Tag Archives: Good Behavior

Extemporania: St. Dismas at the 12th Precinct

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Living a Dortmunderian life, I’ve struggled to get back to my Dortmunderian blogging. It’s not that I have nothing to write about, I just struggle for the time and concentration to get the work done. So many distractions from what was once my most pleasurable distraction from the quotidian exigencies of daily existence (I mentioned my life was Dortmunderian, did I not?)

So just to write about something, and remind myself it’s possible–how come none of the Barney Miller fans among my regulars ever brought this up?

It used to be very hard to watch Barney Miller in syndication With the advent of old people cable channels selling dubious life insurance policies, reverse mortgages, and of course pillows made by crazy men, what’s left of us Boomers can revisit all kinds of blurry childhood memories–but because I live in Gotham itself, I can actually watch my favorite sitcom cops on WPIX. (WPIX still exists! I passed their midtown offices just the other day!) The picture quality is a little better, and the commercials a mite less depressing.

For a while there, Herself (also a fan) and myself were binge-watching; lately it’s more hit or miss. But some weeks back, I recorded an ep I had no past recollection of, and at some point I realized I was in the presence of a subtextual Westlake homage.

The Brother is just a run-of-the-mill ep where various oddball personages descend upon the 12th to perplex the good officers with their varied quirks and conundrums, always with Barney in the background, dispensing wry homespun wisdom like a Solomon come to judgment, but without threatening to bisect any babies. (I presume that would be illegal now.)

Only one of the plot threads need concern us–Brother Thomas Kelvin, a stern-faced older man dressed in clerical garb files a missing person report with Wojciehowicz (I shamefully admit I copy/pasted the name from Wikipedia). A novitiate has gone missing from their hotel, just before they were going to catch a train upstate.

The good brother (Not a priest! Don’t call him Father! He hates that!) hails from a monastery in the Adirondacks–the order of St. Dismas. He is not asked to to explain who St. Dismas is, which I suppose is reasonable enough, since it doesn’t in any way impact the case–except wouldn’t Dietrich tell everyone anyway?

You’d expect a brief hagiography lecture from the 12th’s resident know-it-all, but Dietrich is sadly distracted in this episode by learning to his deep distress (I can’t offhand think of an ep where he looked sad for such a protracted period) that he can’t credibly pose as a woman to entrap would-be muggers. Just shortly before this, he was happily asking a befuddled Barney which silk scarf would go better with his new ensemble. Scarlet or wheat?

(And there’s a subplot involving Inspector Luger feeling lonely and bending Barney’s ear about it, but that’s basically every ep, right?)

Turns out, finding himself amidst the infamous fleshpots of Gotham, the young man experienced a sort of secondary vocation, centered around getting laid prior to renouncing worldly pleasures. He had encountered one of the many good-natured and appealingly blowsy young courtesans that one finds in many a Barney Miller episode (and so rarely in real life, which as we all know is greatly overrated).

They were just about to commence with the deflowering when the authorities rudely interrupted. The working girl even imputes she might not have charged for her services, which is really twisting the knife. Wojo, ever sympathetic to the mating urge, slyly arranges for the novitiate to proceed with his initiation, while Brother Kelvin and the others head north. We never learn which vocation won out in the end, but he had a nice vacation either way.

Decent enough outing, for the late run of this show. They had lost a few too many key cast members by this point. (I like Levitt, who doesn’t, but his height insecurity and desire to ditch the uniform for plainclothes were no substitute for Fish’s endless kvetching, or Nick’s horrible coffee.)

Leaving that completely irrelevant fan-bitching aside–what makes me so sure this is a Westlake homage? Good Behavior, which prominently mentions the penitent of the two crucified thieves, was published in 1985. This episode was aired in October of 1979. How do we know Westlake wasn’t homaging Barney? Seems a fair bet he watched when he had the time.

Ah, but that was the second instance of Westlake namechecking the light-fingered saint. The first was in Brothers Keepers, published in 1975, and reviewed by the Times in May of that year. Meaning that the TV scribes had at least three years to get around to it, and get just a teensy bit light-fingered themselves. (Not that the storylines match up terribly well, and if they had, no doubt the legal department would have insisted on a different saint).

And as you all should know, Brothers Keepers involves a young Catholic brother who himself takes a sexy sabbatical with a beautiful young woman, though she’s not a pro, and they’re in Puerto Rico, which I’m pretty sure qualifies as a dispensation. I’ll check with my confessor later.

But more to the point, one of the denizens of the equally fictive Crispinite order in that novel used to be a criminal himself, briefly belonged to an order of felonious monks (Westlake hated giving up that jazz-based pun that was going to be his title, but found he respected his monks too much to make them into crooks, even of the comic variety). They chose St. Dismas as their patron, and according to Brother Silas, this monastery was nothing more than a heinous hideout created by ex-cons to go on being the same irreformable reprobates they were before.

So there is my case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury–but being an honest prosecutor (I’m sure there must be some), I must mention one piece of evidence that might argue for an alternate explanation. There is in fact a Church of St. Dismas in upstate New York, if not a monastery. And if you’d believe it, it’s in none other than the picturesque hamlet of Dannemora. Westlake country par excellence. And the setting of yet another of his Nephew books, that was published in 1974. (But seriously, whoever named that church had a Westlakeian sense of humor, so I think my case still holds water).

One more observation I must relate, though–see, the writers had to find a way to justify the 12th going to look for the missing monk trainee. He hasn’t been gone anywhere near 48 hours. Brother Kelvin, determined to get his inductee back, insists he may have been abducted by deprogrammers, anti-cultists–there were some suspicious characters hanging out in the hotel lobby. Wojo says “But you’re the Catholic Church.” Kelvin says that to some people they’re just the nuts on the hill. The parents may have objected to their son’s vocation. It’s enough to keep the story moving. If you don’t think about it too much–never a good idea, even if you’re watching the best sitcom ever, which Barney Miller very nearly is.

But you know how Westlake was–always scavenging ideas he felt hadn’t been given a good enough shake. Suppose somebody had a sincere vocation, joined a religious order–maybe a convent this time–and suppose her father was a rich bastard who objected to this, had her kidnapped, hired a deprogrammer specializing in cultists to talk her out of it? And as it turns out, the Brothers of St. Dismas, while not committed to a strict vow of silence, minimize vocal communication as much as possible when at the monastery (this perhaps explains why Brother Kelvin never stops gabbing for most of the episode, but has little aptitude for pleasant conversation). Probably they write notes instead.

It’s just a thought. I still have them, sometimes. I have some more, about a mystery writer I just recently discovered, who has openly confessed his debt to Westlake–most specifically, to Richard Stark. He’s published three crime novels thus far. I’ve read them all. Also something with a ridiculous number of swords in it. We won’t dwell on that one much.

There see? I can still write. If you want to call it that. Let me limber up a bit more, and maybe I can get up to speed again. In the meantime, you can easily watch The Brother on Video Dailymotion, if you want to form your own opinion of its provenance. But man, if you thought the old people cable channel ads were depressing………

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Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).

The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.

After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened. Oleg the translator died.

Ray Garraty, via private email. 

I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask.  But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.

I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.  Not even close.  I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite.  It is not at all the same thing.  Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.

That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this.  Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)

Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will  never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him.  In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers.  Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you.  That is an experience I am well familiar with.  Requires no translation.

The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction.  (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.)  He imagined something better.  Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own.  And for a heist, you need a string.

His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked his chum on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture.  I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.

A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats.  They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try.  Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit.  It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain.  You see the difference?  I bet Jimmy Harrington would.

Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced.  Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)

The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors.  The small print runs sold out quickly.  When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow.  But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies.  Dortmunder spoke to them too. They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.

And then Oleg died, very suddenly.  Before the task was completed.  Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could.  Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time.  And that’ll be it.  He won’t be doing any more Westlakes.  It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.

And that’s the story.  By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat.  Anywhere.  Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing.  Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there.  So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse.  Just a strange coincidence.  The world is not simple enough to understand.

When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands.  Never mind that I can’t read them.  I wanted to have them.  Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.

While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake.  To get it right.  What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?

So.  Want to see the books?  I ran some scans.  I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece.  Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.

Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.)  I could just tell you which books they are.  I’m not going to.  If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork.  If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake.  Start reading him now.

Without further ado.

Vol 3.

 

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(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

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(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

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(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

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(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book.  I’ll have to stitch those together. )

(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)

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(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes,  not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture.  Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)

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(If at first you don’t succeed….)

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(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

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(The best-laid schemes…..)

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(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)

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(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

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(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

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(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)

Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come.  On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume.  So a three-parter.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Aw shucks, another spoiler.  Can’t seem to help myself.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels