.

Something else remains, and I trust shall remain for all time, and that is the Bryant Park Comfort Station itself, risen from the ashes (among other substances) like a phoenix from the flame, as perhaps even the far-seeing Donald E. Westlake could not have anticipated when writing this, if he had in fact written it, which remains mere speculation at this juncture.

It was only a few years back that the very facility which was immortalized so vividly in this book was voted The World’s Best Restroom, an honor it well and truly merits (not that I’ve ever been inside that shithole).   The park it serves, once a monument to urban decay, has a 4.5 Star rating on Yelp (look it up)!  And what’s more, being the world-famous Shrine to Hygieia that it is, the Comfort Station now has a full-time attendant, and a security guard posted nearby.   So if you ever get there, please give Mo and Arbogast my fond felicitations.   Officium Eu!

Although we could not answer the question of whether Mr. Westlake collaborated on this book with the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham, next week, we look at one of Mr. Westlake’s very rare accredited collaborations, with one of his favorite poker-playing buddies.   It’s a western.   This bodes not well, consarn it.  But it’s on the list, so what the hell.  Go West, young fans.

(*The three hit-men from Literature were Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Vladimir Nabokov.   Bugs Meany is so ashamed of you now.  Eh, google it.)

(Submitted to Patti Abbott’s blog, Friday’s Forgotten Books–which may be a misnomer in this case, since to forget something, you have to have known it existed in the first place)

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Review: The Crime of Our Lives

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I haven’t really discussed Westlake’s colleague, sometime-collaborator, and close lifelong friend, Lawrence Block very much at all here, and there’s a reason for that.  I haven’t yet read enough of his work to feel comfortable discussing it.  I’ve read several Matthew Scudder novels, some of the Kellers, and three of his standalone books.   I’ve read enough to know that 1)He’s more than interesting, prolific and diverse enough to merit a blog just like this one here and 2)I probably won’t be the one writing it.   Well really, isn’t one blog like this enough for one person?   I’d welcome the flattery of imitation, so anybody who wants to set up a Block Blog devoted to reviewing everything he ever wrote should feel free to launch right into it.  I’d be a regular visitant.

I’m not quite 100% sold on Scudder yet, but I get the allure of the character, and I’ll come back to him.  I rather liked Keller–my personal favorite in that very tiny crime fiction sub-genre of the Hitman as Series Character (I think Max Allan Collins’ Quarry might be the only other contender?)–but lost interest after the second book, at least for now–though let me say, I’d have wholly supported Mr. Block had he chosen to sue the producers of Grosse Pointe Blank for plagiarism.

I am increasingly intrigued by the Evan Tanner series, which sounds bloody fascinating–I have to get some of the books.  I tried to start reading Bernie Rhodenbarr.  He’s a bit too cozy for me.  Like Westlake, Block has a lot of different fanbases, who don’t necessarily have that much to say to each other–they are both large writers, containing multitudes.  I don’t yet feel personally motivated to get to learn each and every nook and cranny (or crook and nanny) of Block’s work, as I have with Westlake.   As Block himself demonstrates in this book,  how one responds to this or that crime fiction author is very personal, and there’s no point getting worked up about it.  It is what it is.

Strangely, given that Block, perhaps more than any other contemporary hardboiled crime fiction author (Westlake included) is known for a variety of series characters, I’ve been most taken with his solo efforts, particularly The Girl With the Long Green Heart, which I consider a small masterpiece, and I hope there’s more like it waiting for me once I can start working my way through his oeuvre in earnest.  You understand, needing to reread several Westlake books a month does take its toll on one’s discretionary reading time.

Like Westlake, he hides behind a variety of masks (some of them female–Westlake never took it that far).  He’s even harder to pin down, in many ways.  But he’s also a great deal more confiding, and, I now discover–gossipy.   The man likes to spill the beans–but he waits until you’re dead before he unloads the really juicy stuff he knows about you.

This book is self-evidently a reaction to and something of a companion piece for The Getaway Car, which I’ve already reviewed, some months back.  Mr. Block was a most impressive and welcome presence at an event touting the publication of that book at The Mysterious Bookshop, down on Warren Street.   Probably The Crime of Our Lives was already in the works back then, or at least it was in his mind to put it out there.

It wouldn’t have taken long to compile, because as Block cheerily admits, there wasn’t that much to compile–it’s mainly just forewards he wrote for various reprint editions of books by writers he admired.  Donald Westlake wrote quite a variety of non-fiction in his life, for an editor like Levi Stahl to pick through–Lawrence Block mainly stayed in the fiction column.  But it’s an equivalently long book, though from a stylistic point of view, not quite so substantial.  Westlake put a lot of interesting spins on his non-fiction–for example, the piece he wrote explaining the origins of the third Dortmunder novel, which is itself a cunning work of meta-fiction–or his interview of his various pseudonymous selves–nothing half so clever here, and nothing so frustratingly evasive either.

Block isn’t playing mind-games with us.   He’s just going to tell us what he thinks, and he’s going to give us the skinny on a lot of very famous names–again, only those who are safely in the grave.   To Lawrence Block “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is a stupid maxim–those are the only people you can’t harm by speaking ill of them.  Not that all or even most of what he has to say about his deceased colleagues is bad, by any means.  It’s mainly complimentary, but some of it is damned near scandalous in nature, and he’s not pulling any punches when that’s the case.  And far as I’m concerned, that’s the best part of the book.   There’s not a lot of material like this out there, and it fills in a lot of blank spaces for those of us who are curious about the people who wrote the books we’re reading.   And I’m guessing anybody reading this blog is at least a bit curious about that.  Inquiring minds want to know.

See, he has this brilliant insight, expressed once or twice in the pages of this volume–mystery/crime writers mainly like each other, enjoy each others company.  And that’s weird.  Because writers typically hate each other.  ‘Serious’ writers, I mean.  Oh, they may hob-nob at fashionable parties, give each other complimentary book jacket blurbs and such, but mainly they just sit around longing for any writer who ever got better critical notices or an award they didn’t get to shut up and die already.

He writes about how Saul Bellow (who I’ve yet to read a word of, shame on me), was furious when some Chicago bookseller (not even a critic!) called John Updike one of the finest writers of his generation in an interview–just one of the greatest, mind you.  Bellow called the poor guy–on the phone!–and said he was never going to speak to him again.  That’s normal.   For  ‘serious’ authors who get front page write-ups in the book review section of the Times.   Literary lions behave much the same way as actual lions, it seems.

But as Block explains, mystery writers are different.  For one thing, they pretty nearly all started out as fans of that genre.  They attend conventions devoted to that genre together.  And really, they have no reason to resent the success of other writers in their field.  Because see, when a mystery writer sells a lot of books, that’s new converts to the Church of Mystery–the reader who loves that book will look around for more, and eventually find yours.  There’s rivalry, sure, but it’s mainly friendly in nature.  Same for Science Fiction.   Same, I’m sure, for westerns, romances, horror, etc.  The larger the genre, the chummier it will be, I’d guess.

In his introduction to an edition of Chester Himes’ Harlem Detective novels, Melvin Van Peebles talks about how Himes could have been a voice of his generation, on a par with anyone in the mainstream–except there was only room for one Great Black American Author at one time, and the spot was always taken.   So at his French publisher’s sage suggestion, he went over to mystery, where there was plenty of room for everybody–more the merrier.

Now, perhaps the shared burden of oppression kept Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin from hating each other’s guts, at least some of the time, but other ‘serious’ writers, though they may have more spots to compete for, have no such bonding point–above a certain level, they are fighting for that Pulitzer, that Nobel, and that most elusive prize of all, Immortality.

Mystery writers just figure people will keep reading their stuff as long as they’re having fun with it.  And that having read one mystery author with pleasure, they’ll go looking for others.   Hammett wasn’t worried about Chandler; Chandler had only good things to say about Hammett (while still subtly suggesting he was better).  The rising tide lifts all boats, whereas there’s no logical reason, as Saul Bellow well knew, for somebody who liked a John Updike novel about that Rabbit guy to think “Hey, I should read some Saul Bellow now!”  Genre fiction is more–collegial.   I think that’s the word.  But even the most sincere collegiality has its limits.

Block’s approach to writing about fellow mystery authors is different than Westlake’s–Westlake was more interested in trends, different waves of mystery/crime fiction, as opposed to saying “This writer I like–this one–eh.”  Westlake occasionally produced a sort of grudging list of favorites, but you can tell he’s rushing through it, not relishing the exercise at all.  Block loves it.

Early in the book, we get a list of his favorite mystery authors (all deceased, so he doesn’t have to explain to living friends why they aren’t on it), and it’s not what anyone would call even-handed.   In the (alphabetical) order they are are dealt with, they are Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Ellery Queen, Jack Ritchie, Rex Stout, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford–a decent list, you’d have to say.  He seems to have Boucher in there mainly out of gratitude for his services to the genre as a whole than for his specific contributions as a writer, but what of it?

His priorities are his own, all the way through–Chester Himes merits only two brief paragraphs, with no real explanation of why he’s even on the list (one reason comes to mind, but maybe it’s too obvious)–polite praise, but still something along the lines of “I liked this a lot when I read it, and haven’t read it since.”   Westlake didn’t go into a lot more detail when he mentioned Himes, but he did say he thought Himes was writing better 1960’s crime novels in the 1950’s than anybody (himself included) was writing in the 60’s, so his brevity is more eloquent by far.

Block and Westlake both love John D. MacDonald–many still do–so far I don’t, and who cares?  But given MacDonald’s huge influence, it makes sense Block goes on at such length about him, even though I think he lays it on a bit thick at points.  I guess maybe I need to try reading something besides Travis McGee, because that guy gets on my nerves something fierce.   Him and his damn houseboat, and his girlfriends who conveniently die so he can move on to the next one (Travis, you could just break up with them, you know).  But still, a uniquely important writer in the genre.   Who somehow gets a longer write-up from Block than Dashiell Hammett.

So does Ross MacDonald–he even gets more ink than Chandler, who he was directly imitating.  Block agrees with Westlake that the later Lew Archers got awfully repetitive, but there’s nothing with the deliciously acidic ring of Westlake’s remark that “He must have terrific carbon paper.”

So Block plays favorites–as do we all.  He also holds grudges (as ditto)–he loves Jim Thompson’s work, and clearly learned from it–The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is a novel about grifters–much like Thompson’s The Grifters (1963), though going in a very different direction with the material–more optimistic and survival-oriented, which I think is a hallmark of both Westlake and Block.   I’d want to reread both grifter books before deciding which was better–seriously, it’s that close–but no doubt Thompson’s book is far more lauded, and got that great film adaptation, and I guess it’s not only the heart that’s green at times.

He seems peeved at Thompson for becoming so posthumously celebrated.   To which I’d respond,  “Mr Block, if the dead are insensible to the bad things people say about them, my guess is they don’t read their good reviews either–nor can they cash royalty checks where they are now–there’s a lot to be said for outliving all your contemporaries in any field of fiction–ask Stan Lee.”

There are like three pieces in the book where he talks about Thompson, spending much more time on his weaknesses than his strengths,  and concludes by saying “Just remember–it ain’t Shakespeare.”  Well no, but for a century or two after his death, neither was Shakespeare, and most of his stuff was likewise cranked out in a hurry to pay the bills, and was certainly not regarded as high art when it first appeared–nothing Thompson wrote was ever half as bad as Troilus and Cressida.  At least Thompson came up with his own stories.  Somewhere, I’m sure, Christopher Marlowe is grumbling that Shakespeare was pretty good, ‘but just remember–it ain’t Sophocles.’

Posterity does as it wills, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.   Thompson is not nearly as overrated now as he was underrated when he was alive, and Block’s resistance to giving that particular devil his full due because the critics went mad about him once he was safely underground seems a bit petty.  It’s not that his criticisms are wrong–Thompson did often write his books too quickly, and not do enough drafts, as Westlake also remarked once or twice.   It is undeniably stupid for him to be treated as the only crime writer who wrote ‘real’ literature.  And Thompson would have heartily agreed with that, so the proper target is the critical establishment–not the author.

Block acknowledges indirectly that the flaws he’s pointing at may be part of Thompson’s appeal now–the rough unpolished feeling of the work.  But he doesn’t develop that enough–his longer piece on Thompson doesn’t come up to the level of Westlake’s now-classic essay on the novels of Peter Rabe–which probably helped revive interest in Rabe, and which Rabe himself was still alive to read.  Rabe’s main reaction to reading it was that Westlake had been so thorough in analyzing his mistakes that when he got around to saying what Rabe had gotten right, he knew it was sincere and well-earned praise.  Westlake is, in short, a better critic.   But it was never the goal of either man to be a critic, so perhaps something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Block likes Raymond Chandler a lot more than Westlake (he likes detectives a lot more than Westlake), which I imagine was an occasional source of discord between them.  Perhaps not as serious as an incident Block vaguely alludes to that involved a woman and them not speaking to each other for two years.  One would like to know more, but it seems that Mr. Westlake is still too alive for Mr. Block to write about in that way–no major revelations.  Would it be too much to hope for that Mr. Block has a volume or two of memoirs in him?

Much of the really good stuff in the book revolves around Scott Meredith.   I don’t want to give too much of it away here.  Read the book.   His essay on Meredith is just revelatory.  I was geeking out over it all the way through.   What an utterly inimitable asshole Scott Meredith was!   No wonder Evan Hunter/Ed McBain was over the moon with delight when he died.   If I’d worked for or with him, I’d probably have been dancing in the streets for a week.  Or at his funeral.  Or on his grave.  He was that awful.

And I nearly did work for him, Lord help me–back in the early 80’s, I unsuccessfully applied for one of those reader positions Block tried out for and got, so that he could read untold numbers of bad stories, then tell the writers of said stories they showed promise–while pretending to actually be Scott Meredith telling them this, and encouraging them to send in money for proper representation and guidance (basically, the only people who became famous writers because of Scott Meredith were the ones working for Scott Meredith–and they learned their lessons by observation and osmosis).  The test for applicants Block describes hadn’t changed at all by the time I got there.  And I never suspected what a scummy job I was trying to get–and nearly did–they called me back once, but somebody else must have better understood what was being asked of the applicant–I wonder how it worked out for him?

The Scott Meredith Literary Agency was, in certain respects, a mail fraud operation on a par with anything ever dreamed up by J.C. Taylor of the Dortmunder novels–and now I know where Westlake learned about that kind of thing.   God bless you for the scuttlebutt, Mr. Block.   Mr. Westlake obviously preferred to keep his reminiscences oblique and fictional, but you spun them into nonfiction gold–and acknowledged that as scurrilous as Meredith could be, he did provide a training ground for one hell of a lot of good writers, yourself included.   But he did it for himself, so no need for gratitude–merely acknowledgement.   There are useful assholes in this world, one must confess it.  Another was Raymond Rohauer, who single-handedly preserved many of the films of Buster Keaton–and then sat on them like Smaug on his golden horde, for decades.   But we have them now.  Thanks to a complete and utter asshole.

Some of the essays I had to put to one side until I’ve read the authors they’re dedicated to.   Edward Anderson, Gar Haywood, Henry Kane–I just don’t have the context.   The field is too large, and time is too short.  And much as he may urge us to read all of Erle Stanley Gardner (even though the books are, as he tells us, all basically the same), I think I’d probably have to be serving a long prison sentence to ever find the hours.  But I know, reading this, that I must somehow find the hours to further explore the work of Lawrence Block.  And I intend to do so while he’s still with us, so that I can send him a fan letter, or perhaps an appreciatory email.  However, I still have maybe two years of steady blogging about Westlake ahead of me.  Maybe I could manage some kind of minor felony conviction?   What kind of internet access do they have in minimum security prisons these days?

A lot of the pieces in this book are about Westlake–and Stark.  Block seems to have most appreciated Westlake’s comic crime novels and his Parker novels (and The Ax, but who doesn’t?).  He doesn’t have too much to say about Westlake’s straight whodunnit mysteries (that being more Mr. Block’s purview).

There is no mention at all of Tucker Coe.   But years before Matthew Scudder, there was Mitch Tobin.  And next in the queue are two of his best mysteries–two of the best mysteries anyone ever wrote.  And two of the strangest.

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Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Final Mystery

From: ‘Fred Fitch’, via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

Thanks so much for your response to my previous missive, and for answering my question about Ambrose Bierce (a hero of mine as a boy, as perhaps he was for you as well).  So that’s what happened to him!  Curiouser and curiouser–like something out of one of his stories.  If I said which one, that would be breaking a confidence, of course.  His secret is safe with me.

I was sorry to hear that your hopes of chasing girls in the afterlife with Robert Benchley were thwarted by his current domestic arrangements, but am nonetheless strangely moved to hear of his rapprochement with Mrs. Parker–a vicious circle closed at last.   Anyway, there’s still Fred Allen, right?

So.  In my last letter, I covered the two epistolary novels written by your friends Dresner & Block.  I did not, as you noted, say anything at all about your own book–I have a much-noted tendency to beat around the bush (that’s what she said).

Dresner’s The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (1959), demonstrated to you and Mr. Block that your time spent writing sleaze paperbacks could be turned to good use.   Mr. Dresner had used his experience to pen a comedic romp of misunderstanding and identity confusion, that ended with the hero re-committing to his profession, and vowing to seek a more personally fulfilling way to practice it.

Mr. Block, who had never been the least bit embarrassed by his own dirty books (maybe the quality of the prose, nothing else), merely sought to write better and dirtier ones, hoping he could somehow revive the sleaze form without its publisher-imposed limitations–and he failed in his attempt, but Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (1970) remains highly entertaining, not to mention arousing.  There, the protagonist has never written any kind of porn, but having lived out sexual fantasies with libidinous teenagers and repressed secretaries that even the randy heroes of sleaze would envy, he’s going to just write about his experiences as if they were fiction (neat turnaround).

Both of these novels are available now as ebooks.  But your Adios, Scheherezade (1968), while it appeared in a variety of editions, in a number of languages, has long been out of print, and has not been digitally re-issued.  And I am moved to wonder why that is, given the ongoing rebirth of interest in your work.   Many far more obscure and less distinguished works of yours are currently available electronically.  I must ask–did you want this book to be reprinted?   Is there some reason your estate has not found a publisher for it?  While used editions are not impossible to find, they do tend to be pricey.

I don’t really know how you felt about it, but I can tell you that I consider it to be one of the best things you ever wrote.  And one of the most painful.   Lawrence Block thought highly enough of it to single it out in a short-list of his favorite books of yours, after your death.  It has a level of gut-wrenching honesty that is rare for any author, let alone one who mainly writes genre fiction.

Oh to be sure, there are many brutally honest writers in the crime genre (paradoxically enough), but the venue does demand a certain measure of glamor, seamy and gin-soaked though it be–even Jim Thompson had to make his most deplorable anti-heroes tough and sexy.  There’s always an element of fantasy in that form, which is why you didn’t employ it here, in this story about a man who specializes in fantasies of a different kind.   Over-specializes, as it turns out.

This one reminds me in many ways of Memory, the much longer third-person novel you put aside in a drawer and never made any later attempt to publish–I personally believe that’s because you were ashamed of the way you didn’t give Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist, a chance to make choices that might get him out of his predicament.   Even though that’s the point of the book, that his lack of memory has doomed him.  I still think it seemed to you that you’d treated him unfairly.   And that mattered to you, didn’t it?

Adios Scheherazade is a more focused work than Memory, from a writer with a few more years experience–it’s more personal as well, because while both are about roads you yourself might have gone down if things had been different, this is a road that runs parallel to the one you took.  It’s a book about a man who is–and isn’t–a writer.

I feel somehow certain that you must remember the events of this book more clearly than many others you wrote, but for the benefit of those who haven’t read it in a while, or at all (I’d advise the latter to read the book first), I shall assay a synopsis.  In one sense, Adios, Scheherazade has a very simple, easily summarized story–in another, it’s almost a summary of everything you ever wrote, a touchstone for your work as a whole.   It marks the beginning of your true maturity.   And nothing hurts as much as maturity.

Edwin George Topliss (har-de-har-har) is a graduate (with what he considers a useless degree in American Literature) of Monequois College–in this instance, very clearly and directly based on Champlain College in Plattsburgh NY, which as Ed informs us, is now a defunct school that got turned into a military base–just as Champlain College did, after Donald Edwin Westlake attended it.

You said in an interview that you based Mr. Topliss on one of those guys who was writing sleaze under the pen name of a writer who’d moved on, but his first name is your middle name, you gave him your precise educational background. Seems safe to assume you gave him other things of yours.  And what’s more, you knew people who read the book would be assuming just that, drawing parallels between you and Ed, correct or not.   That’s a very deliberate choice on your part.  You even gave him a Smith Corona typewriter, and for you nothing could be more personal than that.

Now in a sense, this is an epistolary novel, but it is not mainly composed of letters, until the very end.  Each chapter is Ed’s attempt to write a sleaze novel that he has to submit to the literary agency he works for–a novel that will be published under the name ‘Dirk Smuff’ (seriously?), the former nom de plume of his former college roommate, the now successful author, Rod Cox, who doesn’t want to write sleaze books anymore (and, when he offered the lucrative opportunity to Ed, warned him “Nobody writes this shit forever”).

The manuscript is due in ten days.  Ed’s already missed two deadlines in the past, and has been put on notice that he better not miss another one, or he’s out.  The literary agent in question (‘Lance Pangle’, heh, good one) is not sympathetic to his personal difficulties–of course he isn’t.   He’s based on Scott Meredith, whose famous (and infamous) literary agency was the one commissioning these dubious books for equally dubious publishers–those who have read Lawrence Block’s just-released collection of non-fiction pieces The Crime of Our Lives (which I’m reviewing next week), will learn that Scott Meredith would literally not cut his own brother a break.

Rod Cox would, of course, be the successful Donald E. Westlake, farming out his porn name to a college buddy with a wife and kid, and a dead end low-paying job at a beer distributor–except you muddy the waters still further.  Because Rod Cox isn’t you.  He’s Richard Stark.  Yeah, I figured that out.   You weren’t trying to hide it, really.   It’s there for the people who pay attention.

See, Rod Cox doesn’t write hardcover mysteries for a major respectable publisher like Random House.  He writes paperback spy novels for an outfit called Silver Stripe (as opposed to Gold Medal, where you’d just started publishing the Parker novels).   He’s getting them published all over the world, in various languages–Ed even mentions them getting published as Gallimard Serie Noires, with those striking black covers.   He’s pretty hot stuff.

Rod’s got a sexy girlfriend named Sabina Del Lex (basically all the names in this book are porn names), with milky white thighs Ed can’t take his eyes off when they come to see him and his wife Betsy at their home out in the sticks.  Ed fantasizes about Sabina coming on to him, which of course she never does.  Ed is seething with envy towards his old friend Rod, who always knew he wanted to be a writer in college, but Ed never took him seriously.

Now wasn’t this the beginning of the time period in which you later sourly remarked that Richard Stark was outselling Donald Westlake?   So you’re playing one hell of a double game here–you’ve placed yourself in the position of a loser who is writing books under the assumed name of an established writer, and the established writer isn’t even you–he’s a poorly disguised version of this Stark guy whose books you’re writing at the same time you’re writing this book–you’re his Edwin Topliss.

And a lot of people, then as now, prefer Stark’s books to the books you’re writing under your own name–Ed even mentions the 20 grand Rod got for selling one of his books to Hollywood–a pointed reference to Point Blank, which Ed and Betsy go to see later in the novel, though that isn’t based on one of Rod’s books. This is very inside baseball, even for you–how many people are there who are going to pick up on all these in-jokes?   If jokes they are.

So by making Ed envy Rod Cox, a character you never flesh out much, you’re hinting that you envy and sometimes even dislike your own alter-ego, Mr. Stark.  Who isn’t really you–just another mask, like Alan Marshall, only better paid and somewhat more respectable.   But then who are you, Mr. Westlake?   Who is Ed Topliss?   Where are you going with this?

Couldn’t be this is another of your beloved identity puzzles, could it?   My paperback reprint says this is ‘The World’s Dirtiest Book’, but it seems like the dirtiest secrets revealed here are not mainly erotic in nature.  I’m guessing we aren’t going to get any naked horny Catholic school girls here.  Quelle dommage.

So anyway, Ed has to write this book in ten days.   He’s done it before–it’s possible.   The plot formulas are well-established, the characters need not be deep (it’s better they not be, really).   He’s expected to submit a book of ten chapters, each running 5,000 words.   He just has to start working, and the book will write itself.  Unfortunately, the book turns out to have a mind of its own.

Ed keeps veering off on tangents, all of them in some way related to his life, his relationships, his regrets, his secret sorrows.  He’ll start typing a nice piece of smut, and then the characters start talking back to him.   They aren’t content to just rip off each others clothes and go at it, like good little genre stereotypes.   So he finishes 5,000 words, but almost none of it is usable, and he puts the chapter aside, and starts over again.   He’s got six Chapter 1’s, before he manages a Chapter 2, and then he does two more 2’s before he gets to 3.   Come to think of it, this would be a challenging work to translate into ebook form.  Those things always have a clickable index menu, don’t they?

Now Ed is, self-evidently, an unreliable narrator–he’s a stranger to himself, and he’s trying to write fiction, so true and false are seamlessly blended together in his typewritten stream-of-consciousness narrative, and you never know when he’s being straight with you, or himself.  Man doesn’t know his own mind, let alone heart, but in the process of writing (and he is writing, and writing well, whether he thinks so or not), he is starting to come to terms with himself, and with the wreck he’s made of his life.  He’s learning how to tell the truth, in prose form–which is, as always, stranger than fiction.

But nothing he’s writing about his life could be the basis of a good living.  He can’t support a family live-blogging his own existence, decades before anybody knows what that means.   Like most people asking “how can I be a writer?” Ed is really asking “how can I be a writer and still eat?”  Ay, there’s the rub.

You remember how you (oh sorry, that was Rod Cox) had that police detective Parker confronts at his house in The Seventh lament inwardly that he doesn’t dare try to draw down on Parker, because his wife and daughter are nearby.  He thinks to himself that a cop with a family has given hostages to fortune–well, in a less dramatic way, so has an aspiring writer.  If you have a family to look after, you can’t just live on cheap food, share an apartment with a few other guys, and work on establishing yourself as a writer, figuring out how to best express what’s inside of you.  You have to pay the damn bills.  So you have to write what you can sell.  Whatever that happens to be.  Like, I dunno, maybe crime fiction.

Ed married Betsy Blake, a local girl attending Monequois College while he was there, who he got set up on a date with.  She was pretty enough, and after a bit of early resistance, a willing sex partner–he took her virginity, they burned up the sheets for months, and he was nuts about her–until he wasn’t.  And they parted ways after graduation, and he was relieved, and he thought maybe she was too–then she phoned him to say she was pregnant.

And he did the right thing.   Which he’s convinced now was the wrong thing.  Except he does love her, and their three year old daughter Elfreda (Fred for short–hmm).  Except he doesn’t.  Except he does.  Well, what is love?  How do you ever know if it’s real, if you don’t even know who you are?

Betsy has been increasingly angry and frustrated with the life they’re now leading in New York City, where she takes care of the kid and shops, while her husband hammers away each day on the typewriter and sulks whenever he takes a break–making a very nice living for the time, but they somehow keep finding a way to spend it all, so no savings to fall back on.

And it’s pretty clear most of Betsy’s anger comes from knowing that Ed didn’t really want her, that he just married her because he had to, and she married him for the same reason.  Ed realizes as he goes on that her future was blighted as much as his by their shared misfortune, which happens to be a little girl they both care about.   But early on, he’s still feeling like she trapped him, and that she’s so much less than he was hoping for in a mate.  Even her name bugs him.

Betsy.  Is that a great name?  Betsy Blake.  She sounds like something out of Archie Comics.  The Blake part she couldn’t help, of course, and Blake by itself isn’t a horrible name, but Betsy?  Of the six thousand different things that Elizabeths are called, Betsy is the absolute worst.

You know, that’s true.  Two out of five girls are named Elizabeth, and they all wind up with one of the Elizabeth nicknames, and it tells you an awful lot about the individual girl which one of those nicknames she gets for a label.  Like Liz is almost always a real whory swinger, a gutsy good-time girl, unless she’s very bony and has the clap, in which case she’s Lizzie.  Bess is respectable but she puts out but she feels guilty about it.  Beth saves herself for one man and works in the library and is very square but also reliable and intelligent and a rock in an emergency.  Bett is bitchy and expensive, but also a great lady.  Elsa is a ski-weekend swinger, but when she gives her word she keeps it.  Eliza hasn’t been seen since the ice floe broke up, but before that she was a whiner.  Elsie is lower class, cheerful, big-mouthed, big smile, she doesn’t get laid much because nobody wants to take advantage of her.  Ella has a lot of female complaints and can’t hold her booze and is very quiet and if things go right she’ll mother you.  Lisa has the self-image of a D.H. Lawrence heroine and likes horses and night clubs.  Betty is an all-American girl and gets married and has two point four children and lives in one of those crappy suburban developments like where I am right now and it’s her kitchen where the kaffeeklatsch is held and she collects for muscular dystrophy.  Betsy is a moron.

(What freaked me out most when I first read this passage is that there was at that time an Elizabeth at the library I work at, and everybody called her Beth.  As to the rest, I couldn’t say.  You were making all that up, right?  Right?)

So of course Ed feels very guilty about that and the other nasty things he says about his wife, and he knows it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and it’s precisely what he meant to say, and rather well-written, but that doesn’t make it right.  He starts trying to be nicer to Betsy, and they start making love again, and the marriage seems to be getting on a firmer footing, and then he finally gets to Chapter 2.   And hey–it’s starting to feel like a real book.

See, there’s this guy named Paul Trepless, he’s coming home from work, and he’s married to this wonderful girl named Beth, and they have a daughter named Edwina, and the marriage has been a bit rocky for a while, but it’s been going so much better of late, and he’s happy with her, but just like any man might, he kept a secret diary of his sexual fantasies, none of which were true–he was totally faithful to Beth.  And he gets home, and Beth and Edwina are gone, and he realizes–Beth read the diary!   She’s left a note saying that if he tries to come after her, her brothers will kill him.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, if I may be so bold as to inquire, what was it with you and the name Paul?   Your two most personal-feeling early books, Killy and Memory, both feature protagonists by that name.  You later gave one of your sons that name.  It obviously meant something to you.  Did you, like Oliver Abbott in Up Your Banners, hate the name you’d been given, and have a secret name for yourself?  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that so far you’ve only answered my question about Ambrose Bierce, and I can’t even tell anybody what you said).

So yeah, Betsy read the discarded chapters, which Ed had left in his desk drawer.  Which included a totally fictitious account of how Ed was having sex with their teenaged babysitter, who just barely knows Ed is alive.  And now Ed is alone, and still trying to finish the damn sleaze book, seeing if he can turn his real-life tragedy into a book, because he doesn’t know what else to do.   She really does have two brothers who are very tough customers–they combine a Christmas Tree business with a smuggling operation, and they do come after Ed with the pretty clear intention of putting him in the hospital if not the morgue, and Ed’s life is suddenly a lot more like a Rod Cox novel than a Dirk Smuff.

And this won’t do, because he’s still got a sex book to finish.  So he goes and does some research in Times Square–picks up a black hooker.  And what follows is the most unsexy sex scene in the history of the sleaze genre.   He knows this woman despises him, and she won’t even take off her bra when he asks her, and when he tries to draw out the act, she just exercises certain pelvic muscles and finishes him off.   And then brushes him off.  And while he’s angry at her about this, and thinks about writing a version of the encounter where he gives her an orgasm, his main reaction is to loathe himself even more–and not just himself.   His entire race.  His entire gender.   His entire civilization.  And the New York Times.

He tells us he was reading the Times book review, that most prestigious place for a writer to get written about, trying to figure out what makes you an author, and not just a cheap hack, and what he noticed was that really, nobody seems to know.  He just knows that the books he writes are not in there.  Then he notices something else.

But I’ve saved the best for last.  Way in the back of the Book Review, page 76, there’s a review of a book of photographs of Africa called African Image.  Some of the photographs are shown, and do you know what is the main central photograph taking up almost one-third of the whole page?  A bunch of female spades with their tits hanging out.  Right.  In the Book Review of the New York Sunday Times, November 26th, 1967.  Not 1867, and not the National Geographic.

So I guess I am in there after all.  No matter what the hard news up front, no matter what the self-image we’re all pushing this week, back in the back of the Book Review there am I.  All the grubby old attitudes are still alive, all the sneaky little scatological sniggering nastinesses, all the little-boy-pulling-his-wee-wee dirtiness is still inside your head and mine and the head of the New York Times, and it always will be.  Because if those had been white women they would not have run the picture.

Now I know why that hooker wouldn’t take off her bra.

Why do I say that’s me back there, weeping and sniggering on those dusky boobs?  Because it is out of the adolescent garbage in men’s heads that I have made my living for almost three years.  The adolescent garbage in my head feeding the adolescent garbage in their heads, a real meeting of minds, a real communion, so when you come right down to it what I have been doing is closer to the definition of art than anybody in that jazz section will ever get in his whole life.

Phooey.  That’s garbage, too.  I have never risen above the material any more than my readers have, and if you can’t rise above the material you ain’t an artist.  And it’s tough to rise above quicksand.

(You mention in this book all the little tricks writers of cheap paperbacks have to fill up pages–us bloggers have similar tricks, often involving long quotations from books we didn’t write.)

So anyway.  Ouch.  Direct hit.  Well played, sir.  And now let me say something you may or may not want to hear–there have been a number of semi-obscene books about men’s sexual problems that were huge sellers–I’ve got images of two of the  most famous up above, and I know you read both–Portnoy’s Complaint came a few years after you wrote this, and see how the publisher reprinting your book in paperback tried to make the cover look similar?   Yeah, that didn’t work.  You know why?

Because Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy are not Everyman.  They are very specific men, with very specific problems, and very specific pains, and very specific sins, and we can read those books, and maybe get some vicarious enjoyment out of them, and still say “Well, that’s nothing like me.”   And we don’t get that escape valve with this book.   It hits its target dead square on center, and that target is the reader.

Personally, I didn’t care much for either of those books, if you want to know.  I suspect I’m never going to get all the way through Lolita, which I find to be a meandering melange of mendacity, and screw what the critics and lit professors think.  Portnoy’s is intermittently moving and honest, but it’s basically just one successful promiscuous Jewish boy complaining to his shrink about how successful, promiscuous and Jewish he is.   I can’t relate on any front, sadly.  Few of us guys can manage more than two.  So we can admire him, feel sorry for him, be entertained by him, and not be terribly upset by him (particularly since the whole thing ends with a classic punchline).  And as for the other half of the world’s readers, wouldn’t you know, even the misogyny in Roth’s work (and in Roth himself) can turn some women on.  He’s no Everyman.

But, you see, Edwin Topliss is Everyman, as odd as his personal situation may be.  He’s speaking for all of us.  And he’s speaking very well, but in such a way as to offend and turn-off nearly everybody.   My girlfriend, who loves your Parker novels, put this book down a few chapters in, and wouldn’t go on.   And I’d say why I thought that was, but she reads this blog sometimes, and regardless of what Mr. Topliss thinks, there are valid life lessons one can learn from American literature.

(Mr. Westlake, perhaps you’ll know what I’m talking about when I tell you I can hear some of my readers muttering to themselves, “Oh dear, Fred’s in one of his moods.”  Hey, I don’t charge you guys to read this palaver.  Not even 35 cents.  I’ll get back to Dortmunder & Co. soon enough.  Humor me, willya?)

Anyway, even after all of this self-revelatory insight, and after being chased out of his own house, and then out of the apartment of a (surprisingly) intimidated Rod Cox by his two semi-homicidal in-laws, Ed is still trying to finish the damn sleaze book!   He’s sneaking into stores that sell typewriters and hammering out more pages, and then leaving when some salesperson asks if he want to buy anything.  We don’t even get an explanation of how this confused narrative has been conveyed to us, no framing device, ala Lolita–Ed tells us his earlier chapters are lost, yet we can still read them.   But that’s quibbling, isn’t it?

Betsy, who completely disappears from the story, though not Ed’s confused consciousness, after she walks out with Elfreda, told the police he’d committed statutory rape with their babysitter, which he didn’t, and the babysitter said so, but her father had her medically examined (ew!) and turned out she wasn’t a virgin (teenagers had sex back then? who knew?), so they don’t believe her.  So the cops are after Ed as well.   Not merely his writing career, such as it was, but Life As He Knew It, is over.

And I must say, he seems mainly relieved.   Sad, chastened, still deeply ashamed of having failed  to understand Betsy’s pain because he was so focused on his own, but still–relieved.  And somehow empowered, odd as that sounds.   As he starts to bid farewell to everything, we realize–he’s lost the whole world, and gained his immortal soul.

He’s trying to write a chapter about this guy named Brock Stewart, who Beth Trepless (Paul’s estranged wife, remember?  Of course you do) picks up as she’s escaping, and there’s supposed to be a sex scene between them, but he can’t bring himself to write it.  So Brock gets off at a crossroads where there’s a small diner, empty but for a pretty young waitress.  Per the ‘La Ronde’ form of the sleaze novel that Ed told us about earlier, Brock is now supposed to seduce this girl, or she him, so the mating square dance can continue and instead we get this–

“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “you have to do, don’t you?  You can’t just give up, can you?”

“Sure you can,” she said.

“Well, I’m not going to,” he said.  “Who would I be if I gave up?”

“You mean, where would you be?”

“No, I don’t.  I mean who would I be?  Whom would I be?”

“You’d be you,” she said.

“I can feel the ground crumbling away beneath me,” he said.  “I’m terrified.”

She said, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen to you?”

“Everything stops,” he said.

“You mean, you die?”

“No,” he said.  “I mean I don’t get the book done, and Betsy doesn’t come back, and I don’t live in that house any more, and all of the things that I have been and roles that I have played and personas that I have assumed will come to a stop.”

“And what is left,” she said, “‘will be you.”

You won’t believe this but a third-generation (!!!) TV writer named Joss Whedon who did this show about a teenaged vampire slayer wrote basically that same exchange for her and a vampire she was fighting, thirty years after you wrote this, and people were over the moon about it, and comparing him to Shakespeare on the internet.   He’s making untold millions now doing comic book superhero movies.  And in a few more decades, nobody will remember him.  Such is fame, for a writer.   Many called, few chosen.  Or chosen, then forgotten.  You knew all about that.

Nobody will remember Edwin Topliss.  The book he’s the hero of (and he is that, strange though it seems to say so), may never get republished, though I hope it will, someday.  And yet, I consider this a hopeful ending, by the standards you upheld in life, because he threw away all the masks and pretensions, took a good hard look at himself, and decided he preferred his real face, homely though it might be.

And you went on writing popular books (never too popular, but durable as all hell), and rising above the material, and trying to find yourself in it.   As some of us are still trying to find you in it, but you could have left us a few more clues, Mr. Westlake.

And I passed my self-imposed limit of 5,000 words–I guess maybe all formulas have their limits.  Still, I’d best bring this epistolary review to a close.  Au revoir, connard.  Give my regards to Ambrose, and tell him I said these things will happen.  Oh, and April Fool’s.  Like that needed mentioning.

‘Fred’

PS: I bet you thought nobody would ever check, but I did.  And there it is, dusky boobs and all.  Page 76 of the New York Sunday Times Book Review, November 26th, 1967.  African Image, Grosset & Dunlap, $12.95.  Photos by Sam Haskins.  The review is fittingly entitled A Feeling for Africa.

::snigger::

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Adios Scheherazade–Chapter 1

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Great Beyond

From: ‘Fred Fitch’ via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

I hope I am not interrupting any conversations/drinking sessions/amatory exploits you might currently be engaging in with O. Henry, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Benchley, or Ambrose Bierce (parenthetically, did you find out what happened to him in Mexico? Given the circumstances of your passing, you had a perfect excuse to raise the subject).  But I have a problem I hope you can help me with.

As you might have gathered, I publish something called ‘The Westlake Review’ (I had to call it something), under a pseudonym derived from a book of yours–the objective is to review everything you ever wrote.  Yes, I know, but it passes the time.  This is an internet thing, in case you were wondering.  Our correspondence shall be shared with other people.  Not a whole lot of other people at present (though it might please you to know you still have readers all over the planet), but I wanted to make that clear.

I am about to embark on a review of your novel Adios, Scheherazade, in which I also intend to discuss The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books and Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, written respectively by your longtime friends and colleagues, Hal Dresner and Lawrence Block.  Mr. Block I know is still among the living–Mr. Dresner seems to have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least the internet), but has no NY Times obit, so I guess he’s still with us as well.  I could probably contact Mr. Block via email, but somehow one hates to take up people’s finite personal time.  You, by contrast, have all of eternity on your hands, and it never hurts to ask, right?

Since the more elevated plane you now inhabit (I’m assuming you’re not in Purgatory, though us lapsed Catholic boys should probably never assume anything) may have blurred certain details of your mortal existence, let me refresh your memory.  To put it bluntly, you wrote a quite a lot of books that could be described as pornography, though few people nowadays would consider them to be that.

The ‘sleaze’ genre, as it is now called in collector’s circles (yes, people collect them, and they’re usually a lot more expensive than your other books, sorry to tell you), was basically a bunch of aspiring writers–many of whom went on to greatness, you not least among them–who to pay their bills wrote a lot of quickie novels featuring a lot of sexy goings-on, that were nonetheless not explicit enough to warrant being confiscated by the law.

In Prohibition terms, they were ‘near-porn’, like the near-beer that often is sold where real booze is illegal.  They could be displayed in public places of business–newstands, drugstores, and all the usual places cheap paperbacks were sold.   They had racy covers, suggestive titles, and sold for maybe 35 cents or so.

They were probably not as obscene as Henry Miller or James Joyce; no more so than best-selling potboilers of the period–the sex acts were described euphemistically, and young people hoping to learn valuable techniques from them were invariably disappointed.  But what made this a viable publishing niche was that the books were short, and there was sex all through them–you didn’t have to keep turning pages to find the good parts.   Sex was basically the entire point of the endeavor, not merely a side-attraction.

While many if not most were badly written, because so many of the authors employed had genuine talent, and were basically using this as a venue to hone their craft while they sought more legitimate outlets, you could often find some decent quality prose in them.   Certainly none of them were as bad as E.L. James.  Oh wait, you don’t know who that is, do you?  That does sound like heaven.

You got into this racket via the famed Scott Meredith literary agency, and it’s never been terribly clear how many of these things you wrote.   You employed several pseudonyms, most notably Alan Marshall.  But as opposed to your other non-porn pseudonyms, there’s always been some controversy as to which of the books published under these names were actually written by you.  Some we’re sure about, others are more ambiguous.   Apparently your first wife wrote some of them.  That must have been an interesting conversation.

And as the years passed, you never seemed much inclined to help anyone figure out who wrote what.   You seemed to mainly want to forget the whole tawdry episode ever happened.  This gentleman here, who worked for Scott Meredith at the time, doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t proudly embrace your pseudo-pornographic past.  He’s rather indignant about it, in fact.  But once you’d reached the point where you could make a good living without the sleaze books, you stopped writing them, and were never terribly eager to discuss them–except, indirectly, in the book I’m reviewing here.

Probably the turning point was reached when you started publishing the Parker novels at Pocket Books–a few of those a year, combined with your book-a-year contract with Random House, combined with short stories, articles, and sales to Hollywood–by that point you had more than enough income to turn your back on the flesh pits forever.  Parker got you out of it.

However, like many others in this field, you seem to have briefly farmed out your porn names–letting other people write the books in your place, then taking a commission.  This didn’t last very long, and neither did the sleaze market itself, which dried up and disappeared as the 60’s ended.  A transitional stopgap, that was no longer relevant in an era where those who wanted porn could find the real stuff with increasing ease.  Also, I suspect the male libido prefers images to words.

And these days we have internet fanfiction–people writing stories and indeed entire novels, featuring famous fictional characters, often performing acts that would scandalize the relatively demure characters in your books, and the people writing these things aren’t even getting paid (except for E.L. James, but she had to change the names first).  So to sum up, sleaze is eternal, but the sleaze paperback book market is dead (perhaps someday to be followed by paperback books themselves).

While it lasted, there was a lot of money in it, though, and some pretty classy writers taking their turns at the trough.   You, Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain (as he came to be called), Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jim Thompson–the list goes on and on and on.  Charles Willeford seems to have written sleaze under his own name, which was typically atypical for him.  It’s more a question of which prominent genre writers did not write sleaze.  I don’t think Patricia Highsmith ever did, which is a mite ironic, no?  It was a big big thing, and now it’s gone.  And you didn’t miss it one tiny bit, did you, Mr. Westlake?

I think Hal Dresner agreed with you about that.   He was one of your group, your poker-playing porn-writing practical joke playing gang of aspiring wordsmiths who bonded in the 50’s.   And earlier than many of you, he seems to have decided he had to escape the sleaze market.  He went into writing for film and television, and had a pretty decent career–few of us haven’t seen something of his, at some point.  But I get the feeling from his one novel of any repute–the one I’m going to look at briefly now–that he once aspired to be a ‘serious writer’.  Whatever that is.

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The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (aka This is a Plain Brown Wrapper) is a very funny novel, written in epistolary form–the entire text is letters and memos going back and forth between a writer of sleaze paperbacks named Mason Clark Greer (aka Guy LaDouche), his publisher, his lawyer friend Michael Westlake (we’ll come back to him), Mason’s mother (Jewish, of course), various other male and female acquaintances, and (most importantly) Lt. Commander E.B. Dibbs, a demented former naval officer, who wants to sue and possibly horsewhip Mason for (as he thinks) defaming his daughter Barbara’s morals under a slightly altered name in a recent book, and also for referring to her parents in a less than respectful manner.

Although he had a character with a somewhat similar name in that book, and coincidentally described the real Miss Dibbs with a fair degree of accuracy in his book (including a birthmark in an embarrassing location), Mason has never met the daughter in question–though many other lascivious scoundrels have, judging by the way her father keeps coming up with new boyfriends of hers to accuse him of being.   Dibbs finally settles on referring to Mason as Karl Vechtenmeisser, a former Nazi officer from Austria, who is related to the Habsburgs (or so Dibbs insists), and had a brief liaison with Barbara.

Mason, who is holed up in a cabin in Vermont, trying desperately to finish his next dirty book, assumes this is just a prank his friends are pulling on him, but as he starts to get letters from the law firm of Berry, Lock & Gru, it sinks in that he really is being sued for defaming people whose existence he was totally unaware of at the time.   Mason tells Dibbs his real name, and (rather imprudently) gives him his selective service registration info, which only incites the Lt. Commander to try and have him investigated for impersonating an American citizen.

(As the story goes on, it is revealed that the United States Navy had its own problems with Lt. Commander Dibbs during WWII, and had to find ways to distract him from the war, so he wouldn’t lose it for them.)

The lawyers Dibbs has hired are quite willing to believe Mason is Vechtenmeisser, as long as they see a good cash settlement in the offing, and likewise keep referring to him by that name.  Mason, suffering from cabin fever in a nasty Vermont winter, with no companionship other than a Weimaraner named Bastard, starts playing along with the gag, and referring to himself by that name as well.   He starts vindictively sending heavy boxes full of rocks to the law firm–C.O.D.   They inquire how he wants the rocks to be stored.   His missives to his friends become increasingly odd and off-kilter (and funny, but his friends mainly don’t seem to get the joke, or to understand what’s going on).

And as all this is going on, we learn the true reason for Mason’s mental distress–he’s been trying to write a serious novel, and he keeps ripping the pages up and burning them, because they’re terrible.  He’s worried that all he’ll ever be able to do in his life is write dirty books–which it turns out a lot of the people he meets in the course of this story have read.   He’s a very successful near-porn writer.  It’s just not what he wants to be.   It isn’t who he is.

He complains that his imaginary sex life has put an end to his real one–his own romantic resume seems limited to a few brief flings.   He’s been making it all up from Day One, but people keep asking him if this stuff in his books really happened–and they don’t want to hear it when he says it didn’t.   His fiction, bad as it is, has eclipsed his actual life.  Then a frustrated young FBI Agent shows up at the cabin to investigate Dibbs’ accusations, and it starts to get really weird.

Before long he’s sending farcical responses to a questionnaire sent him by a psychiatrist friend of Dibbs who specializes in delusions, and seems to be pretty deluded in his own right.   And no matter how crazy any of his responses to various communiques are, people insist on taking them all seriously.   And on believing he’s an Austrian Nazi jet setter who seduces gullible maidens in his spare time.   His life has become one of these bad novels he’s been writing.

The defamation lawsuit actually ends up in front of a judge, with predictably chaotic results.   I’d remind you how it’s all wrapped up, but I don’t want to spoil it for my readers–the novel is available in ebook form–maybe you could get it up there?  I mean, you’re literally in The Cloud, right?   Regardless, I think it would have made a good movie.  Or perhaps a staged theatrical reading, ala Dear Liar.   But maybe a bit dated now.  Very much of its era.  Still a lot of fun to read.

In the end, it’s Mason’s former frat buddy and present-day lawyer, Michael Westlake (I told  you we’d come back to him) who tells Mason that he can’t worry so much about not having lived up to his dreams of greatness.   Good or bad, Mason Clark Greer is a writer, and his letters prove that.   Maybe he can’t write The Great American Novel, but what really matters is to do what  you’re meant to do, and let other people worry if it’s any good or not.   If he doesn’t want to do the porn anymore, he can do something else.

And Mason decides that’s what he’ll do.   He informs his publisher that he won’t be finishing the book he was working on (and never got past the first chapter of), and starts thinking about maybe writing a play–it seems like dialogue is more his forte than descriptive prose.  And yes, this does does seem a trifle autobiographical, but I would assume not very.  You’d know better than me.

And as you already knew, this book is not about pornography, smut, or even sleaze.   It refers to it, uses it as background color, but it’s really about how people are nuts, and how youthful aspirations don’t always work out as you hoped.  Mason does talk about how flabby actual women he meets seem compared to the vixenish viragos he populates his fiction with (and he has no illusions about his own appearance), but you get the feeling he’d take flabby factuality over fulsome fiction any day.   Still and all, this takes up a very small part of the book, which is mainly about his running duel with Dibbs, and his unfulfilled literary ambitions.  And apparently FBI men say ‘fut’ instead of ‘fuck’, because of some directive from J. Edgar Hoover, but that would take too long to explain.

I don’t know how well this book sold (it got more than one edition), but I don’t need you to tell me that you and Mr. Dresner’s other writing buddies liked it a lot, enjoyed all the in-jokes tremendously, and were pleased to learn that their tiresome apprenticeship in the porn pits could actually serve as the raw material for a funny book.

Working for Nightstand Books or one of the other publishing houses that cranked this stuff out, they had to stick very closely to established formulas–but as the form died out, they had a chance to write something reminiscent of sleaze, that was no longer so–constrained.   And another of your friends, Lawrence Block, who had rather enjoyed writing these books, bad though he knew they were, was moved over a decade after Dresner’s book, to write something directly inspired by it–and this book really is porn, I think.   If it isn’t, I’m not sure what porn is, and Judge Stewart did say you know it when you see it.

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It’s hard to know what to say about Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, except how did this guy not get arrested?   I mean the protagonist, but also quite possibly the author.   This is also available as an ebook now, and Block wrote an excellent afterward for that edition, explaining its origins.

By 1970, he was, as you know, a well-established writer of crime novels, like yourself, with most of his best work still ahead of him.  But the fact is, he missed writing about sex.  You and he had collaborated on several sleaze novels, most notably A Girl Called Honey, in which you took turns having protagonists modeled quite clearly after your own lustful selves seduce the titular seductress (an honest hard-working prostitute), and compete over her, and kill each other off, and drive her to madness and drug addiction in the process, and honestly you should both be ashamed of yourselves for what you did to that poor girl.  I suspect you actually were a bit ashamed of it, Mr. Westlake.

Writing in a New York City apartment, while his family were out in the suburbs, Mr. Block found he got a lot more work done, and had time for all kinds of literary escapades, and perhaps other kinds of escapades, I couldn’t say.  He decided to try writing a few sex books, to see if that was something a guy could still make a buck doing–they were mostly written under pseudonyms, like the sleazes, but this one–Ronald Rabbit–was published under his own name, and given the success other writers had been having with this kind of book published in a more mainstream environment–I assume he was thinking of a certain Mr. Portnoy and his various complaints–he briefly thought he might get rich off this one.

But two things prevented that from coming to pass:

1)The publisher chose that moment in time to go under.

2)The book isn’t that good.

I mean, he wrote it in four days–he says so in the afterward.  So I tend to take it with a grain of salt that he really believed he had a huge seller here, but as the publishing scene changed, it was hard to know, really.  I mean, who would have believed E.L. James would become so wealthy from writing  a bad Twilight fanfic?   Okay, I know I’m losing  you here, but trust me–nobody could have possibly predicted that.   You writers just never do know what’s going to hit big, do you?  We the reading public like to keep you guessing.

He didn’t write it to make money–that much is plain–it is, you  might say, a labor of lust.  Primarily lust for girls in their middle teens.  And any heterosexual post-pubescent male who claims not to feel that lust is a goddam liar.   But few men would cop to it as cheerfully as Mr. Block, and while I may disparage this book’s merits, I also read it with a great deal of prurient interest, which was of course the entire point of the endeavor.   It’s not badly written–Block doesn’t do bad writing–it’s just too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  With a thinly-disguised rendition of the author himself at its center.

Laurence Clarke, failed poet and 32 year old editor of a children’s magazine called ‘Ronald Rabbit’s Magazine for Boys and Girls’, is laid off from his job–the reason being that there is no job.   The magazine folded shortly after its previous editor was found to have committed (thankfully) unspecified improprieties with an 11 year old boy (who the man swore he thought was 14), and they hired Laurence (we’ll just call him Larry) as a replacement, before realizing the scandal couldn’t be hushed up.  Because this is a very large publishing business, they forgot to fire him–forgot he was even there–and as a result, he never did any actual work for over a year–just came into the office every day and did nothing but read, collect his paycheck, wait for somebody to give him something to do.

Clay Finch (something of a clay pigeon in this book), the President of Whitestone Publications, only came to realize they were paying Larry for nothing when he noticed Larry had never used his expense account (that would be dishonest, Larry explains to him).  So Larry is fired.  Obviously.  And his ex-wife is demanding her alimony.  And in his letter to her, explaining why no alimony payments are forthcoming (this being yet another epistolary novel), he goes on to say that on returning home, he learned that his current wife had just left him for his best friend, and they’d absconded to Mexico, with every penny he had in the world.  Seemingly oblivious to what a tired narrative cliche they were perpetuating.

Larry goes on to write another letter to his friend Steve (the one who went to Mexico with his wife), describing his current situation in depth–and he relates how he was walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, stone drunk, and singing Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (the one that says you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, remember?), when he hears two youthful female voices singing along with him–and the miracle happens.

See, the youthful female voices are coming from a station wagon full of teenaged girls–six, to be precise.  Escapees from The Convent of the Holy Name, a Catholic Girl’s School in Darien, Connecticut.   Which is quite clearly based on The Convent of the Sacred Heart, situated in Greenwich, Connecticut.

He calls them the Daughters of Lancaster (a sort of riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III).  They dub him “Mad Poet”, and proceed to abduct him to Darien, necking with him in the back all the way there, hide him in a tiny apartment they rent on the sly, and in the ensuing weeks he ends up having highly inventive and unbridled sexual congress with all of them, there and in New York.  Yeah, I didn’t think you’d have forgotten that.

His first conquest is ‘Merry Cat’ (real name Mary Catherine O’Shea, and I can’t help but think her nickname is a winking homage to We Have Always Lived in The Castle–would you know if Mr. Block is a Shirley Jackson fan, perchance?).  Though really, she conquers him–the little black-haired colleen slips into bed with him the next morning, and this is what follows–

“Oh God,” she said.  “Oh, you’re ready.  Oh, how nice.  Don’t wait, don’t even touch me, just get in me.  I want you inside me, I can’t wait.”

She wasn’t exaggerating.  She got off the minute I was inside her, coming in a sweet soft pink dissolve.  She came twice more and then it was my turn, and then we clung to each other while I waited for the earth tremors to quit shaking hell out of the room.

This is one of the tamest erotic passages I could find to quote from in the book.  He gets a lot more specific as things progress.

Five of these girls are sixteen.  The youngest (‘Naughty Nasty Nancy’ Hall) is fifteen, and the wildest of the bunch (she likes being spanked during intercourse).  It really doesn’t matter what the age of consent was then, you know–he’s in his 30’s.  At no time in the 20th century was any of this ever not a felony in the United States.

But all through the book he is fucking them ragged, with their hearty and full voiced consent that would matter not a damn in any court in the land, and they are minors, and their parents are rich, and there are supposed to be nuns watching over them, and they are trading filthy letters back and forth, and nobody ever gets wise, and no policemen ever materialize, and he’s never the tiniest bit worried that they will.   This book makes Lolita look like a documentary.    And no Clare Quilty to spoil the fun, naturally.  Guilt, as a concept, does not exist within the pages of this book.

(Maybe we better pause now to give some of my male readers a chance to download this book to their digital devices.  All done, fellas?)

Now it’s worth mentioning at this point that Lawrence Block had two major inspirations for the story of this book–one was an acquaintance of his who actually did spend many months sitting around an office with nothing to do before they got around to firing him (with a nice severance package, though not as nice as the one fate gives Larry), and the other was a member of your little poker-playing group of writers, who related one night a story about he himself hitching an impromptu ride to Connecticut with a bunch of errant Catholic school girls, only that was presumably as far as it went.  That wasn’t you, by any chance, was it?  Oh like you’d admit it if it was.  I withdraw the question.

And just to remind you, we are learning of these experiences through letters he is writing to his friend Steve, to his former and current estranged wives, and even his former employer–and he’s sneaking into his former place of business to Xerox them and send copies to seemingly everyone he knows, though Mr. Finch keeps remonstrating with him to stop doing that.

And at first, the assumption is that he’s making it all up, which would seem the most likely supposition, except we see that when he writes to the Daughters of Lancaster, at camp and such, they write back to him.   They are real.  There is no ambiguity about that.   The book is fiction, but Larry Clarke is not an unreliable narrator–whatever he tells us happened, happened, as far as his reality is concerned.   He is, if anything, excessively honest and forthcoming.

Then he manages to seduce Rozanne, the personal secretary of Mr. Finch, who has been typing Finch’s letters to Larry.  She is Italian American (why should Irish girls have all the fun?), beautiful, with a truly magnificent bosom, and is of course a repressed 26 year old virgin who needs to be rescued from her fear of sex.   Which Larry does by way of anal intercourse she had not previously given consent to–it’s not exactly rape, because they were doing stuff, and he just had this sudden impulse to go there, and Rozanne is incredibly happy about it afterwards, even though she was screaming bloody murder while it was going on.  And I am not typing that passage out.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, I must again make an inquiry–Mr. Block mentions two specific literary influences on this book–the first being Hal Dresner’s novel I just talked about, but the other is a book I have not read–Wake Up, Stupid, by Mark Harris.  Both are composed of letters written by various people, which add up to a story.  I don’t doubt these are the primary influences, but I also feel like somewhere in Mr. Block’s apartment in New York where he wrote this there must have been a heavily thumbed-through copy of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.  There’s a lovely repressed virginal spinster who needs sexual healing in that one too, you may recall.)

His relationship with Rozanne becomes serious, and they live together, but that does not in the least impair his relationship with the Daughters of Lancaster, because the women in his life are all (who would have guessed it?) bisexual to some extent, and they come over and have sex with him and Rozanne, and everybody is just having this wonderful Bonobo-esque polyamorous experience, with Larry at the center of the scrum, except isn’t Bonobo society matriarchal?  Oh never mind.

Obviously Larry does not have sex with other guys the girls like (remember whose fantasy this is), and there are a few mildly slighting references to genuinely homosexual persons (it turns out Larry’s ex-wife–the one who stole his money and ran off with his friend–is a dyke–the exact word used), but I think you’d have a hard time making the case this book is homophobic.  It’s just very very hetero-centric.

Having had this amazing reversal of fortune through meeting the Daughters of Lancaster on MacDougal St., due to the good graces of Joni Mitchell, Larry Clarke seems to go letter-mad the same way that Mason Clark Greer did–but his madness is not merely a satiric overrreaction to the (much more pleasant) situation he finds himself in, but increasingly a way to manipulate everyone around him.   He eventually realizes that he can make anyone do anything he likes through the power of epistolary suggestion.

By the end of the story everything is going his way.  The wife who left him for his best friend dumps the friend–who ends up marrying the first wife, who Larry cunningly sets him up with, so she’ll stop dunning him for alimony payments.  And Mr. Finch agrees to buy a book he’s writing about his recent sexual exploits–he’ll change the names, though I don’t know why he even bothers.

So this is porn, and I have to say, pretty damn good as porn goes (emphasis intended).  It achieves the desired result, which is sexual stimulation, mingled with laughter (though it’s not nearly as funny as Dresner’s book).  The characters are not fully fleshed out (well, you know what I mean), but they are not mere stick figures either–he goes to some pains to give each Daughter of Lancaster her own personality and interests (and I’d assume he had some real-life models for them).

It’s quite clear that Larry Clarke cares about all the various women in his life, and feels no sexual jealousy when the girls relate their entanglements with boys their own age to him (but of course mere boys can never compete with a grown man who happens to strongly resemble the author).   After all, the teenagers seduced him, and the secretary self-evidently wanted to be seduced by him–matters have been arranged so that he has absolutely nothing to be guilty about.  Because sexual guilt has no place in true pornography.  Neither does reality.   And neither does emotional honesty.  And that’s the trouble with porn, isn’t it?

And that’s why you wrote the book I’m going to review now, isn’t it?  A far better book than either of the two I’ve been talking about.  And a much harder book to read, and review.  Only I’m actually going to review it next week.  Because in an homage to that very book, I’m going to call this Chapter 1, and end it when the little counter-thingy at the bottom of my computer screen says I’ve got exactly 5,000 words.

So until next week, Mr. Westlake, I remain your humble servant,

‘Fred Fitch’

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, erotica, sleaze paperbacks

Mr. Grofield and the Artists

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I just wanted to do an overview of the cover art for the first three Grofield novels published by MacMillan (and others). Because they’re so good? I wish. Grofield had terrible luck with cover art. It seems like they just didn’t know how to visually depict novels about an actor who supports himself through armed robbery, but isn’t working as an actor or a robber in the first three books he’s the protagonist of. In all fairness, I’m not sure I’d know how to depict that either, even if I could draw worth a damn.

The first MacMillan cover, seen above, is a head-scratcher–yes, the book is set in Mexico, and they play guitars there (and everywhere else on earth). And there’s a woman in it, and she does wear a bikini. Grofield is always interested in sex, so pretty women are pretty nearly always on these covers, but as we’ll see, there’s rarely anything terribly specific about the art–you could stick it on a thousand other mystery/suspense books, and it would work just as well–or poorly.

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First American paperback reprint–not bad. This was the first Grofield I ever collected, because I liked the artwork. Grofield looks a bit more somber and square-jawed than I’d imagine him, and you kind of have the feeling that something tragic is going to occur–the redheaded girl dies maybe, and he’s haunted forever by his failure to save her.  Would you know from this cover that the book is a lighthearted romp, nobody important dies, and the girl is a blonde? Nope. Next slide, please.

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Now somebody obviously took some trouble to draw this, and I don’t like to complain, but why didn’t he/she take the trouble to read the book, or at least skim it?  It may not be the artist’s fault–Grofield may have sometimes gotten leftover artwork originally intended for other books.  As one would hope was the case below–

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Okay, seriously–Elly Fitzgerald is described as a blonde over and over in this book!  There are no other female characters of any consequence.   Why is her hair a jumble of black wires, and why does Grofield look like he’d rather be doing his taxes than making out with her?  Does anybody here know how to play this game?  Let’s try the European continent–they appreciate a nice blonde over there–

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I just do not get it.  And this is nice cover art (lovely graphics on the first one, from Portugal), and some of it really seems geared towards the book–the last cover, from Italy, in particular.  And yet over and over–brunettes.   And there are no brunettes in The Damsel.  A mystery that shall remain forever unsolved.  As will the mystery of how, if that’s Grofield on the cover of the Swedish edition (with a brunette, obviously) looking like a black-haired cross between Michael Madsen and Rutger Hauer, anybody would ever want to work with him.  I think Parker would find him too creepy.  On to The Dame.

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American and British first editions, and basically the British artist took his cues from the American cover, without slavishly imitating it.   It says a lot for the Grofield covers that these are two of the better ones, but they still don’t tell you a damn thing about the story or characters, and could easily be repurposed to many other unrelated books.

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The continental European publishers usually did the best job with the Grofield artwork, but of course the artists would often not read English, and might not have been given a translation to read either (this is assuming book cover artists working in the crime genre always carefully studied the books they were illustrating, and I make no such assumption).  So here we have really nice looking artwork, a pleasure to the eye, that seems to have been drawn for entirely different books. 

The German cover in particular is great, but I think the artist just knew that the book was set in Puerto Rico and had guns in it, so here’s a guy shot dead in the jungle–must be in there somewhere, yah? Explains the other one as well–there must be a sexy girl, and since the book is set in Puerto Rican, she’d be Latina, so of course brunette and curvy–now I think on it, this is probably what happened with The Damsel covers making Elly a brunette–the artist just knows where the action of the book takes place, and gears the artwork to that. And this is what comes of artists not reading the books.

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I really can’t decide which of these is worse.

Let’s try The Blackbird–this is the era of blaxploitation movies, so obviously we’re going to see a tough-looking black chick with a gun–

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And here’s the same odd parallel between the completely different illustrations on the American and British first editions–scary black woman holding automatic rifle.  Both have full afros, even though Vivian Kamdela is described as having very close-cut hair.  And as being extremely beautiful, and if you want to know how I’m seeing her at present–

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(Lupita Nyong’o looked absolutely sensational at the Oscars on Sunday.  Not that there’s ever going to be a movie version of The Blackbird, but it’s nice to have her to mentally replace those scowling afro’d women with, isn’t it?)

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Countryman Publishing reprinted all the Grofields, often in more than one edition, and I’m sure Westlake was happy to have the royalty money, but their covers were invariably the worst.  The one on the left is depressingly literal, isn’t it?  A highly schematic black woman, and there’s the silhouette of a bird (black of course), as done by a five year old who flunked art class.   And I really don’t know what the other one is supposed to be–some kind of ice gremlin?  If they couldn’t afford good artwork, why did they keep commissioning new covers for the same book?  I really wish this publisher had just decided to emulate Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint here–

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I know they’re just being cheap, but dammit, that WORKS.

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Okay, neither of these women look at all like the woman in the book, and do I care?  Not when they look this good, I don’t.  Of course, the German edition on the right is using a live model, and somehow one would like to know her name–was she in any movies I could rent?   I’m not going to mention all the various title translations, but this one I find rather amusing as a birder who has been to Germany–in Europe, blackbirds are grouped with the thrush family.   The German word for blackbird is Amsel.   But for whatever reason, they decided to give the German language edition the title Die Singdrossel, which means The Song Thrush–which is an entirely different species of thrush.  That is not black.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The edition on the left is Swedish–obviously.  Because of the nudity–and the (obviously male) artist’s touching assumption that all sexy women, regardless of skin color, have tan lines.  Not that I have any particular problem with tan lines.  Again, there is no attempt being made to illustrate anything specific from the plot–but wait–Italy has yet to be heard from!

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Does this look like a beautiful dark-skinned black woman with short nappy hair?   No.  Does her wearing some kind of poncho in the snow (I guess it could be a blanket) make any sense?  No.  Does this illustrate a scene from the book?  Kind of yeah–where Grofield and Vivian are being buzzed by the plane.   They’re in a snowmobile, and they aren’t using pistols, but I think this one merits an ‘E’ for effort.   If only because Vivian isn’t buck naked in northern Canada in the wintertime.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And the award for the most generic Grofield cover of all time (and quite possibly the most generic book cover of all time) goes to–

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It’s almost masterful in its way.   Try to imagine any novel, short story collection, play, sex manual, that this could not serve as the cover for.   Probably wouldn’t work for a cookbook, but you could just draw a chef’s hat onto one of them.

The most recent reprints were from University of Chicago, and they aren’t too bad.  Or too good.  Or too easily distinguished from each other if you happen to be colorblind and don’t have your reading glasses on.

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The Grofield covers are, with few exceptions, a vast assortment of sour lemons, but ironically enough, the very last book, which references sour lemons in the title, and was from a different publisher, didn’t do too badly in that department.   But I’ll save those for the review, still some time off.

Our next book has had an even greater variety of covers, and frankly most of them aren’t so hot either.   And it doesn’t matter a damn.  Because the rock is hot, and the people seeking it are so damn cool.  And funny as all hell.

(If you enjoyed looking at these highly inappropriate book covers, as I know I did, you can find all of them, and many more besides, at the Official Westlake Blog–this link will direct you to the Richard Stark wing of the cover gallery.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Addendum: 361 Revisited

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“This thing about family,  now, he said.  “It’s an important thing with a lot of people.  All kinds of people.  And I’ll tell you a group of people it’s important to, and that’s the people who make up the mob.  Particularly in New York.  You don’t think so?  Hard cold people, you think.  No.  There wasn’t a two-bit gun carrier on the liquor payroll didn’t take his first couple grand and buy his old lady a house.  Brick.  It had to be brick, don’t ask me why.  It’s in the races, national backgrounds, you know what I mean?  Wops at the national level, mikes and kikes at the local level.  Italians and Irish and Jews.  All of them, it’s family family family all the time.  Am I right?”

From 361, by Donald E. Westlake.

I had planned to post my review of Up Your Banners this week, but between rereading the book itself, and researching its background, I fell behind schedule.   And in the process of researching it, I came across an article I wish I had known about when I reviewed 361, last April, because it sheds some light on aspects of what I think is now widely agreed to be Westlake’s best book written under his own name in the first half of the 1960’s, and one of the best crime novels of any era.

It fell along the wayside for a time, I think, because of the notion, still prevalent in some quarters, that Donald E. Westlake wrote comic capers, and his alter-ego Richard Stark wrote hard-boiled heist stories.  It was never that simple, but it was an appealing meme–here’s this guy who writes funny lighthearted criminal romps with sad sack protagonists like Dortmunder, but sometimes he’s this other guy who writes about a cold-blooded killer named Parker.

The implied dichotomy was even turned into a best-selling horror novel by Stephen King, who had named his alter-ego Richard Bachman partly out of homage to Richard Stark, and then borrowed the other half of the name–but it’s hard for me to see how Richard Bachman is any darker or more ‘visceral’ than Stephen King.  He’s just a bit harder to pigeonhole, which I assume was the point.   Westlake is a far better example of a writer doing radically different things under different names, but under his own name he might do almost anything–and he nearly always did it well.

In any event, 361 was hardly ignored when it first came out, even if it was no best-seller.  It was reprinted in many countries, many languages, and inspired some of the most interesting cover art I’ve seen for any book, as well as a variety of new titles (though the original title proved fairly durable).

Mexico and Portugal:

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British hardcover and paperback:

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French Serie Noire and Italian Giallo:

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Japan and Germany:

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Finland and Sweden (sharing the same publisher, if not the same title):

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Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without the Official Westlake Blog’s cover galleries.  But please note, every single one of these editions came out in the 1960’s.  This was a forgotten book for quite some time after that, until Hard Case Crime put out the first American paperback edition, which is how I first came to read it, and probably many of you as well.

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So now that we’ve all rediscovered the glories of the early hard-boiled Westlake, before the Nephews, before Dortmunder, and quite a long time before The Ax proved beyond all doubt that he could still write the hard stuff under his own name–what do we make of this book, and its odd multi-ethnic pre-Godfather take on organized crime?

Ray Garraty and I have had many discussions here and elsewhere about why Westlake seems determined throughout the 1960’s to not make the mob an exclusively Italian thing.  Italian mobsters do show up (Italian by name only, it often seems), but so do lots of Irishmen, Jews, and some guys with generic ‘American’ names.  I’ve put forth a variety of explanations for this.  Was he trying to avoid offending Italian-American readers, sensitive to the assumption that they were uniquely responsible for racketeering in America?  Was it just a convention of the genre as a whole, going back to the old Warner Brothers gangster pictures that had inspired so many crime writers, Westlake included?

Well, it may not have been any of that.  I now enter into evidence Exhibit A–a New York Times article, dated April 13th, 1980–Donald Westlake: Larceny and Laughter, by Sheldon Bart (himself a novelist).  It was printed right next to a review of Westlake’s latest novel at the time, Castle in the Air, and is mainly devoted to an interview with Westlake (after first mentioning that he was working with Joan Rivers on a script for something entitled A Girl Called Banana). 

The reader of this article is informed about the Westlake/Stark thing, and further told that “His style is bright and zingy and his books abound with clever twists and fast dialogue.”  Well I guess you’re supposed to say stuff like that when you’re interviewing a writer.

Bart kicks off the interview with the usual “Where do you get your ideas from?” sort of question, only it’s got a somewhat odd spin to it–why does Westlake write so much about crime?  I guess Bart never heard of the mystery genre before? Or is this something pre-arranged between them?  Either way, he opens by asking “Was your father a criminal?”  

Now in Bart’s place, I personally would not have gone there, but instead of taking umbrage, Westlake tells a story–I’d copy/paste it, but you can’t do that with the database I found this on, so I’ll just have to type it out.

Sometime before I was born, my father and mother and another couple were in a speakeasy in New York, and a tall skinny man in a shiny black suit came in, followed by two tough-looking guys with their hands in their topcoat pockets.  They headed toward the rear of the place, but as they passed by my parents’ table the skinny man looked at my father and said “Hi Al.”  My father said, “Hi, Bill.”

Bill pulled up a chair, sat down and called for a bottle of champagne for the table, on his tab.  The two guys with him didn’t sit down or look at anybody in particular.  My father didn’t introduce Bill to the others at the table.  Bill and my father talked baseball for a while, my father being a very passionate Giants fan, the Giants being at that time a perfectly respectable Major League baseball team in Upper Manhattan and not a lot of padded psychopaths in a Jersey swamp.  Then the champagne came.  Bill had a taste, and then he got to his feet and said “See you later, Al,” and he and his two friends went away through the door in the back.  My mother said “Who was that?” and my father said, “Bill Bailey.  I’ll tell you about it later.”  But he never did.  Now Bill Bailey was a prominent gangster and bootlegger, Dutch Schultz’s right-hand man who took over the Schultz mob for a while after Dutch was killed.

My mother told me this story after my father was dead, so I couldn’t ask anybody any questions.  Then later on, after my mother died, I found something very curious in a trunk in the basement.  A packed-away trunk is in geological layers, the most recent stuff on top, the oldest on the bottom, and that’s the way it was with this trunk, working on down all the way to my father’s World War I uniform on the bottom.  But then under the uniform, out of proper sequence, were a lot of newspaper clippings about the death of Bill Bailey, which took place in 1931.  It was a strange death; he walked into a hospital, and was admitted, and by midnight he was dead.  The death certificate said advanced pneumonia, but doctors I’ve talked to tell me nobody walks around like a healthy man seven hours before dying of advanced pneumonia.  Anyway, those are the only newspaper clippings my father ever saved, and he went out of his way to  hide them, and that’s all I know about it.  Except that for a while my father was a bookkeeper for a sugar company, and I know the bootleggers needed a lot of sugar in making their booze, so maybe that’s the connection.  Anyway, the mysteriousness of it, the completely impenetrable aura, if that’s what I mean, has occasionally gotten into my books, particularly the early ones.

Hard to say how much research he did into the history of organized crime in response to this–some, certainly–but based on the bit of research I did via Google (hardly an option for him back then), I think we can say that Westlake never made much attempt to master the subject.  William ‘Bad Bill’ Bailey was the right-hand man of Vannie Higgins. Higgins was a bitter rival of Dutch Schultz during the Prohibition era, who exchanged shots with The Dutchman on more than one occasion, and was eventually fatally wounded (perhaps by Schultz’s men), several years before Schultz himself was killed.

There’s not a lot of information about Bill Bailey out there.  That’s him standing (appropriately enough) to the right of Vannie Higgins, in the photo up top–in a dark topcoat–Higgins is in the trench coat.  And before you ask, the song “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” is not about him.  I checked.  That must have been another Bill Bailey.   But if there’s one thing we can know for dead certain, it’s that this Bill Bailey couldn’t have taken over for Dutch Schultz, because he died (of natural causes or otherwise) in 1931, and Schultz was famously (or infamously) murdered on October 24th, 1935.   Westlake wouldn’t have needed Google to find that out.  He didn’t give a damn.  He was writing fiction, not history.

So why all the mob stories?  Because to him, the point of that little anecdote about his dad was that all your parents have secrets, lives they lived before you were even born.  Mostly those secrets stay buried, though if they live long enough, maybe they’ll tell you some of them (my dad’s shared some real corkers with me in the last decade or so–no ganglords so far).  Westlake lost his father when he was still a very young man, his mother not long after, and there were questions he was never going to get to ask them, answers he was never going to find.

He’s writing in a genre where stories about organized crime are de rigeur, but how does he put his own unique spin on them?  His most important literary role model, Dashiell Hammett, wrote mainly from the detective’s point of view–saw criminals only from the outside, though he had the advantage of actually knowing a whole lot of them from his work as a Pinkerton.

His more contemporary influence, Peter Rabe, used mob stories as a way of dissecting character–strong willed, resourceful, but ultimately chaotic individualists, striving for power in an organization, and eventually undone by a combination of hubris and emotional vulnerability.  Psychological case studies, from a future psychology professor.  The only ones who survive are the ones who just give up the game they’re playing before it’s too late, let go of their ambitions, learn how to live for the sake of living.

Westlake probably never made the acquaintance of any real crooks until he started getting fan mail from them, mainly for his Parker novels–in the article I quoted above, he says he got a letter from one guy who was about to start serving a long stretch in prison, and he was hoping Westlake could fill a few holes in his collection of Parker novels, because he wanted to take the whole series into the joint with him.   Westlake doesn’t say if he provided the books–the guy only needed two of them.  I’m guessing Westlake helped him out.

But while he clearly got some ideas from these letters–I see references in that interview to missives he received from criminals that almost certainly inspired Help I Am Being Held Prisoner and Bank Shot–his knowledge of the criminal class remained primarily second-hand.  He maintained a certain distance between himself and his subject material, which was certainly prudent.  And he had to start writing crime novels before he could get fan mail from criminals–361 can’t be based on correspondence he hadn’t received yet.

No, he was mainly working from pre-established fictional models–Hammett, the Gold Medal novelists (Rabe, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes), the Warner Brothers pictures of the 30’s and 40’s.  And many others.  But he’s going to make this old subgenre new and personally relevant, by linking it up to his belated discovery that his father was connected, however peripherally, to the world of organized crime.  As so many Americans were, during Prohibition.  Perhaps the majority, in the sense that most Americans never really accepted the 18th Amendment, went right on drinking what they damn well wanted to drink, and came to admire many of the colorful characters who supplied their illicit hooch.   That goes on to this very day, of course–but never to the same extent seen in the 20’s and early 30’s.

The Italians (chiefly but not entirely Sicilians) were gaining ever-greater power in the gangs of that period, because of the syndicate subculture some of them had brought from the old country, and the fact that it was harder for them to assimilate into the mainstream (the most talented individuals from other groups would more often find other outlets for their talents).

But they were joined by German, Russian, and Eastern European Jews (who also had assimilation issues), the Irish (troublemakers wherever we go), and quite a few poor WASP’s–basically every group that was on the outs with society in some way.   And that’s a lot of people.   And while some members of these groups would fight Italian control, others were quite happy to go along with it, as long as they got their slice of the pie.  The ethnic boundaries were never that clearly drawn, and certainly not back in those days.

At their peak, these racketeers were so politically and socially well-entrenched that Vannie Higgins could land his private plane at a state prison in Washington County, New York–and have a nice public tete-a-tete with the warden there, an old friend of his.  This was widely reported,  and the warden didn’t even lose his job.  You absolutely could not trust the police and many other authority figures of that time, so many were on the payroll.

That’s why Elliot Ness and his men were called The Untouchables–because a cop who couldn’t be bought was such an oddity.  But in the end, the Prohibition mobsters made themselves too visible, too obvious a source of public corruption, and a lot of them went to prison, often on tax evasion charges.

The most important Chicago organization was called The Outfit–and was heavily Italian, but to Westlake that was never the point–the point was that it supplied things people wanted–liquor first, then gambling, prostitution, etc–and was run like a business–and as time went on, a modern corporation.

In 361, you see a war between the old-era Prohibition guys getting out of jail, and the new corporate-style mobsters, who have assimilated more into the mainstream–and learned to keep out of the public eye most of the time.  Ed Ganolese, introduced in The Mercenaries, is the boss of this faction in New York–and Eddie Kapp, the biological father of 361’s protagonist, Ray Kelly, is the old-school boss who takes him down, with Ray’s help.

From this one glimpse into the elder Westlake’s past, we see the genesis of these early books.  Westlake imagining an alternate family history, where his dad had been a smart lawyer who got enmeshed in mob politics, and was good friends with Eddie Kapp.  Westlake himself, who we gather didn’t look much like his dad, could ask himself what if his father was somebody else–what if the mobster buddy was his true genetic forebear–though Ray makes it clear that he considers Willard to be his father either way.

The most powerful emotional moment of the book comes between Ray and Willard Kelly, very early on–Willard meets Ray in the city, after a long separation, and they’ve clearly missed each other a great deal.  “We cried like a couple of women, and kept punching each other to prove we were men.”   It’s hard not to think this is based on a reunion between Westlake and his father after he got out of the Air Force.  And very shortly before Albert Joseph Westlake died.

Westlake had powerful but mixed feelings about his father, and fathers in general–he never forgot the way his father had intervened on his behalf when he was arrested for stealing a microscope at college, pulling every string to get the case squashed, and his record scrubbed clean.   And then, as he wrote in his unpublished memoirs, his father apologized to him for not being able to better provide for him.  Love mingled with gratitude and guilt–always a heady mixture.

And always behind that–in just about every parent-child relationship that ever was–is that underlying realization that comes upon us as as we mature, if we mature–that we never really knew our parents completely.  That they used to be these other people, who will always be strangers to us.  That they had their own identities, completely apart from being ‘mom’ or ‘dad’, which most of us ignored until it was too late.

And the less we know about our parents, the less we know about ourselves.   Many an autobiographical work has been devoted to someone’s quest to better understand his mother or father, in order to achieve self-understanding–the current President of the United States wrote a rather good one.  I wonder if Westlake read it?

So maybe a good alternate title for 361 would be Schemes From My Father–or fathers, plural, since Willard Kelly wasn’t as innocent as he seemed.  We never get to hear Willard’s side of the story–just like Westlake never got to ask his father what his connection to Bill Bailey was.  Some mysteries are never completely solved, even in a mystery novel.  Let alone a blog about mystery novels.

Still, I think I’ve stumbled across a big piece of the puzzle here.  Westlake wrote about organized crime the way he did in the early days because he didn’t see it as this separate exotic world, cut off from the rest of us, the way many others in the genre depicted it as, full of strange codes and foreign rituals–its roots might be foreign, but its genesis was entirely American and familiar–it was made up out of our fathers and uncles and brothers and cousins (and occasionally Nephews).

He knew that perfectly ordinary decent ‘respectable’ people had roots in that world, whether they cared to know it or not.  He went digging for his past in an old trunk in the attic, and he found out some things his father maybe didn’t want him to know–or maybe he did on some level, and that’s why he didn’t just destroy those newspaper clippings.  It’s hard to let go of your past–it’s like turning your back on a part of yourself.

He also wanted to point out that dishonesty was not something unique to criminals–there are other kinds of ‘Outfits’ in the world, many of them quite legal, their methods sometimes even more contemptible.  The corporate world was something he despised on a very deep level, but he also knew it was unavoidable.  He may not have been an employee of any corporation, but he still worked for them.  Publishers, movie studios, etc.  Increasingly all just one big conglomerated mass of mendacity and mediocrity.

To be sure, that was part of the point Mario Puzo later made with The Godfather–the book that at least temporarily made non-Italian mobsters seem quaint and old-fashioned, and that was about the time Westlake started writing more about the mob as a specifically Italian thing.  The fashion had changed, and he’d mainly gotten mafia stories out of his system anyway.  It wasn’t going to be a major thing for him–he was about the independent operators.

And this is a sort of symbolic rebellion against his father, who may not have been any kind of mobster (maybe he and Bailey just knew each other from school or something), but who had been a loyal company man all his life–a cog in a machine, never really getting anywhere, never making it, doing everything he could to see his son got a better shot than he did.  And his son was grateful, but he had to try it his own way–he didn’t think his dad’s way had worked out so well.

At the end of 361, Ray Kelly is alone–his family erased from existence–but he’s his own man.  He’s learned the whole truth about himself, and he can build on that, if he wants.   That’s very much how it was with Westlake himself in the mid-1950’s, with both parents dead, and a younger sister he seems to have never been close to.   Like Ray, Westlake is going to have to make a life for himself–standing on the shoulders of those who came before him.  But free to make his own mistakes, instead of just repeating theirs.

And standing on Albert Westlake’s shoulders, Donald E. Westlake became his own man, never holding a steady job for most of his adult life, making his living a book at a time, which wasn’t an easy way to live, we can be sure.  He was never 100% secure, never had the kind of big seller that makes a writer’s fortune.  But he was free.  Of everything but the past.   Nobody’s ever completely free of that.

Case in point–there was another group involved in organized crime–Kapp, talking about how it takes three generations for the children of poor immigrants to become ‘respectable’, mentions them–

This is about Cheever again.  The Negro.  He wants to be respectable too, same as everybody else.  But he can’t be, and it don’t matter how many generations he’s been here, you see what I mean?  So he’s liable to wind up in the organization.

Already, Westlake was feeling some curiosity about African Americans–they keep turning up in 361, and other novels, but just as minor characters–he’s nibbling around the edges of something.   He’s got some opinions on The Race Question, but he’s not quite ready to share them.

In our next book, he’s going to tell us what he really thinks.

(Addendum to the addendum–I should have checked earlier, but according to the New York Times, William Bailey died of pneumonia on December 1st, 1934–not 1931. Westlake got that wrong too. He still died before Dutch Schultz. Westlake really didn’t give a damn about the fine details of mob history.)

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Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014.

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The real world never never impinges on the entertainment side of television, so fully realized private eyes continued to perform their pulp kabuki all over the tube. Mannix and Cannon and all those fellows, of whom the best was by a long shot Rockford. Rockford didn’t try to break out of the rituals, but used them in a very knowing and able way. His relationships with society, with the police, with his clients, with women, were all very much in the tradition, and yet Rockford was an individual, a human being you could believe in rather than a cardboard figure in a trench coat.
Donald Westlake, The Hardboiled Dicks

That quote, along with much else of interest, may be found in The Getaway Car, Levi Stahl’s soon-to-be-published anthology of Westlake’s nonfiction writing, which I’ll be reviewing in the near future (spoiler alert–I liked it). So there’s a quick plug, but this is a tribute–to somebody in the entertainment biz. Which this blog isn’t mainly about, and I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for a lot more of of the same here, if I were you. But Garner was the exception to so many rules in his world, I’ll make an exception for him in mine.

I grew up on The Rockford Files–I knew nothing back then about who wrote what. I never noticed the names Roy Huggins, Stephen J. Cannell, David Chase, Juanita Bartlett, Meta Rosenberg, until much later. All I knew about James Garner besides this show was that he did those Polaroid commercials with this sarcastic blonde who then showed up on The Rockford Files. Which was confusing. Maybe they should have hired Gretchen Corbett for the commercials, though that might have been even more confusing.

There aren’t a lot of big name stars who can remotely live up to their hype. Garner may have been nearly unique in that he far surpassed his (because in spite of his long popularity, he was never really an A-Lister). People who worked with him just couldn’t get over how un-full of himself he was. If he had an opinion he’d share it, but at the end of the day, if the writer or director said “This is what I want”, he’d back off and do it their way. And if it didn’t work, he might avoid working with that writer or director again, but he believed in letting people do their jobs. I don’t know if Westlake ever met him–tend to doubt it–but I think it’s a shame they never worked together. Garner would have been ideal to play many of Westlake’s protagonists (for example, the protagonist of the novel I’m reviewing next here).

He did a whole lot of quality work over the years, on television and in the movies, but it was in The Rockford Files, above all, that he hit that sweet spot, found the perfect venue for all the aspects of his talent. He wasn’t in the best physical shape by that point in time, and the show ended mainly because he couldn’t handle the demands of the role anymore, but for five years, he and his collaborators proved that commercial scripted genre television wasn’t crap because it had to be. If you cared enough, you could make it more than than gimmicks and posturing for an Emmy. You could make it truly great storytelling.

In one of the Sam Holt novels Westlake wrote under the not terribly convincing pseudonym of Sam Holt (I don’t have time to leaf through all four to find out which one right now), Holt, a former TV series star himself, hears a reference to The Rockford Files, and thinks to himself “The Gold Standard.” And it was. It was the epitome of television that entertained and illumined, at the same time, without ever putting on airs, or selling itself out. And it’s held up for around four decades now. No reason to think it won’t hold up another four decades, and beyond.

But Garner couldn’t. More’s the pity.

Anyway, back to the books.

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Review: Pity Him Afterwards

pity_him_afterward_original_1RobertBlock_Psycho

It had happened to him other times, when he was fooling Doctor Chax by making him believe he was one of the other inmates.  Sometimes it had happened that in the making-believe he had lost touch with himself, the true self and the assumed self had become confused together, and for a while he had not been in control.  At such times a tiny portion of himself–he visualized it as crouching low against the floor in a dark corner–only that tiny portion of  himself was still aware, could still differentiate between fantasy and reality, while the rest of him was all taken over by the other being.  Times when all but that tiny portion of himself actually believed he was that other being.  It hadn’t happened often, and it never lasted long, so he had never been overly concerned about it.

From Pity Him Afterwards, by Donald Westlake.

Mother killed them.  That’s what he said, but it was a lie.

How could she kill them when she was only watching, when she couldn’t even move because she had to pretend to be a stuffed figure, a harmless stuffed figure that couldn’t hurt or be hurt but merely exists forever?

She knew that nobody would believe the bad man, and he was dead now, too.  The bad man and the bad boy were both dead, or else they were just part of the dream.  And the dream had gone away now for good.

She was the only one left, and she was real.

To be the only one, and to know that you are real–that’s sanity, isn’t it?

From Psycho, by Robert Bloch.

Pity Him Afterwards was Donald Westlake’s 5th novel for Random House–he was contracted to do one a year for them, starting in 1960, so this one came out in 1964.   It’s a break with his past Random House ‘mysteries’ on several levels–the most obvious of which being that it’s written in the third person, from the perspective of several different characters.   Westlake had written his four previous novels published under his own name in the first person, and they were firmly cast in the mold of hardboiled crime fiction, ala Dashiell Hammett.   This would be more of a psychological thriller (emphasis on the ‘psycho’), with a very slight (almost non-existent) mystery angle.  Westlake later claimed to have written the book in eleven days.   Which is pretty damned impressive, but as Moliere’s Alceste might say “The time’s irrelevant, sir.  Kindly recite it.”

Just a few years earlier, Robert Bloch’s Psycho had been turned into one of the most successful and influential films of all time by Alfred Hitchcock.   I’ve seen the movie I-don’t-know-how-many-times–ten, maybe?–but only read the novel this week–and was surprised at how closely Joseph (The Outer Limits) Stephano’s screenplay hewed to the original.    Remarkably few changes for a Hollywood adaptation.  The biggest change was to Norman Bates himself, a fat middle-aged amateur occultist in the book–did not even slightly resemble Anthony Perkins.

I was also a bit disappointed at how bland  (though extremely well-structured) the novel and its murderous protagonist seemed to me, right up until the end–when Bloch’s extraordinary gift for gruesome twist endings actually got to me, in spite of my knowing all the main twists in the story ever since I was a kid.   His reputation was well-earned.  But I wasn’t scared–I’ve seen too many variations on this story to be scared by it anymore.  Back in 1959, I’d have been scared.  The fact is, Psycho changed us as a culture–it raised the bar for what was shocking, for better or worse.   We’re still feeling its impact, over half a century later.

The success of both versions of Bloch’s story inspired hosts of imitators, or at least emulators–nothing wrong about this, it’s simply a fact.   Westlake must have seen the film, and I’ve little doubt he read the novel–Bloch was, after all, a fellow member of the Mystery Writers of America (and served as that organization’s President in 1970).    He had started out writing H.P. Lovecraft pastiches (Lovecraft was his primary mentor as a young man), but he’d quickly evolved into writing about non-supernatural tales of murder and mayhem, though he never quite gave up on the paranormal angle (it’s there in Psycho, just on a very low key).

Pity Him Afterwards isn’t a carbon copy of Psycho, but is following very much in its wake, and has to be viewed as a response to it, much as Killing Time is a response to Red Harvest.   But Westlake set out to tell a very different story about a very different crazed protagonist.   And what is merely implicit in Bloch’s story–the mutability and divisibility of identity, and how dangerous it can be–will be the centerpiece of Westlake’s narrative.

Westlake, like Bloch, chooses to open the narrative inside the mind of the killer–who in Westlake’s novel is already a killer, having murdered two employees of the psychiatric institute he was in while escaping it, and then strangled a young actor who picked him up on the road when the unlucky thespian realized who he was–this is while the car was in motion, and it obviously crashed, which got the state police back on his trail, which is where we find him when the book begins, desperately scrambling up a hill while they search for him.  But he gets away, and goes on to kill eight more people in the course of the book.   So if we’re talking stats, he’s got Norman Bates beat all hollow.

Robert Ellington (more often referred to as “The Madman”) is a young man with a high IQ  (168), and absolutely no understanding of other human beings–or himself.   We’re told that he became frustrated at an unrewarding job, and killed two male co-workers, leading to his being committed to an (inaptly named) sanitarium, followed by a lengthy regimen of psychoanalysis interspersed with electroconvulsive therapy.   Which served to make him even crazier, as it would most people (yes, I know, ECT is back, and they say it works wonders, and the abuses of the past won’t occur again, but they were sure as hell occurring at the time this novel is set).   It also made him willing to do anything to avoid going back to that place.   Literally.   Anything.

Though one of his doctors, named Peterby, calls him a genius, the narrator, peering directly into his mind, tells us a somewhat different story–because certain parts of his brain aren’t functioning properly, the rest function more efficiently to compensate–he’s an excellent mimic, with a fantastic memory–but his more recent recollections tend to fade after about a month (Westlake still making use of his research for Memory).

He’s no Hannibal Lector, that much is certain–he may think he’s a superior being, but we are most decidedly not supposed to think that of him.   His thought patterns are facile, but not particularly deep or penetrating, and his view of reality is hopelessly confused.    He reasons at the level of a child, and thinks children are better than adults–more honest–though they will someday become adults, which makes him wonder if it would be better to kill them all before that terrible event occurs.

He is deeply paranoid, but with some reason after his escape, since everyone is out to get him, or would be if they knew who he was.   Thing is, he tends to see enemies where they don’t exist–and he believes all his psychiatrists are one sinister collective entity, that he’s named “Doctor Chax”; a nearly omnipotent many-faced creature that exists only to torture and imprison him–and make him believe false things about himself–like that he’s a murderer–he feels wholly justified in killing anyone who tries to make him believe that.

Having killed the actor and taken his clothes, then killed an elderly couple so he can take shelter in their house, the madman reasons that he can find shelter at the summer stock theatrical company the actor told him about, where he was going to spend the season at–nobody there knows the murdered actor.   The madman used to think he could be an actor himself–now he’ll get a chance to try.

The madman solves the problem of the professional photos the actor’s talent agency had sent there by saying the agency sent the wrong photos–and getting photos of himself made–after which he kills the photographer who made them–for asking to be paid for them (he despises all mercenary motives).    He killed the elderly couple because he assumed they wouldn’t give him shelter.   He hates killing, but is finding it easier and easier, each time he does it.

He is self-centered to a pathological degree, but is incapable of understanding this about himself.   In his mind, nothing he does is wrong–every crime he commits is made necessary by the cruelty and selfishness of other people.   His father told him you do whatever you have to do to survive, and he takes this quite seriously.  He’s not an animal–no animal (except man) would bother to rationalize this way.   He takes whatever he wants from others, but he still needs to see himself as justified in the sight of–something.   He believes he is the only fully honest person alive, and that’s why he was sent to the asylum.  He does not seem to believe in any higher power–other than Doctor Chax.    This is the universe he lives in.   He does not think there is any other.

But in the book, there are other POV’s, other protagonists.   The first we meet is Mel Daniels, a young Jewish actor (whose father doesn’t understand why he needs to change his perfectly good name of Melvin Blum), who is coming to work at Cartier Isle Theater, which caters to the rich people who summer around the lake there.   He gets picked up at the bus stop by Mary Ann McKendrick, a local girl who aspires to be a theatrical director (and will serve as the obligatory love interest for Mel).  He’s at the theater less than an hour before he discovers the body of Cissy Walker, another actor, who has been raped and murdered.   Well, the other way around, actually.   The reader is not left in suspense over whodunnit.

The mystery–since this is, after all, a Random House Mystery–is which of the young male actors in the company was murdered and replaced by Robert Ellington, and we spend a good bit of the book trying to guess who that is–as Ellington commits several more murders, and gets progressively crazier, while still effectively hiding his true identity from everyone, including the law.  It’s a clever reversal of the usual expectations of the genre, but I don’t think Westlake does very much with it.

Nor do I think he plays fair with the reader–Westlake could write a very good mystery when he set his mind to it, but he’s not very interested in doing so here.   The clues are intentionally misleading–I’ve read the relevant passages through multiple times, and there’s just no way you could logically deduce which actor is the madman.  I couldn’t even remember from my previous reading who it was, and once again made the same bad guess Westlake intended the reader to make.

If you go by the clues alone, you will make the wrong guess every time.  And I think this is Westlake saying that it’s just nonsense there’s always this logic-based trail of factual bread crumbs that will lead you unerringly to the perpetrator, particularly when the perpetrator himself is supremely illogical.   Intuition will tell you who is the madman the first time you see him in his assumed identity, and then you say “Oh it can’t be that obvious” but guess what–it’s that obvious.   I won’t even bother to say which one them it turns out to be.  It’s not the point of the story.

The detective on the case (who fails to crack it just as miserably as I did) is Eric Sondgard, a humanities professor at a small New England college, who serves as Cartier Isle’s police chief during the busy summer months (there being no call for one the rest of the year, when the summer people go home).    He’s got his own version of a split identity–

“There’s a dichotomy in you, Captain Professor,” he told himself.   “Half of you is a humanist and half of you is a Cossack.  You’re all mixed up, Professor Captain.”

If this were a TV show or a movie, he’d solve the mystery–but this is a Westlake novel, where detectives–and people with divided identities–rarely do well.   Sondgard misses the one thing that might have solved the case early–checking to make sure all these young actors really are who they say they are–he ends up with four main suspects, and he doesn’t even send their fingerprints out to be checked, in case one of them committed a crime under another name.   Never so much as occurs to him.

He stubbornly refuses to call in the state police, because he thinks a humanist is better qualified to answer the question of who is a madman than some scientific detective.   It’s not at all certain the pros would have done any better, but the police procedural part of the story is basically just one long exercise in bungling by Sondgard and his deputy.   Sondgard could be called the hero of the piece, but he’s a lousy detective, and he is forced to admit that to himself.    When he learns the identity of the madman, it’s by accident.

Robert Ellington, in the meantime, is enjoying the actor’s life tremendously.   He thinks it’s wonderful.   Working together, building sets, learning lines, taking direction.   This is his true self, he tells himself.   He doesn’t think at all about what happens when the season ends (assuming it even gets started).   He sincerely hopes he won’t have to kill anyone else–except that he thinks Sondgard may be an agent of Doctor Chax–or Chax himself.    He will have to kill him.  Mel Daniels is also suspected.   There may be cameras recording his every move–Chax is everywhere.   Chax knows everything.

At the mental institution, they were trying to make him understand he was mentally ill, and he refused to accept that.   To avoid being forced to see it–to see himself, clearly–he began taking on the identities of other patients there, and responding to the doctors as these people.   That way, he could avoid any shattering revelations, but he also became a complete stranger to himself.   And no more capable of understanding other people than he understands himself.

And all the while, buried deep in his psyche, is a more primal version of himself, that springs forth and rips to pieces a security guard who confronts Robert on the grounds of one of the resort homes in the surrounding area.

It was some other being, some darker creation he remembered only vaguely, from long long ago, from the forgotten time before he was ever in the asylum. Beaten down and subdued by the ministrations of Doctor Chax, it had lain undetected all this time at the very core of him.  With freedom, it had slowly begun to emerge.  The killing he had been forced to commit had strengthened it, and this sudden surprise and shock and blindness had given it the opening it needed.

So deep within this madman is an even madder man.    He’s pretending to be someone he killed, soaking up ideas and memories from everyone around him to create a composite persona, and desperately trying to control a part of himself that kills compulsively (as opposed to his surface personality, that kills only when he thinks it’s necessary).

Sondgard doesn’t know how to identify him, but he ends up outing himself.    His identity becomes so fractured that he can’t hold himself together anymore, and he snaps at the wrong time, right in front of Sondgard.

He bolts for the lake, killing two lovers in a rowboat, and ends up on a little island that as luck would have it, Mel and Mary Ann have chosen to act on their growing feelings for each other.   Of course this proves without any doubt that Mel is Doctor Chax–who the madman can finally kill.   But before he can do it, the other  Chax named Sondgard shows up–with his gun.   And an enormous crushing sense of responsibility for all the people who got murdered on his watch, while he pondered on the nature of insanity.   He gives the madman no chance to surrender (not that he was going to), and he does not shoot to wound.   He cuts him down first, and whether he pities him afterwards is left to our imaginations, because that’s the last we see of any of these characters.

And in the epilogue, Dr. Peterby–the real Doctor Chax, or one of them anyway–is the only one who mourns the madman–feeling that Robert Ellington was far superior to any of the people he killed, or the ‘ignorant brute’ who killed him (either nobody told him Sondgard’s regular profession, or Peterby has a really low opinion of the humanities).    The final irony is that the only person who really cared about Robert Ellington was the one person Robert Ellington would have most liked to kill.   Have I mentioned that Donald Westlake didn’t think much of psychiatrists?   We’ll be seeing further evidence of this in later books.

That’s a very truncated plot synopsis for me, and for good reason–I don’t like the plot of this book.   I love the way it’s written, the beauty of the prose–I love the glimpses into the madman’s mind–the innovative take on the “there’s a crazed killer among us!” story–but overall, I think this book is much less than the sum of its parts.   Psycho isn’t simply better remembered because of the Hitchcock film.  Robert Bloch was maybe half the prose stylist Donald Westlake was–and a much less proficient novelist (his real metier was the short story, a form in which he had few equals in the genres he favored).

But for all its limitations of style and characterization (and dialogue, most of all), Bloch’s novel is a coherent whole, the pieces all fitting together perfectly–he knew this kind of story backwards and forwards, and being a better writer doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better story to tell.   Bloch likes Norman Bates.   He empathizes with him.   Not for nothing did they cast Anthony Perkins to play him.  Bloch doesn’t want him to win, but he feels sorry for him–and leaves him alive at the end (well, kinda).  He gave him two sequels (that Hollywood never touched), and I wonder if he’d have done that even if there’d been no movie.   His first victim’s sister, having helped bring him to justice, expresses no anger at him–her final word is “We’re not all quite as sane as we pretend to be.”   No indeed, but there are differences of degree, surely.

Westlake’s book, composed in feverish haste, possibly needing a few more rewrites, trying to turn itself into a detective novel while not thinking very much of detectives–and sticking a love story that doesn’t go anywhere right into the middle–it just doesn’t hold together that well.   It’s  what I’d call an entertaining failure.   Many have thought otherwise.  And if any of you would like to speak up in the comments section, I’d be only too pleased……

In the same interview he mentioned he’d written it in eleven days, Westlake said he’d recently reread Pity Him Afterwards (after a long period of not reading it), and said it was better–and faster–than he’d remembered.   Which to me, says that he originally thought it wasn’t that good, and was perhaps a mite slow-moving.   Expectations certainly do factor into our evaluation of any book–I liked it much better the first time I read it, with few expectations at all, though I remember being disappointed by the ending–unlike Psycho, which started slow and ended with a bang.

Rereading it for this review, I was struck by how unconvincing the characters other than Robert Ellington were–Westlake simply can’t make them live and breathe on their own.  They are there for counterpoint–to show how normal minds work, and how badly they understand the abnormal mind.  He obviously didn’t want to go the route of Edgar Allan Poe–showing us the world entirely from the POV of a madman, as opposed to interposing chapters from the madman’s POV, with chapters centered around Sondgard and Mel.   He didn’t want to stay inside his madman’s mind the entire book, which would have been a fascinating exercise.  I think that’s because he didn’t really identify with his madman.   He couldn’t.   Donald Westlake can’t identify with someone who doesn’t want to understand his own identity.  That, for him, is the unforgivable sin.

In many ways,  the madman’s philosophy jibes with that of Parker–do whatever is necessary to survive–but Parker never deceives himself, never rationalizes, never hides from the truth.  Robert Ellington never does anything else.  That’s what makes him a madman.   Unlike Parker, he hides from himself–and not knowing himself, he can’t correctly understand anyone else’s motivations–which means he makes murder the answer to everything.

Westlake created a few other protagonists who lose themselves, but they still at least aspire to self-understanding, even if they ultimately fail to achieve it.   The madman fails by design.   In fact, his failure is perceived by him as success.  Contrary to what Dr. Peterby thinks, he was never coming back to reality.   His ‘genius’ was simply a highly evolved form of blindness.

The most fascinating thing about the book to me is its title–and the passage from Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson that inspired it.   Dr. Johnson, you should know, was only using a madman armed with a stick as a metaphor for certain ‘enthusiasts’–familiar to him then as they are to us now–who perceive any threat to their political, philosophical or religious beliefs as a threat to their existence, and behave correspondingly.   Johnson is not approving of this attitude–he is simply seeing it from the inside, to better understand it.

Those who don’t believe deeply, Johnson told Boswell, can discuss any given subject dispassionately, and will not be offended when someone contradicts their beliefs.  But to those who want to believe with all their souls that only their opinions on God, the Universe and Everything are correct (while secretly doubting them) will literally see any attempt to contradict them as being the equivalent of a madman with a stick coming into the room–they knock them down first, pity them afterwards–because the alternative would be to question their most deeply held beliefs–which is to say, themselves.   And they’d rather die.  Or better, kill.

This is Robert Ellington’s madness–and to him, we are the madmen.   He was knocking us down first, before we could tell him the truth–but like all other fanatics, his pity for his victims was at best shortlived, and increasingly left out altogether.   People like that really do have to be knocked down sometimes, when they act on their feelings (and I am not speaking of the clinically insane here), but they seem to be proliferating with ever-greater rapidity these days, faster than the Sondgards of the world can dispose of them.   The Madman’s day may yet come.   Robert Ellington might well have been a prophetic figure.   I feel that way every time I watch cable news.

My feeling is that this book should have been written under a pseudonym–it’s not a Westlake novel.   It’s not a Richard Stark either.   It’s somebody else, but Westlake needed to submit something to Random House, and it had to be under his own name.   Writing under a different name, taking a bit more time to craft it, this could have been far more than it is–he might have found a way to make it come together.   But as it stands, it’s not bad.   A decent thriller with an unconventional take on a well-worn premise–perfect reading if you’re spending the summer by a lake.   But not the kind of book we remember Donald Westlake for.

What do we remember Donald Westlake for?   As opposed to Richard Stark?   I ask, because  we’ve reached a rather critical juncture in this exploration of his development as a writer.   I tend to think he was not satisfied with his detour into grand guignol, into Robert Bloch territory.   He didn’t want to keep doing variations on Hammett all the time, and he’d found a better outlet for the darker elements of his vision in Richard Stark and Parker.   So what else could he do in this crime/mystery/detective genre he’d made a place for himself in?   What could he be doing that basically nobody else in that genre was doing?    And in so doing, give voice to that very large part of him that wasn’t all grim and noir-ish?

And then it came to him.

See you in a week, nephews.   Stay sane.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Score

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Several of the books had been by this writer Richard Stark, always about the same crook, named Parker.   Robbery stories, big capers, armored cars, banks, all that sort of thing.   And what Kelp really liked about the books was that Parker always got away with it.  Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught at the end–fantastic.    For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose.  Wagon train wiped out, cavalry lost in the desert, settlement abandoned, ranchers and farmers driven back across the Mississippi.  Grand.

From Jimmy the Kid, by Donald Westlake.

By late 1963, Westlake had published four novels about a professional heavy heister–not simply an armed robber, but a specialist, who typically works with a ‘string’ of fellow professionals, to commit institutional robbery–that is to say, stealing from organizations, private or public in nature.   Banks, payrolls, businesses that have a lot of cash or valuables on hand, etc.  He may sometimes steal from an individual, but it’s never his preferential option.   He may work alone or with just one partner at times, but ditto.

He feels most comfortable in a group of about five skilled reliable people he already knows, scoping out the target, coming up with a solid plan (one of Parker’s two specialties), taking untraceable cash, making an agreed-upon split, and then going their separate ways, without any ‘civilians’ getting hurt along the way, because death ups the ante for law enforcement.   And it never did quite work out that way, in any of the novels.   But that was always the goal.

And yet we never see this kind of job in any detail before the fifth novel.   There are maybe eight organized armed robberies depicted in the four previous books (depends on how you define it), most of them quite briefly.   They are all more or less incidental to the main story in each book, and Parker is only involved in about half of them.   In The Score, for the very first time, the growing readership for these books saw a job from beginning to end–the job itself is the story.   The job, and the men who do it.    And there’s a lot of them–twelve, in fact.  Each of whom is a protagonist in his own right.    It’s a real  heist story, of a kind movie audiences were well familiar with from the past few decades, and particularly the 1950’s and 60’s, when the genre in its modern form began to really take hold in its own right.

Though if you wanted to trace it back all the way to its roots–well, isn’t the Argonautica basically a heist epic?   If you look at what actually happens in it, it’s more amoral (or downright immoral) than anything from 20th century Hollywood (including the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of the Argonautica).   Jason steals the Golden Fleece from people who never harmed him, killing hundreds (maybe thousands) of people along the way, with the help of his legendary band of heroic thieves, with the gods basically serving as backers for the whole operation.

In the latter part of the myth, he abandons the woman who gave up everything for him (without whom he could never have gotten the Fleece), leading to famously horrific consequences, but he still gets his son on the throne, lives to what was then considered a pretty good age, and dies in his sleep, crushed by a timber that falls off his rotting ship.   We’re told this was the punishment of the gods for Jason violating his oath to love Medea forever, but hey–how many 20th Century noir heroes ever got off that easy?

People all over the world have always enjoyed a story about a group of talented individuals getting together to take something that doesn’t belong to them. Basically ever since people started telling each other stories.  How that story ends tells you a lot about the culture that produces it.   In America, the story usually ends with the robbers getting caught, or killed, or losing the money, or else they were stealing from bad people so it was never really stealing (that last variation is increasingly dominant at the movies these days).   Cecil B. DeMille said American audiences like to see sinful doings, but then they want the sinners punished at the end, so they (the audience) may be purged of vicarious guilt.   C.B. knew what he was talking about.

In France, the heist story usually ends the same way, but somehow not for quite the same reasons–it’s more of an existentialist thing–we’re all guilty of the crime of being born, or something like that.  In Italy and the UK, the story usually ends comically, showing us the absurdity of the participants (whose absurdity we share in), but again we see the thieves get their comeuppance somehow.   They never just walk happily off into the sunset with the loot, unless they’re taking it from other criminals.   There’s always a catch somewhere.

These approaches all have their merits.   But there is another alternative–suppose the thieves just go in and take what they want from legitimate non-criminal enterprises, and get away clean, and spend the money, and live to steal again?  Maybe take a casualty or two, some things go wrong along the way, courtesy of Murphy’s Law, but they deal with the complications, and come out the other end richer for the effort.   Someday they’ll die, but someday everybody dies.   How long they live will depend in part on how smart, intrepid, and careful they are, as well as on luck.   Just desserts have nothing to do with anything.

And they are actually enjoying their work, mind you–doing it not as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, something they’re going to try once and then retire to South America or wherever–habitual offenders, not dabblers.   And not doing this because they were forced into it somehow–a time-tested moral escape hatch in the movies–but because it’s what they do, who they are, how they want to live.

How would that be?   Wouldn’t you like to know?   Well, read The Score (you should anyway, before you read this spoiler-laden review).   And possibly some earlier books, but I don’t really know any earlier ones to recommend to you.   They may exist, but I haven’t read them.   Or heard of them.   And forget about the movies.

I shouldn’t forget about The Man With the Getaway Face, which did show a rather small scale payroll heist, and while two of the four participants end up dead, Parker and Handy get away clean with more money than they’d have had if one of the other two hadn’t tried a doublecross.  Parker steals money that was intended to pay honest hardworking people,  murders without the slightest qualm a female accomplice who was going to take it all for herself, and if there’s a moral to the story at all, it sure isn’t “crime does not pay.”

In many ways, The Score is simply expanding and elaborating on that section of the earlier book, but The Man With the Getaway Face is more about what comes before and after the heist than the heist itself.   It ends with Parker inadvertently performing what might be called a good deed, by killing a guy who was a much bigger crook than he and his confederates could ever possibly be–rough justice, but still justice.    We’re not 100% of the way there yet.

In The Score, there’s no moral escape hatch.   We’re in on this job with Parker & Co., fully implicated in their crime, and rooting like hell for them to succeed.   They may not all make it, but neither will some decent law-abiding people in the story who don’t remotely deserve the fate awaiting them.   There is no justice here.   There is only what you do and what you fail to do.    There’s life and death and what comes in-between, and how you deal with all that.    Nothing else.  The only values Richard Stark holds dear are professionalism, individualism, and self-understanding.  The rest is negotiable.   Donald Westlake may not feel quite the same way about it, but Westlake isn’t in the driver’s seat here.

This book opens in Jersey City, with Parker headed for a meeting about a job–after two introductory chapters, there’s a relatively brief flashback that could just as easily be left out, except it shows us a rare glimpse of Parker in non-working mode, at a Florida resort hotel, getting ogled by bikini-clad girls, and wishing he was on a job again, only six months after he finally got everything squared away with Mal Resnick, The Outfit, and Bett Harrow.   And he can’t just relax and enjoy it.   He could basically just point at one of those good-looking secretaries on vacation and she’d toss him her room keys–and he’s bored, restless.   His cyclical sex drive has petered out again.

You’d think after a year or so like the one he just had (that started with his wife shooting him), he’d want at least a year or so off.   And you’d think he could afford it, after nabbing what in today’s money would well over $700,000.  Yes, he’s living in a luxury hotel, he’s eating in fancy restaurants, he’s wearing tailored suits, and he’s a really good tipper (Parker has learned that it pays to schmooze the help) but his lifestyle is pretty spartan for all that, and he doesn’t want to own anything.  We’re told that he’s only got 17 grand left.   Which  is more than the average working slob back then made in three years, but Parker figures he’s got enough for a few more months.

I remember one interview in which Westlake said he’d love to ask Parker what he did with all that money–the only answer  that presents itself to me is that Parker can’t live without working, which for him can only mean heisting, so he spends the money faster than he has to, so he’ll have an excuse to work again.   He has to find a balance between taking enough jobs to satisfy this need, but not so many that he ends up in prison (which would destroy him).

In The Hunter, we were told that he worked once a year on average, but that was when he had Lynn.     Without her, he’s restless, unrooted, and needs to work more.  He’ll have to do something about this eventually, but for the moment he’s going to tell himself his reserve fund is too low, not ask himself how he managed to blow through almost a hundred thousand dollars in a few months, and go to Jersey City to talk to some men about a potential job.

The finger on this job is a guy named Edgars, who has hooked up with Paulus, a safecracker Parker knows, who is solid at his specialty, but a jumpy paranoid wreck otherwise.   Paulus has also called in Dan Wycza, a sometime-wrestler, and Alan Grofield, a most-of-the-time actor.   We’re going to be seeing Dan on and off throughout the series, and Grofield  is going to be Richard Stark’s other franchise boy for a while–the supporting cast is really shaping up.

What Wycza and Grofield have in common is that heisting is a means of financing their other lives–Dan is a fitness nut, as well as a pro wrestler.   Grofield got into heisting when the theater company he was a part of ran out of money, and they decided to knock over a supermarket.   Parker considers them solid pros, but they are very very different from him, and from Handy McKay, who tells Parker to count him out of this job–he really is retired this time.   Which serves to remind us of what’s come before, while telling us we’re going in a new direction.   The first cycle of the Parker saga, that centered around his trouble with The Outfit, has concluded.  This is the transitional book.

Edgars breaks out a slide projector, and shows them shots of Copper Canyon, a small mining town in North Dakota.   It takes them a few minutes to realize what he’s proposing–that they rob every major enterprise in town, the banks, the mining payroll, jewelry stores, everything, all in one night, taking over the police station and the telephone switchboard in the process–he figures they’ll get over a quarter of a million dollars.    He also figures they’ll need maybe thirty men.   There’s only one road out of the town, which is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs.   If anything goes wrong, they could be trapped in there.   And there’s a state trooper station right outside the town limits.

Parker smells trouble all over Edgars and his crazy scheme, but the professional in him is intrigued by the challenge.  He says they wouldn’t need half that many guys to keep a lid on this sleepy little burg in the middle of the night.  He finally settles on twelve–enough to do the job, cover all the bases; few enough for everyone to get a decent split and avoid the kind of over-complexity that dooms a job.   Also a rather disturbing gospel reference, presumably unintended on his part, if not Stark’s.

They start reaching out to various professional acquaintances (including our old friend Salsa from The Outfit), financing the job via a doctor in New York, buying guns from the usual unsavory people–also cars, walkie-talkies, and other equipment–and firming up the plan with a bit of advance scouting, done under the pretense of selling insurance (which comes up so often in Westlake’s novels and short stories, I have to figure he actually did sell insurance for a while).   It must be said that in this genre, the preliminaries can be as much fun as the main event.  And particularly when Richard Stark is spinning the yarn.

It turns out Edgars has been shacked up with a good-looking 30-ish blonde named Jean–a very different kind of blonde than Bett Harrow–a New York girl, short, stacked, working class, a bit prone to theatrics.   Edgars wants her to come along, because he’s worried she’ll find another boyfriend.   Parker says forget it–eventually, it’s arranged for her to wait for them in Thief River Falls Minnesota, which is a real place (unlike Copper Canyon).

Jean takes an immediate disliking to Parker, calling him ‘Ugly’, and of course tries to get him in bed maybe 20 minutes after they first meet.   He says maybe after the job is done.   He does not say this in front of Edgars.   He doesn’t know if he means it or not.  It’s not really that important at the moment, but he will need a woman afterwards.   In the privacy of his mind he calls Jean a tramp, which seems a mite judgmental for him–and Stark–is Westlake still working through some issues with womankind here?    Perhaps, but in spite of her flaws (or because of them) Jean is the most likable woman Parker has met to date in the novels.   The competition is admittedly not fierce thus far.   It gets better.

They get set up in an abandoned mining camp outside town, which will serve as their hideout for a few days after the heist.   One by one, we get to know a bit about each of the 12 participants–except Edgars, who is hiding something from his colleagues (and the reader).   They are all quirky freewheeling individuals, some more professional than others, and Parker has his work cut out for him getting them to function together as a unit, but morale is good overall.    It’s a decent string.    Parker is pleased.   But there’s still something about Edgars……

The operation itself takes place within in Part 3 of the book,  which runs from page 79 through 125 in the first edition paperback.   It’s a small marvel of impeccably choreographed storytelling: constantly switching perspectives–we begin with the two police officers in their prowl car, who get called back to their station by a nervous-sounding dispatcher–only to find that he’s nervous because he’s got a whole lot of guns pointed at him.   Parker, the organizer, troubleshooter, and (if the need arises) enforcer, will take their place for a few hours–he’s going to be riding around in the police car, wearing a mask, looking for problems–and that’s an image that sticks with you a long time.

All the main points of authority, the police station, the firehouse, the switchboard, will be taken over and run by thieves.   Small town Middle America, living under a self-imposed curfew (that makes Parker’s life so much easier), has been turned on its head–Copper Canyon is under heister law, and only a handful of the locals even know about it.   Most are peacefully sleeping, though Stark says a few are reading, having sex, occupied with their own lives, while all the while Parker & Co. are opening safes, and carting everything of value in Copper Canyon into a waiting Mack Truck.  Even the radio station is shut down (and there’s no mention of television).  For a few hours, everything stops.   Everything but the thievery.

One beautiful little vignette involves a 19 year old named Eddie who was having an enjoyable night of sex with his girlfriend Betty in her own bed while her parents are out of town.   He doesn’t want his parents to know about this, and  he and Betty took a post-coital nap that lasted well past curfew.   She wants him to stay, but he feels like he has to sneak back home–and along the way, he sees the bank being robbed.   He does what any good citizen would do–he calls the cops from a phone booth.   They tell him to stay where he is.   Parker comes around in the prowl car and picks him up.   Eddie can’t believe it.  Parker leaves him bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a cold, and wondering why the hell he didn’t just stay warm in bed with his girl.   He’s asking himself, why did he care if his parents knew?   Because he’s not ready to think of himself as an adult yet, even though he’s acting like one.

I will say, this is one of the few times the movies improved on a Parker novel–in Alain Cavalier’s adaptation, Mise a Sac, which switches the action to rural France, the poor kid (whose girlfriend is beautiful, and French, so maybe more to be envied than pitied?) ends up in the town jail, looking truly confused.   There’s a good reason why Westlake didn’t write it like that, but Cavalier picks up perfectly on what the story is really about here–subversion of social authority–you only have to take over a few key positions in a town like this to control it.   Then the crooks can put the honest citizens behind bars if they want–it’s topsy-turvy, a criminal Walpurgisnacht.    And then it all falls apart.

We get the warning from one of the bound-and-gagged cops when he recognizes Edgars’ voice–as we finally get into Edgars’ head, we learn the story Parker should have uncovered, but didn’t–probably because he wanted to work this job so much, he didn’t listen to the alarm bells in his head.  Edgars was the Chief of Police there–a corrupt brutal one, who was fired and run out of town.

What irks him the most is that they didn’t have anything solid on him–so even though he was guilty as sin, firing him without proof of wrongdoing was breaking the rules, hypocritical, unfair.   Very reminiscent of Clay’s anger at society in The Mercenaries, when everyone assumed he was guilty of a hit&run–which he was, but they didn’t prove it.    When I see Westlake returning to a theme like that again and again, I know it has to be coming from somewhere inside of him.   This is an emotion he personally has felt.   Let’s stick a pin in that, and move on.

Edgars swore he’d get even, and for him, getting even means not just robbing Copper Canyon blind, but destroying it utterly, leaving its smug city fathers alive to survey the ruins.   He knew Parker and the others wouldn’t go along if he told them this, but he figures once it’s already happening, they’ll help him finish the job, because they don’t have any other choice.   Yeah.  He’s nuts.   That can happen when you take a man’s whole identity away from him–Edgars doesn’t know how to be a decent crook, but he can’t be a cop anymore, even a crooked one, so his energies turn inwards–he becomes his own opposite.    It’s driven him over the edge.   And he takes a lot of people with him, starting with the policemen left in his care, who he guns down without mercy.

It escalates quickly–he’s gotten some confiscated hand grenades from a storage room at the station house, and he uses one to blow the station house up–then on to the firehouse, where he shoots one of his fellow heisters,  Chambers, a Kentucky redneck, who ironically enough was just hoping the firemen he was guarding would give him an excuse to kill them–but he still won’t just let Edgars gun them down in cold blood–maybe he gets a few years off his stretch in Purgatory for that?  Sorry, the Catholic in us Irish boys dies hard.

Boom goes the firehouse.   Edgars then heads for the gas station, with convenient above-ground tanks, which he’s going to use to set the whole town on fire–Parker and Wycza have caught up with him by now, and are probably about to kill him, but they never get the chance–he blows himself up.   Copper Canyon is burning.   The job is soured.   The whole crew gets out of town in a hurry, with most of the money they were after.   The state troopers, headquartered right outside town, drive right past them without even stopping.  Parker is pissed.   And he doesn’t even know about Grofield’s girl yet.

Grofield was at the telephone switchboard, and unfortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, the girl they left untied to handle any late-night calls,  named Mary Deegan, was very attractive–no physical description of her, but you just assume she’s got to be.   She immediately hit it off with Grofield.   He took his mask off (among other things), and she’s seen his face (among other things).   Not the last time Grofield will mix business with pleasure–he’s no Parker.

Mary wants to go along with Grofield–nay, she insists.   She wants out of this dead end town.   She’s ready to try being somebody other than a switchboard girl.  She doesn’t quite threaten to provide the police with a physical description of Grofield, but she reminds him she can.     The sex must have been really good, because Grofield finally agrees.   When he shows up at the Mack Truck with her, Wycza blows a gasket, but there’s no time to argue, so she blows town with them, sitting in Grofield’s lap.    It’s been an interesting night.

So back at the hideout, things are, shall we say, tense.   Thanks to Edgars, the police are looking not just for thieves, but cop-killing, fireman-slaughtering, town-burning maniacs.   Helicopters are passing overhead, but they have the automotive transport well-concealed.  Paulus is about ready to bolt.  And thanks to Grofield not being able to stop being–Grofield–they have in their midst a young female ‘hostage’ whose uncle is one of the dead firemen.   And now she’s seen all their faces.   Parker takes Grofield aside, and tells him where he can bury Mary’s body.   It isn’t a suggestion.

Grofield is capable of quite a lot of things, but killing a woman probably isn’t one of them.  He and Parker have a tense little discussion, that ends with Parker asking to see Mary alone.   He’s got to know.

She looked up and studied his face in the matchlight, and when it was dark again she said, “The simplest thing would just be to throw me off the cliff here, wouldn’t it?”

“It would.”

“Why don’t you?  You’re not afraid of Grofield.”

“I don’t kill as the easy way out of something.  If I kill, it’s because I don’t have any choice.”

“You mean self-defense.”

“Wrong.  I mean it’s the only way to get what I want.”

In spite of himself, Parker is impressed with her.   She knows exactly what she wants.   It wasn’t just a random impulse she’ll later regret.   She’s sorry her uncle is dead, but that cuts her last tie to Copper Canyon.  She’d been planning her escape for a while, and Grofield showed up at the right time.  She doesn’t know if they’ll stay together, and she doesn’t care.   She wants the new life he can show to her–the theater, travel, big cities–a whole new identity.   She wants Mary Deegan dead as much as Parker does.   This is something she’s doing for herself, but she can also stabilize Grofield, maybe keep him out of jail, force him to do boring bourgeois things his artist’s soul is repulsed by, like filling out imaginative tax returns to justify his illicit income.   That way Parker can go on working with him in the future.   That’s well and good, but it isn’t the main reason he lets her convince him.  Parker can understand her motives for doing what she did.   They make sense to him.   She can live.

In the meantime, Paulus is about to die–Edgars’ deception has confirmed his most paranoid instincts, the circling helicopters doing their grid searches have unnerved him completely, and the calm professional in him collapses, replaced by a panic-stricken amateur.  He wants to leave, with his split of the take, now, while the roadblocks are still up.   The others can’t let him do this, so he sneaks out and does it anyway–Parker, Wycza, and Salsa block his car on a narrow cliffside road, and losing his last solitary shred of self-composure, he goes off the edge–taking his share with him.   Salsa finds this oddly fitting.

There’s plenty left to split between them–a bit over 30k per man.   They give a few hundred to Grofield and Mary as a joke wedding gift (which turns out to be prophetic).   Pop Phillips, the most respectable-looking of them, checks to see if it’s safe to leave–when he comes back and gives the all clear, they pack up their vehicles and head out.   They robbed an entire town, inadvertently leading to its near-total destruction, and the death of uniformed personnel–and they’re just going to drive away from it.    Pity some folks got hurt, but that’s nothing to do with them.   They were just doing their jobs.   Shit happens.

Parker’s only problem with the job was how messy it got.   He was exceptionally satisfied with it, otherwise–it seems to have touched some primal aesthetic sense within him.    It was a beautiful job, a perfect plan, marred only by one man’s madness.   And that madman has failed, because you can’t kill a town with a viable source of income–namely a working mine–the burned sections of Copper Canyon will be rebuilt (a good excuse for urban renewal), and people will gradually stop thinking about it.   They will never know Edgars was the man behind it.   Because his body was burned to ashes.   Nothing left of him.

Back at Thief River Falls, Parker pulls one last posthumous heist–he tells Jean about Edgars.   She isn’t what you’d call grief-stricken, but she is moved to to ponder the tragicomic trajectory of her life to date.

She shook her head, a sour grin on her face.  “I pick ’em, don’t I?  Tell me, Parker, what’s wrong with you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“There’s got to be something, Parker, or I wouldn’t pick you.”

“You didn’t pick me.   Get another glass.”

“Oh, don’t act so goddam tough.   Where are you going from here?”

“Drive to Chicago, take a plane to Miami.   You like Miami?”

“How the hell do I know?   This is the furthest I’ve ever been from New York in my life.”

Jean doesn’t really know who she is, what she wants, but if Parker has any ideas, if he’ll just treat her like a person, she’s game.  Maybe she’ll turn into a butterfly. How would she know?  He wonders just a moment what it would be like to have someone like Mary–someone more self-possessed.   Someone who would know.   Where do you find something like that?   But this is what he’s got for now.  And she’ll do just fine.   For now.   He removes her chrysalis.   The windows are wide open.   The story is over.

What was it all about?   All that death and madness and sex and plunder, interspersed with a few moments of self-discovery and introspection.  It’s a great story–one of the best I’ve ever read, in any genre or none–but was there any point to it at all?    Maybe Grofield, who we will be seeing again in the near future (Mary a bit further off into the future), has a clue for us.

Earlier in the book, before the heist, when the whole gang is chilling at the hideout, waiting for the curtain to rise, we’re told that  Grofield is off in a corner, reciting both parts from Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 2.    I can’t be the first Stark reader who was ever moved to look that up, but I can’t find any other review that mentions it–it’s not in the Cavalier film (in which ‘Grofield’ isn’t an actor) or in Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation.   You can read the whole thing here–but if you can’t take your Elizabethan straight, try this.

Lord, what fools we mortals be.   But while we may all be crazy, some are decidedly more so than others, and in our next book, Donald Westlake (back to his old self again, writing for Random House), is going to try and see just how crazy crazy can get.

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Review: The Mourner

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 It stood in a corner, near the bookcase, on a low pedestal nearly hidden from view.  White, small, alone, bent by grief, the mourner stood, his face turned away.  A young monk, soft-faced, his cowl back to reveal his clipped hair, his hands slender and long-fingered, the toes of his right foot peeking out from under his rough white robe.  His eyes stared at the floor, large, full of sorrow.  His left arm was bent, the hand up alongside his cheek, palm outward and shielding his face.  His right hand, the fingers straight, almost taut, cupped his left elbow, the forearm across his midsection.  The broad sleeve had slipped down his left forearm, showing a thin and delicate wrist.  His whole body was twisted to the left, and bent slightly forward, as though grief had instantaneously aged him.  It was as if he grieved for every mournful thing that had ever happened in the world, from one end of time to another.

“I see,” said Menlo softly, gazing at the mourner.  He reached out gently and picked the statue up, turning it in his hands carefully.   “Yes, I see.  I understand your Mr. Harrow’s craving.  Yes, I do understand.”

“Now the dough,” said Parker.   To him, the statue was merely sixteen inches of alabaster, for the delivery of which he had already been paid in full.

We might as well ask ourselves at this point–who the hell is Richard Stark?   Originally, just a name Westlake had submitted a few short stories under, none of which were terribly different from what he wrote under his own name.  Then a name Westlake chose to use for a one-shot novel about an amoral armed robber, that turned into 24 novels written over a span of about 45 years, because an editor at Pocket Books really enjoyed the first one, and wanted to read more about this guy.

Westlake could only do one novel a year under his own name for Random House, and he was good for a lot more books a year than that.   He needed an outlet for his burgeoning creative energies, and he needed to make more money for his burgeoning family (ex-wives and all).   If he wasn’t writing crime books as Richard Stark, he’d still be writing sex books as Alan Marsh.  So above all else, there’s a pragmatic side to it.

But right from the start, and more with each subsequent book, Stark wrote differently than Westlake.   He used fewer words, for one thing, but that wasn’t because he didn’t know all the same words Westlake did–laconic by choice, not necessity.   Less likely to go off on tangents–more focused, more intense, but also calmer, somehow.  More deliberative.  More objective.   More methodical.  Less judgmental.   He tells you the story, and lets you figure out how you feel about it.   He may have a point of view, but you’ll never be quite sure what it is.   As opposed to Westlake, who is perfectly okay with you having your own take on his story, but is still going to give you his own, because that’s part of the fun of being a writer, right?

Westlake, writing pretty much entirely in the first person at this point (at least in his novels), has his narrators go on at some length about their their experiences, their outlooks, their worldview.   They don’t just narrate, they philosophize.  We know who they are, because they tell us, in great detail, how they got where they are, why they are the people they came to be, and we see how their experiences change them, for better and for worse.  And we see things entirely from their perspective,  of course–we see every other character through their eyes.

But Stark, writing in the third person, with a protagonist who isn’t remotely interested in sharing with the reader, sees no reason to try and justify his actions, whose origins will always remain obscure (and downright unaccountable), who seems to have no opinions that don’t directly relate to the job at hand, no interests other than getting paid and (eventually) laid–you see the problem.  Stark has no choice but to jump over into the heads of other characters in the book, some of whom basically become protagonists in their own right, short-lived as they often are.

Parker is only interesting when he’s active, engaged, and he seems to require long stretches of complete inactivity and total disengagement.   How many pages can you write about Parker sitting in a dark room, with the TV on, staring blankly at the screen, not taking any of it in?   That’s good for one short enigmatic paragraph.  At best.

Ipso facto, there is not one Parker novel written entirely from Parker’s perspective.   And that’s for two reasons–the first being that Parker’s consciousness, his interior castle (to borrow a phrase from St. Teresa), is too sparsely decorated, too perfect in its simplicity–and the second is that we want to see Parker through the eyes of other people, to get a different perspective on him.  People whose interior castles are anything but simple.  People who do have worldviews to share with us.   People we can actually understand, if not necessarily approve of.  People who stand in contrast to Parker himself.  The books are an exercise in comparative psychology.   Among other things.

So anyway, this book directly follows up on the events of The Outfit.   Parker and Handy McKay are out to steal a small statue from a foreign diplomat for Bett Harrow’s industrialist father, who paid them $50,000 in advance to do it–Parker doesn’t like the set-up but he agrees to it because Bett has a murder weapon with his fingerprints on it to trade–technically it was self-defense, but Parker knows he’s never getting off on any technicalities.  He could just disappear and create a new identity, but that’s a pain to do, so he figures 25k is a decent enough haul.   He never bothers to tell them he’s got a partner to split with, because they don’t need to know that.

Mr. Harrow thinks Parker needs to know the full history and provenance of this statue, which is one of the lost Mourners of Dijon (yes, they really exist, that’s a picture of some of them up above, on tour at the Met), and he simply can’t understand why Parker isn’t even a little bit interested–doesn’t this man understand the concept of plot exposition?

Parker doesn’t give a rat’s ass about plot exposition.   Parker just needs to know where it is, what it looks like, and a blueprint of the house would be good.   Art has absolutely no meaning to Parker.  It does not exist for him.  The Lost Mourner of Dijon might as well be a  garden gnome from Walmart, as far as he’s concerned.  He’s not a philistine, because a philistine has bad taste.   Parker has no tastes of any kind when it comes to anything other than women–he’s not all that picky there in a pinch.   Art is only meaningful to him as a potential source of income.   But he’d so much rather steal cash.   Simpler.

And yet, because he spent a few nights in the rack with a rich leggy hollow-cheeked blonde with a taste for violence and manipulation, he’s forced to become an art thief.  And to listen to an impromptu art history lecture from a guy who makes airplanes for a living.  While the rich leggy hollow-cheeked blonde laughs quietly to herself and stares at the ceiling.

So here we see Richard Stark doing what he does–rattling Parker’s cage, testing his reactions, taking him out of his comfort zone.   Parker just wants to do like he did in The Man With the Getaway Face–over and over and over–let him hijack an armored car here, steal a payroll there, and he cares not who writes the nation’s laws.  Not like any of them are written for his benefit.   But much as he (and we) enjoy that routine, it’s too simple–Stark wants to mix things up, keep Parker hopping, find out how he deals with matters he’s not accustomed to–like international espionage.   But not the way Ian Fleming writes it.   Not the least tiny bit like that.

Parker and Handy have inadvertently stumbled onto a much more complicated situation than they had bargained on, as Parker learns after he rescues Handy from two Outfit guys who are working with a member of the secret police of Klastrava, a tiny central European nation under Soviet sway.   There is, you should know, no such place as Klastrava, in central Europe or anywhere else, but Westlake loved to make up his own countries–I may commission an atlas someday.   Or possibly a google map.

The policeman/spy is a short, chubby, and utterly charming fellow, whose name is Auguste Menlo (which is not, best as I can tell, a name one would find in central Europe–it’s actually an anglicized version of an old Irish name, and I’m guessing Westlake lifted it from Menlo Park, New Jersey).  He has conned a local branch of The Outfit into working with him.  He had previously conned his own government (and perhaps himself) into thinking he was incorruptible, so they sent him on a special mission to America.   See, the the diplomat with the statue (named Kapor) also has about $100,000 that he embezzled from the Klastravan government, which is hidden in the same place as the statue Mr. Harrow covets for his collection.   Menlo is to liquidate Kapor and return the money–in that order.

Menlo had heretofore lived a life of unblemished Marxian integrity, faithful to his plump pleasant wife, never taking a bribe, sniffing out the non-orthodox (then snuffing them out), acting the part of a not-so-grand Inquisitor, up until the moment he found out he could become a rich man in America, at which point he immediately decided to hell with Marx, he wanted some capital of his own.   He’s going to try playing some new Engels,  har-de-har-har.

There is a kind of man who is honest so long as the plunger is small.  This kind of man has chosen his life and finds it rewarding, so he will not risk it for anything less rewarding.  And while Menlo had long since lost all interest in his Anna, the occasional woman who became available seemed to him hardly much of an improvement, certainly not worth the risk of losing his comfortable home.  Nor were the financial temptations that cropped up along his official path worth the comfort and security he already enjoyed.  As time went by, his reputation grew, and so did the trust it inspired.   Who better to trust with one hundred thousand dollars, four thousand miles from home?

Who indeed?  Finally faced with real temptation, Menlo’s carefully constructed identity instantly crumbles away, revealing his true identity–a thief and a rascal, loyal only to himself.   But at this new avocation he is an amateur, though chillingly professional in other respects.    And since he can’t take the money for himself if he goes about his job in the expected manner, with his officially sanctioned confederates, he needs to enlist the help of true professionals in this new field of crime that he is entering–he tries the organized gangsters he’s heard so much about, who have some helpful connections, but are otherwise a bit of a disappointment.

Then he has a series of encounters with Parker and Handy on their parallel mission, who fall afoul of Menlo’s group, forcing them to eliminate both the Outfit men  and the Klastravan spymaster who was about to execute Menlo for his disloyalty.    There’s a lot of torturing going on in this section of the book, by both Parker and the opposition, the difference being that Parker doesn’t enjoy it (Handy neither, since he’s one of the people being tortured at one point).

They learn about the 100 g’s from Menlo, who learns about The Mourner from them–and unlike them, he actually gives a damn.   Something of an art buff, is our Mr. Menlo.   How very bourgeois of him.  Anyway,  they strike a deal, which neither side intends to honor–Parker and Handy will keep him alive long enough for him to tell them where the money is.   They expect him to try a cross sometime after they make their escape.  He decides to do it a bit earlier than that.

When they break into Kapor’s art room at the ambassadorial mansion, he is most disparaging of Kapor’s miscellaneous collection of statuary, sniffing that such lack of taste deserves no one hundred thousand dollars (and in this we learn that he is not, like Parker, amoral–no truly amoral man ever used the word ‘deserve’ in earnest).

Menlo is grateful in his own way to Parker and Handy for their help,  but has no intention of splitting ‘his’ money with them, and recognizes that they are too dangerous to keep alive a moment longer than necessary.   When they are distracted by the cash he’s produced from a hollow sculpture of Apollo, he produces a deadly toy he’d concealed from them–a Hi-Standard Derringer, firing only two shots.   He makes both of them count, leaving the startled heisters for dead, as he makes his exit, with the loot and the statue.  He only had two bullets, and he does have to make his exit quickly, but still–he should have made sure they were dead.   He’s so enraptured by his own prowess, the stunning early success of his new identity, that he fails to do so.

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(I’m not a gun person, but damn that’s a neat little gizmo).

It should be pointed out that this is the second time Handy McKay’s affable nature, the one thing he does not share with Parker, proves a source of danger to them both–when Menlo wanted to grab his shaving kit, where the derringer was concealed in a false bottom, Parker had been disinclined to oblige, but Handy said what’s the harm, which turned out to not be a rhetorical question.   Just as in The Man With the Getaway Face, Handy had given Stubbs a flashlight  to light up his basement prison, which Stubbs then used to free himself.    In the world of Richard Stark, it is literally true that no good deed goes unpunished.

So now we enter into a whole section of the book where Menlo is the POV character, and we follow him on his hastily improvised trip from Washington DC to Miami, where the Harrows are waiting for the Mourner, using the getaway car his presumably deceased associates had so thoughtfully provided.   Bett Harrow has already invited him into her bed once (much to his astonishment), after Parker, in his “no sex, I’m working” mode had refused to service her needs (much to her astonishment), and he’s looking forward to repeating that experience.

It’s a very enjoyable section of the book, and it shows why Westlake had to become Richard Stark in order to write about Parker (and why when he couldn’t summon Stark’s voice, he had to stop writing the books for many years).  Stark is, you might say, multi-lingual–he can get into Parker’s head, interpret his strange mode of thought to us–but he can also understand a man like Menlo, sophisticated, urbane, driven by more conventional human hungers.

Writing as himself, Westlake can appreciate a man like Parker, be fascinated by him, but can’t really understand him.   Writing as Stark, he can temporarily shuck off his usual moral parameters (which are always there, even in his bloodiest books–especially in his bloodiest books), and just go with the flow, appreciating each character’s unique perspective, without necessarily sharing any of them.   Though you can’t help but think that Stark thinks Parker’s way is best.   And he wishes he could share fully in it, but somehow he can’t–Stark describes The Mourner to us, and we know–it’s not just sixteen inches of alabaster to him.   Stark is midway between Parker and the rest of us, making him the ideal chronicler for both Parker and the people Parker works with–and against.

There’s a recurring theme in Westlake’s work (writing as Stark or himself), which I’d best mention now–you have to watch out for amateurs.   They will catch you offguard, do what you don’t expect, and often win the day, or at least a skirmish, through sheer unconventionality.   But they have their limits–professionalism is the key to a long successful career, in any field of endeavor.    And the one thing a professional thief knows first and foremost is that too much improvisation is going  to backfire on you, sooner or later–another is that you need to know the territory you’re working in.   Menlo is entirely improvising, and he’s now deep into terra incognita, as he drives through the American heartland.

One thing after another goes wrong for him–he gets caught in a speed trap (something he’d never even heard of before), and has to kill a small town policeman to make his escape.  He realizes more and more that he’s out of his element, not merely in terms of being a stranger in a strange land, but also in that a lifetime in the Klastravan thought police has ill prepared him for this new life he’s entered upon, in which he is no longer part of a political machine, but a free agent, with no organization to fall back on.   His job was not merely a livelihood–it was who he was, and now he’s separated himself permanently from that, and from everything else he’s ever known.  He’s become a stranger to himself.   You don’t have to read every book Donald Westlake ever wrote to know how this journey is likely to end.

He reaches the Harrows, and makes a deal with them–The Mourner in exchange for assistance in creating a new identity for himself in America–he also needs to get a now unnecessary suicide capsule in his tooth removed.  What he doesn’t realize is that Bett, who once again willingly accepts him as her lover, has told her father to promise him anything–then turn him in to the Feds once the statue has been handed over.   He never does learn that American capitalists can be just as cold-blooded as his former colleagues, because when he returns with The Mourner, he finds Parker waiting for him in Harrow’s hotel room, gun in hand–and turns out that suicide capsule comes in handy after all.   The amateur’s lucky streak has run out.

Then the story rolls back, and we see what happened to Parker after Menlo’s over-hasty exist from the art room.  Handy is near death, but Parker was only grazed.  He braces Kapor, who is suitably frightened to learn of his narrow escape.  Parker offers to get back half of Kapor’s money from Menlo, in return for a doctor for him and Handy (and of course the other half of the money).

This is the second time in the book that Parker has gone out of his way to save his partner, and we’re going to see this kind of loyalty from him in the future–and never quite be sure what triggers it.   Parker agrees to pay for a hospital for Handy out of his half of the 100k, and just for one startled moment we’re reminded of the Good Samaritan–later, when Handy survives, Parker says he can pay the bill out of his half, which almost comes as a relief–but the enigma of Parker’s selective altruism remains, a mystery that will never be fully solved.

Handy asks what Kapor said when he found out The Mourner was gone–Parker realizes Kapor, who has now absconded with his diminished bankroll, with Menlo’s colleagues hard on his heels, never even noticed the statue was gone.   You wonder if somebody will someday steal the statue from Harrow, and whether he’ll meet the same fate as some of its past temporary owners.   And you wonder if Harrow, for all his desire to possess The Mourner, really understands it, and the impulse that created it, any better than Parker.   Certainly not as well as Richard Stark.

The main identity puzzle of The Mourner is Menlo, but we’ve been presented with a second conundrum–why is Bett Harrow so eager to offer herself to Parker, who she knows to be a thief and a murderer–and then Menlo, who she believes, briefly, to have murdered Parker.   Parker, to be sure, has been shown to be attractive to most women he meets, but Menlo is by no means similarly gifted.  And atypically, Parker himself gives us (and her) the answer–she’s attracted to strength.   Which she defines as winning–by fair means or foul, doesn’t matter.

She feels no attachment to the men she beds, she doesn’t care what they look like or how good in bed they are.   She’ll betray any of them when it suits her, but she needs them to be strong, dangerous in some way, to satisfy some secret yearning in herself, and in her privileged world, a good man is really hard to find.     Parker, now in post-heist mode, his wounds forgotten, tells her he’s got a few hours to kill, and then she’ll never see him again.   He walks into the bedroom, and she follows him, seemingly in a daze.   A classic noir blonde of the deadliest variety, who would have spelled doom for the common run of hardboiled hero, has finally met her match–and lost him.

I guess you could say there’s one more identity crisis to be resolved here, and that’s Handy’s–he’s been putting it off, caught up in the events of the past three books, but when Parker visits him in the hospital, he says he’s finally ready to retire to his diner in Presque Isle, Maine.   He says Parker should drop by sometime, and he’ll flip him an egg.  Parker will never drop by, and they both know it.

Handy only plays an active role in one more Parker novel, and his absence is sorely felt, but there are reasons why Westlake is retiring him so young.   He’s too much like Parker, differing mainly in his more easy-going nature.   The only mystery to Handy McKay is why he stayed in this racket so long.   He likes the work, he’s extremely skilled at it, but he seems temperamentally unsuited.  We’ve seen it in these small acts of compassion that have cost him and Parker dearly.

He’s never going to be a fully honest man either, and his compassion has its limits.   Menlo, contemplating his impending betrayal of both men, has a moment of exceptional insight when he inwardly refers to the two of them as “the most lupine of wolves.”   But for the present, Handy is going to try being at least a semi-honest citizen.   Just to see what it’s like.   Parker has no interest in being anything other than what he was born to be.   And that’s why he’s the strongest of all.

And in the next book, his strength is going to be tested like never before.   Art may mean nothing to Parker, but he is nonetheless an artist after his own fashion, and when we return, we’re going to watch him paint what might well be called his masterpiece.   With a most fascinating group of collaborators.

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