Tag Archives: Existentialism

Review: The Glass Key

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

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

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

Ned Beaumont frowned. “I told you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’ve got votes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cut it out, Ned,” Madvig grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1684

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

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Review: Enough, Part the Second–Ordo

 

Ordo is a story in which absolutely nothing happens.  At least by the standards of crime fiction.  And that’s rare for Westlake.  He didn’t normally write that way.  Lots of famous authors do, of course.  ‘Serious’ authors.  The ‘slice of life’ folks.  They show us ordinary people having experiences, conversations, epiphanies, while performing various mundane tasks along the road to death.  Because that is, after all, most of what happens in life, (or if not, who has time to read?).

That’s why we eagerly consume crime fiction, along with a host of other entertainments.   To get the hell away from that mundane aspect of daily life.   Cunning genre writers find ways to tell us things about life, convey their personal insights, while still giving us a nice thrilling story, and that’s Westlake’s normal thing.

I think this is crime fiction, though.  In its own fashion.   It’s a murder mystery, and the title character, Ordo Tupikos, is the detective.  This is his only case.  He is not a reluctant detective, like most of Westlake’s other protagonists in this type of story, who get roped into finding out whodunnit, and having done so, usually feel like they should have left well enough alone.   They are perpetually discontented, not at ease with themselves, and a lot of fun to read about.

But Ordo, who is not the least bit discontented, who is totally at ease with himself at all times, really wants to crack this case, and when he finally does, he’s satisfied with the answer he got, and he goes back to his life, and that’s it.  End of story.  It’s interesting; I wouldn’t say it was fun.   It’s funny at points, but you don’t laugh while reading it.

So why would anyone want to read this?   Well, aside from the fact that it’s very well written, it’s mainly set in Hollywood, and the other main character in this mystery–at once the murderer and the victim–is a beautiful famous movie star, who used to be married to the title character.   Well, she was and she wasn’t.  It takes a little time to explain.

American writers of prose fiction are perpetually fascinated by Hollywood (they can’t afford not to be), and Westlake was no exception–he was increasingly dependent on the entertainment biz to supplement his income, he had friends and colleagues in Hollywood, he spent a fair bit of time there, he knew a lot of producers, directors, screenwriters, and must have met at least a few real film stars.  He’d tried the acting life himself for a while,  the straw hat theater circuit, none too successfully.

His first series protagonist was an actor (the Phil Crawford Trilogy, if you want to call it that), and he repeatedly wrote about actors in his fiction–he also wrote a short tell-all biography of Elizabeth Taylor  under a pseudonym–which had the misfortune to end just before she met Richard Burton.  Still a very sympathetic and rather insightful portrayal, I thought.  Taylor never really chose stardom, though, at least not at first–that life was chosen for her, by her mother.   Most people who become stars (as opposed to mere actors) choose to be stars.  That’s a rather important point.   The star in this book is much closer to a certain Norma Jeane Mortenson.

As I mentioned last week, to the extent that Enough got any critical notice, it mainly generated a lot of head-scratching from the critics.  Why is this story paired with A Travesty, a farcical yarn about a detective/murderer, when the protagonists, the stories, even the writing styles, are so blatantly mismatched?

Both stories have first-person narrators, yes.  But whereas Carey Thorpe is the more usual type of Westlake narrator, full of clever urbane asides, pop cultural references, and inadvertent revelations of his own confused identity that he may fail or succeed in grasping before the story ends (this one fails), Ordo Tupikos addresses us in a simple unadorned fashion, describing his experiences to us matter-of-factly, much in the manner of Paul Cole, the amnesiac narrator of Memory, a book Westlake chose not to publish in his life, perhaps because he knew it wasn’t what people expected from him, perhaps for other reasons (see my review).

But while Paul Cole (an actor, reportedly on his way to stardom before he was skulled with a chair by a jealous husband) is prevented from achieving self-understanding by his amnesia, Ordo, much like Parker, has a very complete understanding of himself.  He knows who he is.  He’s always known.  He can’t understand how anyone couldn’t know that. He’s Ordo, and he’s never wanted to be anyone else, anything else.  What would be the point in wanting something like that?   What else can you ever be but you?

Unlike Parker, though, he has to tell us his story himself–no Richard Stark to translate, and really, no translator needed–he’s not a wolf in  human form–he’s just a man.   He doesn’t rob banks.  He has no problem performing those mundane tasks I mentioned above to earn his bread.  He has no creative impulses to satisfy, frustrated or otherwise.  His intelligence seems to be quite normal.  He isn’t what you’d call intellectually curious, but then he finds himself presented with a puzzle, and it triggers this itch in his head (like Parker gets sometimes), and he has to go solve the puzzle before he can be at ease with himself again.

Ordo is a sailor, thirty-eight years of age at the time our story begins, doing a hitch in the U.S. Navy, as he has been for most of his adult life.   But he’s no military lifer–his job isn’t who he is–it’s just what he does for a living.  He’s going to retire at some point, and get another job.  He is mainly out of touch with his mother and siblings–his family isn’t the source of his identity, nor is his ethnicity, a mixture of Greek, Swede, Native American, Irish, and Italian.

Two marriages, both short-lived, no children.  Nothing in the way of religious convictions, and no indication of any kind of conventional patriotism, though he’d surely fight for his country if called upon.   Born in Wyoming of all places, he’s been all over, and has no ties to any particular community.   Not even a ball team to root for.  He just lives.

The end of the second marriage seemingly upset him (he implies his wife was unfaithful).   He drank a bit, got into some fights, and the judge suggested he go back to the Navy for a while, which he did–the routine straightened him out, and he started dating a divorced woman with three kids.  He likes her, and she him, but it’s not true love, just companionship, sex.  He doesn’t identify himself by who he’s sleeping with either.

One day he’s working at the Naval Repair Station that is his current assignment, and one of his fellow sailors shows him an article in a magazine about Dawn Devayne.  He knows who that is, one of the reigning blonde bombshells, he’s seen some of her movies, but is confused by the fact that his buddy is telling him that the article mentions she was once married to a sailor named Ordo Tupikos.  There’s a picture of him and her on their wedding day, in San Diego.   Her name was Estelle Anlic when he married her.

Ordo doesn’t understand it–Estelle Anlic, then just a teenager (she lied to him about her age, and her mother nearly had him arrested for statutory rape before she had the marriage annulled), looked nothing at all like Dawn Devayne.  She wasn’t a blonde for one thing, but it’s much more than that.  Estelle was pretty enough, but nothing special–Dawn Devayne is widely considered one of the most beautiful glamorous women on the planet.  She’s got ‘It’, as the saying goes.

Estelle didn’t even know what ‘It’ was.   But they were happy together, for the short time they were married.   He loved her.  It was real, whatever it was they had between them.   Wasn’t it?

He’s confused.  He knew Estelle Anlic.  This woman in the magazine, the woman on the movie screen–that isn’t her.  That’s another person entirely.  And yet this person used to be his wife.  She’s become somebody else.  He didn’t know that was possible.   It never occurred to him that people change their identities.   Not just their names, their appearances, but who they are inside.

His navy buddies kid him about it for days, until one of them makes the mistake of calling Orry (his nickname) by his former wife’s current last name, at which point he picks up a wrench and walks toward the man.

“My name is Orry.”

He looked surprised and a little scared.   He said:

“Sure.  Sure, I know that.”

I said:

“Let me hear you say it.”

He said:

“Jeez, Orry, it was just a–”

“Okay, then,” I said, and went back to where I was working, and that was the last I heard about that.”

But what’s he supposed to do when his girlfriend, having heard about his first wife, gets all excited, and wants to try a lot of weird sexual positions?  And gets upset when he doesn’t understand, and won’t play along with her fantasies?   He doesn’t understand people any more than Parker does.

What did Fran want from me, anyway?   Just because it turns out I used to be married to somebody famous,all of a sudden I’m supposed to be different?  I’m not any different, I’m the same guy I always was.  People don’t just change, they have ways that they are, and that’s what they are.  That’s who they are, that’s what you mean by personality.  The way a person is.

Then I thought: Estelle changed.

That’s right.   Estelle Anlic is Dawn Devayne now.  She’s changed, she’s somebody else.  There isn’t any–she isn’t–there isn’t any Estelle Anlic any more, nowhere on the face of the earth.

And if she isn’t the same person she was when he knew her, loved her, does that mean he’s somebody else now?

He’s got to understand.   He’s got to find out what happened to Estelle.  So he requests some leave, and on his way to L.A. makes a brief stop in New York, where he meets a hooker who specializes in pretending to Dawn Devayne, and is insulted when he passes up her services, screaming after him that what he’s after is Robert Redford.   Who now I think on it, is probably who they’d have cast to play Ordo if there’d been a Hollywood film based on this, but never mind now.

He gets to Hollywood,  a small town within the labyrinth that is L.A., and it doesn’t take him long to find Dawn Devayne’s agent, who is obviously suspicious at first, but being a rank sentimentalist, is delighted when he finds out that yes, this really is his client’s first great love, and he facilitates their reunion happily. And Dawn herself is eager to see Orry again.

He’s giving us his impressions of Tinseltown as all this is happening, and what he’s showing us is an entire community of people who are all trying to become somebody else, who are proudest when you recognize them for playing some other person, even in just a bit role.  The ones who haven’t made it yet try to look as though they have, as they push carts through the supermarket with an air of privilege, while picking up only the cheapest items.

Even the limo chauffeur who drives him to the agent’s office is playing a part–the guy who knows all the stars.  Dawn Devayne?  Great lady, very real, doesn’t give herself airs at all.  He’s completely thrown off balance when Ordo mentions he was married to her.   That wasn’t in the script.

What really fascinates Ordo is the Walk of Stars, where the names of icons past and present are embedded in the sidewalk.   He hears a family of tourists talking, the kids asking about all the names they don’t recognize, Emil Jannings,  Dolores Costello–the boy teases his sister by saying that all these people are buried underneath their names, standing straight up to save space.  She isn’t 100% sure he’s lying.

So finally he meets Dawn Devayne.  Who remembers him.  Very very well.  She says he hasn’t changed a bit (which is not the lie it usually is when old friends meet), and of course he can’t return the compliment, if that’s what it is.

And before you know it, they’re lovers again.  She just decides they should be, so that’s what happens.  He says she’s everything men imagine she would be, everything his girlfriend Fran was trying (and failing) to be.   And he adapts to that rather effortlessly, and she’s very pleased with his performance in bed.  But there’s something about the way she treats him–like he’s her old dog that she had brought up from the country to play with.  The old dog learns a few new tricks.   But he’s still just a dog.

He asks her current co-star, heterosexual onscreen, gay in real life, and whose name is Rod (of course it is) how Estelle Anlic became Dawn Devane.  When Rod realizes Ordo is seriously asking the question, he gives him the best answer he can.

“She decided to,” he said.  He had a crinkly, masculine, self-confident smile, but at the same time he had another expression going on behind the smile, an expression that told me the smile was a fake, a mask.  The inner expression was also smiling, but it was more intelligent, and more truly friendly.  He said, using that inner expression, “Why did you ask me that question, Orry?’

It was, of course, because I believed he’d somehow done the same sort of thing as Dawn, that somewhere there existed photos of him in some unimaginable other person.  But it would sound like an insult to say that, and I said nothing, floundering around for an alternate answer.

“You’re right,” he said.

“Then how?” I asked him.  “She decided to be somebody else.  How is it possible to do that?”

He shrugged and grinned, friendly and amiable, but not really able to describe colors to a blind man.  “You find somebody you’d rather be,” he said.  “It really is as simple as that, Orry.”

I knew he was wrong.  There was truth in the idea that people like Dawn and himself had found somebody else they’d rather be, but it surely couldn’t be as simple as that.  Everybody has fantasies, but not everybody throws away the real self and lives in the fantasy.

The only real drama in the story comes from two painful moments where Dawn is forced to confront her past–see, she won’t admit she’s changed that much.  Orry tries to ask her about it, in spite of Rod warning him not to, and she just blows him off, says she’s the same person she always was.  But when her agent, the sentimental old fool, presents her with a goddam standee made from a blown-up copy of that old wedding photograph of her and Ordo–with her looking as she did then–she flies into a rage.

Then later, her mother Edna (every bit as vulgar and common as you’d expect in a movie about a starlet’s past, but that’s how it often is in real life as well) shows up with her husband–also a navy man, retired, he and Ordo understand each other very well.   Edna, not quite recognizing Ordo, starts asking probing questions about what he’s doing there, is he going to be husband #5, like that.

Finally, Ordo, irritated by her attitude, probably still angry that she broke him and Estelle up, tells her he was husband #1–and with those words, Dawn gives him a stricken look, and makes her exit.  He never sees her again.  She just stays away from the house until he gets the message, and leaves.

He goes back home.   He finishes his term of service in the navy, retires, and marries his girlfriend Fran, who he says calmed back down, and they had perfectly good, perfectly ordinary sex, lived a perfectly good, perfectly ordinary life, and were contented with that.

He understands now, you see.  He doesn’t have that itch in his brain anymore.  Rod’s answer to the mystery of Estelle Anlic was good as far as it went, but Ordo figured the rest of it out.  To become somebody new, you have to kill the person you used to be.  There’s no other way.

Dawn Devayne murdered Estelle Anlic, who in Orry’s imagination is now buried standing up under her name on the Walk of Stars.  The reason Dawn seduced Ordo so passionately, luring him into an erotic fantasy of swimming pool sex and wild Hollywood parties was because he brought back memories of Estelle, and she wanted him to think only about Dawn, the fantasy woman she’d become, so dull mediocre little Estelle would slip back into nonexistence.  But after he identified himself to her mother as the man who had married and loved Estelle Anlic (as he had never loved Dawn Devayne), she just had to write him out of existence as well.

Why did Westlake give Ordo Tupikos a Greek name, even though he’s only one-fifth Greek at most?   Because simple and uneducated a man as he is, he’s a philosopher.  He looks beneath surface appearances, at the way things really are.  His first name means ‘order’, ‘rank’, or ‘class’ in Latin.  His last name can mean ‘shape’ or ‘type’ in Greek.   Like another laconic sailor man of fiction, he is what he is and that’s all that he is.   And like that fabled spinach-eater of yore, he’s perpetually confused by the airs the people around him put on (well blow me down, I finally got an Elzie Segar ref in edgewise).

And why is this story a good companion piece for A Travesty, after all?  Aside from the fact that its hero actually does solve a sort of metaphorical murder mystery?  Because Ordo is the polar opposite of Carey Thorpe, a man who ran as fast as he could from self-knowledge, who defined himself by his work, his women, his social position, his possessions, and yet had an identity so poorly rooted that he slipped effortlessly into detective work without even thinking about it, and committed murders just as thoughtlessly, one identity blending into another, until the whole confused structure collapsed on itself.

And as I’ve said too many times already, the only real crime in the world of Donald E. Westlake (under any of his many names) is the crime of not knowing yourself.   That’s the crime that gets you caught.  Keep it simple, stupid.  Only is Westlake practicing what he preaches, when two such fundamentally different stories of his appear at the same time, in the same book?   He might have asked himself that same question.

This is a very existentialist piece, isn’t it?   Ordo, I mean, not A Travesty (or this review).   That’s probably why the French took to it–short as it is, Ordo seems to have had at least two solo editions in French translation, and as you can see up top, one translator was Jean Patrick Manchette, a rather eminent Serie Noire author in his own right.   I’d guess that would have pleased Westlake even more than the French film adaptation made about five years before his death, which I haven’t seen, but which is reportedly quite faithful to the original–except it’s not set in Hollywood.   Much as I admire Le Cinema Francais, much as I know its many great stars are self-creations just as much as the American screen idols (if not more), is there really a French equivalent to Hollywood?   The Riviera, perhaps?  Cannes?  ::shrugs gallically::

Westlake was no Ordo Tupikos, and well he knew it.   Neither was he Carey Thorpe.  But both men existed within him, and many others, and that’s the enduring mystery of human identity–that in containing multitudes, we are still ourselves.  And one of the most outstanding citizens of Westlake’s inner metropolis is next on our agenda–Mr. Dortmunder himself, in his fourth outing.

And overall, the least distinguished to date (it’s probably my least favorite installment), but a pivotal work in the canon, not least in that it introduces a rather looming figure to the ever-enlarging list of usual suspects in the Dortmunder-verse.  Later described as an ICBM with legs.   Let’s just set out a glass of vodka and red wine to propitiate him, and hope he doesn’t notice us gawking.  Though really, how can we help it?

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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