Tag Archives: James M. Cain

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

mercenaries_3_back

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

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

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

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

“Do you want to feel pity?”

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

“You don’t have to kill, Clay.”

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

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

“I don’t want to be my own boy.”

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

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

The question that nags at me is why.

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

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

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

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

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

Before we proceed, let’s recap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clay, this isn’t a business.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: The Duplicate Keys

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

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

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

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

From The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit:

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

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

“O.K., so I’m a chiseler.”

“Oh, say crook.”

“A chiseler, he’s not a crook.”

“He certainly isn’t honest.”

“He’s just in between.”

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

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

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

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

slightly_scarlet2

_poster8_slightly_scarlet_dvd_poster_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil On Two Sticks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Professional secret.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beck shrugged and said, “Somebody has to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

michael-cohen-group-gty-jef-180417_hpEmbed_3x2_992

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized