Tag Archives: Jay Cronley

Review: Drowned Hopes, Second Down

“The thirty-thousand dollar driver,” Tom said, and did his chuckle noise.

Stan looked pleasantly at Dortmunder.  “Am I supposed to get that?”

“No.”

“Good.”

Kelp and Stan took chairs at the table, Kelp sitting next to Dortmunder who had in front of him two glasses–one of them sparkly clean–and a muddy bottle with a label reading AMSTERDAM LIQUOR STORE BOURBON–“Our Own Brand.”  Kelp took the bottle and the clean glass and poured himself a restorative.

Meantime, Stan was saying, “So you’ve got something, huh, John?  And you need a driver.

“This time,” Dortmunder said, “we’re gonna do it right.”

Stan looked alert.  “This time?”

“It’s kind of an ongoing story we’ve got here,” Dortmunder told him.

Kelp put his glass down, smacked his lips, and said to Stan, “It’s trains again.”

“Let’s do it from the beginning, okay, Andy?” Dortmunder said.

“Sure,” Kelp said.

Stan sprinkled a little salt into his beer and looked around, expectantly.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot – Oh Christ!
That ever this should be.
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs,
Upon the slimy sea.

By Some Guy Named Sam.  I hear he did drugs.  

At some point in this novel that I am reviewing as four separate novels, Donald Westlake got tired of remembering names for current automobile makes (so many cars in this story), and started making them up.  Early in the book, Kelp steals a doctor’s Cadillac Sedan de Ville to provide transportation for the gang–and then later on, there’s a “Cadillac Sedan da Fe” with MD plates.  And that’s not all.  The Mercury Macabre. The Buick Pompous 88.  The Pontiac Prix Fixe.  The Chrysler Country Square.  The Chevy Chamois.  The Acura Silly.  The Datsun S.E.X. 69.  I’m not sure how many such made-up car names appear in this book.   Hell, I’m not even sure all of these are made up.

And this fecundity of fictive flivvers is appropriate, because of all the Dortmunder books, I believe this one gets the most Murch for the mile.  Stan Murch, that is.  And his mother, Mrs. Murch, normally referred to as Murch’s Mom (and this is the book we find out her first name, but out of a mixture of respect for her and fear of her, I’m not going to mention it, because she hates that name.  You can look it up on Wikipedia, which is less easily intimidated).

Stan and his mom were part of the franchise from the first book, but there wasn’t always much for them to do, and they often made only token cameo appearances.   Frankly, for a guy who probably created more (and more interesting) getaway drivers than any three other writers combined,  Westlake had a tendency not to actually show them strutting their stuff–he didn’t write a lot of high speed chases.  I guess his feeling was that if you’re actually being chased by the cops, and they’re close enough on your tail for you to need a first-rate getaway driver to give them the slip, you’re already as good as caught, somewhere on down the line.  An actual car chase would be too Bonnie and Clyde.  There’d have to be banjo music or something.  But he liked writing about drivers, so he found things for them to do.

Thing is, he really created most of his drivers as Richard Stark.  As Westlake, writing Dortmunder heists, he’d found the perfect driver right off the bat in Stan, with just the right set of skills and quirks–his obsession with the fine points of urban navigation.  His admirable refusal to ever drink more than one beer if he was going to be driving, just nurse it along endlessly, restoring the head with a bit of salt (I’m not sure this method works as well as Stan insists, but maybe I’m using the wrong beer–or the wrong salt?).  And his deeply devoted and even more deeply competitive relationship with his cabdriver mom, who taught him everything he knows (but probably not everything she knows).

His services were not required in the First Down, but from the Second Down onwards, Stan and his maniac mater are full-fledged members of the string, Westlake using the extra space to give them their proper due, and flesh them out a bit more (this may be the first book to mention Stan is a redhead).  As I’m using the fact that this part of the book that I’m reviewing as four separate books is less than eighty pages long to do a Stan-centric review.  But keeping up with the Murches isn’t all we’ve got on the agenda here.  Drivers, start your engines.

The Second Down begins with May taking one of her famous tuna casseroles out of the oven–the opening salvo in a campaign to persuade Dortmunder to reconsider his vow to never return to the reservoir that nearly killed him last time, and Tom Jimson can just go ahead and blow up the dam and drown all those people if he likes.   Andy Kelp is there, and Tiny Bulcher, and their newly recruited computer expert Wally Knurr, and unfortunately so is Tom Jimson, still quite determined to go ahead and blow up that dam (and, there can be no doubt, to murder all his confederates in that or any other criminal enterprise, so he can keep all the loot for himself).

Dortmunder isn’t budging–you can’t see your hand in front of your face at the bottom of that reservoir, because of the turbidity–all the muck that gets stirred up.   There’s no way to find the spot where the coffin full of money Tom cached there is buried.  He and Kelp were lucky to get out of there alive.  Kelp isn’t so sure–he’s been reading again.

“What it kind of reminds me of,” Andy said, “is a book I read once.”

John gave him a dubious look.  “Are we gonna hear about Child Heist again?”

“That isn’t the only book I ever read,” Andy told him.  “I’m a pretty big reader, you know.  It’s a habit I picked up on the inside, when I had a lotta leisure time to myself.

Tom said, “I spent my time on the inside thinking about money.”

“Anyway,” Andy insisted, “about this book.  It was a story about the Normandie, the ship that sank at the pier in New York in–”

“I got pictures of that,” John said, “in that Marine Salvage book.”

“Well, this is a different book,” Andy told him.  “It isn’t a fact book, it’s the other kind.  A story.”

“The Normandie‘s a fact,” John maintained.  “I’ve got pictures of it.”

“Still and all,” Andy said, “this is a story about the fact of the Normandie.  Okay?”

“Okay,” John said, “I just wanted to be sure we understood each other.”  and he filled his mouth with more pound cake, stuffing a little mocha butterscotch ice cream in around the edges.

“Well, the story, Andy said, with a little more edge than necessary, “is about the divers who went down inside the Normandie and tried to fix it up so they could float it again.  And I was thinking when I was down in that lake, what we had there was exactly the same as what this guy described in the book.”

John looked at him with flat disbelief.  “Down in that lake?  You were down in that lake and you were thinking about books?”

“Among other things.”

“I was concentrating on the other things,” John said.

May wants Dortmunder to do the right thing, save those people, get his share of the money, and not drown himself, which is  a lot to pull off, even in exchange for her tuna casserole, pound cake and mocha butterscotch ice cream (which sounds horrible, but hey, more chocolate chip mint for me).  So she asks Andy to find that book, and get the name of the author, so they can call him and try to learn the secrets of defeating turbidity.

The author’s name turns out to be Justin Scott.  He wrote a lot of books about boats and salvaging and stuff, and he wrote mysteries, and he often liked to combine the two, and he still does, sometimes under pseudonyms.  Westlake mentions him in the dedication to this book.  Apparently Westlake called upon the fraternal bond of the Mystery Writers of America to get some technical data from Mr. Scott, who also agreed to be featured in an offstage cameo in Drowned Hopes.  Talking to Kelp on the phone.  Well really, who wouldn’t agree to that?

So Andy bends his ear, telling a story about how he’s a huge fan, and this friend of his upstate dropped a very expensive camera in this pond, and there’s all this turbidity, and isn’t there some way to find that camera that world-renowned author Justin Scott would know about?   Mr. Scott says he’s had calls of this general nature before, though with a slightly different objective.

“Reason I know is, my novel The Shipkiller is always falling overboard. It’s about boats, and sailors drop it in the water accidentally.  I know it’s accidental because they call me up for another copy.  They can’t find it in the stores.  Well, I can’t find it in the stores either, and—”

“A truly excellent novel,” Kelp silenced the writer.  “My friend on Parmalee Pond admired it greatly, my friend who dropped his camera.  Overboard.”

Dortmunder watched Kelp with grudging admiration; this crock of horse elbows just flowed out of the guy with no effort at all.

Mr. Scott probably doesn’t get calls like this so often, now that you can just find used books online.  Calls about salvaging sunken valuables maybe he still gets.

(Since 2009, Justin Scott has been collaborating on a series of novels with best-selling author Clive Cussler!  Translation: Justin Scott has been writing nautically themed novels by himself, trying not to make them so good that people get suspicious, then Cussler puts his name on them next to his, and Scott gets a split of the greatly increased take.  It’s called ‘expanding the brand.’  I’m tempted to call it The Dirk Pitts, but nobody ever said making a living as a novelist was easy.  Well, Cussler might say that, privately.  And doesn’t this sound a bit like the premise of a Westlake novel published in 2000?  Which sounded in turn a bit like the premise of a Patricia Highsmith novel published in 1950.  Mr. Scott, I trust no services other than writing were required of you?)

Sadly, Mr. Scott can offer no useful input, other than to say that 80% of salvage divers working in these sightless underwater conditions went insane from claustrophobia.  20% were able to work by feel alone to get the job done.  Dortmunder is in no doubt regarding which percentile he’d be in.  (Me neither–I pushed the panic button on my MRI after ten seconds in that lined coffin.  Ultrasound scan worked just fine.)

Dortmunder wakes up that night, cussing a blue streak–he’s thought of another way to get at the money.  So he’s got to go back down there again.  Why was he cursed with this criminal genius?

It’s trains again.   Like the Tom Thumb, from The Hot Rock, which Kelp cheerfully informs a mystified Wally about as they find the spot where the tracks of the now (obviously defunct) Dudson, Endicott & Western disappear into the water–the good old DE&W (heh).

The train tracks go right through the center of Putkin’s Corners, right by the site of the buried treasure.  So the plan is to figure out some way to roll right down those tracks in a vehicle of some type, avoiding excessive turbidity, then float the coffin to the surface.  The town is in a valley.  Gravity will provide most of the needed propulsion.   Poling will provide the rest.

But now they need money again for the necessaries.   Tom has a bunch of little stashes all over the place, but none nearby.  He grudgingly agrees to take Dortmunder out west, to his old stomping grounds of Oklahoma (and in Tom’s case, we may assume the stomping was not metaphorical).  To a little town name of Cronley.   And this, believe it or not, constitutes yet another friendly shout-out to a fellow mystery writer.  Who certainly seems to have been a kindred comic capering spirit (and he’s also still around, and still working out of Oklahoma).

If you’ve never heard of him, you still might have heard of this–

Damn, this guy gets good artwork.  None of his stuff is evailable, and some of his first editions are really pricey, but I loved the Bill Murray movie (on cable, I missed it in the theater like nearly everybody else), and I expect I’ll get around to him in due course.

So as they head for the now-deserted (or very nearly) town of Cronley, Tom gives Dortmunder, who is rather disturbed by the sheer flatness of the place, a little impromptu history lesson.  Why is the Oklahoma town he stashed this money in just as dead as the upstate NY town that got turned into a lake?

“See, Oklahoma stayed dry after Prohibition. What it is, you take people, you give them a lot of trouble and misery, what they always do, every single time, Al, you can set your watch by this, what they do is, they decide God gave them all this trouble and misery because they done something wrong, so if they give themselves even more trouble and misery maybe God’ll let up on them.  You see it everywhere.  In the Middle Ages–a guy inside told me this–back then, the big way to keep from getting the plague was to beat yourself with whips.  So Oklahoma, poor and miserable and dry as dust, decided to make itself even drier so then maybe God would leave them alone.  So, no booze.”

“That was the mistake?” Dortmunder asked.  “That’s what killed Cronley?  No booze?”

“It set the situation up,” Tom answered.  “See, what happens is, you put a law on the books, no matter how dumb it is, sooner or later somebody’s gonna come along dumb enough to enforce it.  That’s what happened back in the fifties.  Oklahoma cops boarded a through passenger train and arrested the bartender in the bar car for serving drinks in a dry state.”

“Wait a minute,” Dortmunder said.  “On the train?”

“The through train, comin in this side of the state, going out that side.  Took the barman off, put him in jail overnight, the railroad people come around the next day and got him out.”  Tom did that thing of grinning without moving his lips.  “Fun night for the barman, huh?  Al, you’re gonna take that county road up there.”

And according to Tom Jimson, this is what led the railroad (or Amtrak as we now call it) to eventually shut down all railway lines in the entire state of Oklahoma, and that’s why no trains go through that state to this very day.   Now I probably would have remembered to fact-check this, but Greg Tulonen (and Cecil Adams) saved me the trouble.  And as was sometimes the case with Mr. Westlake’s little history lessons, some creative liberties were taken with what was undoubtedly a bizarre episode in the annals of American mass transit.

Dortmunder takes that county road, and turns out Tom hid the dough in the sewage system of the town’s tallest structure (all of five stories), the Cronley Hotel.  Figured nobody would ever look for it there.   Figured right.  What nobody figured was that one of his screwed ex-partners (one he didn’t get around to murdering) would have gotten out of a really bad stretch in prison that happened due to Tom being a treacherous bastard on general principle, and he’s been haunting the ghost town of Cronley ever since, hoping Tom would come back for the loot, and he’d get them both–the loot and Tom’s head.

He’s seen them all come and go, the hippies, the scavengers looking for odds and ends, the urban archeologists and other such folks, and he’s outlasted them all, just waiting for that one supreme moment of his life when he gets his own back.  He got some sex from a good-hearted hippie chick once (The Great God Westlake taking pity on a fool), but other than that, he’s had the typical life of a batty old hermit living for revenge.

So this fella, name of Guffey (he can’t remember his first name anymore), who thinks Tom Jimson is named Tim Jepson (close enough, and maybe he was for a while), gets the drop on Dortmunder, and then Tom/Tim/Whoever comes up behind him and knocks him out with a smelly wine bottle stuffed with cash.  Now here’s where you’d think Tom would tie up a loose end and kill the guy (as Parker would have done in a New York minute), but Dortmunder doesn’t want to be party to any killings, and the beat-down wreck of a human being that is Guffey just doesn’t seem worth the effort.   Thing is, Tom, people can fool you sometimes.

We then get a nice little meet-up at the OJ Bar and Grill, where Kelp gets to listen in on an argument about where these damn yuppies came from–there’s a dispute among the regulars as to whether they are aliens from outer space, or the new buildings they’re moving into are sort of roach motels put up by aliens from outer space in order to lure them in and then take them to outer space, where they’ll be kept in zoos for the amusement of said aliens.  I’m taking no position on this, as both opinions seem reasonable.   This is where Stan Murch is introduced to Tom, and briefed on the situation at hand, as you see up top.

So Stan is tasked with obtaining a car specially modified to run on the train tracks down into the reservoir.  As cheaply as possible.   To this end, he and his mom go searching for an extra-special car to steal,  which turns out to be a dove-gray Aston-Martin with diplomat plates–perfect!   The New York cops will barely even pretend to look for it, hating diplomats and their immunity as they traditionally do.

The car is intended as a gift for Max, proprietor of Maximilian’s Used Cars, somewhere around the border of the far fringes of Brooklyn and Queens, out near the Nassau county line.  Outlaw country.  Max and his fabled automotive emporium were introduced in Jimmy the Kid, I believe, and this is his first appearance in the series since then.   His first appearance here at The Westlake Review as well.   Not his last, I trust.

The relationship is simple–Stan lifts cars, Max pays him as little as he can get away with, then sells the merchandise for as much as he can.  It seems that without Stan, Max would never have anything but junkers and lemons on his lot–he can sell junkers and lemons, but you like that extra touch of class to give the suckers, I mean customers, a bit of hope.

(Sidebar: Stan never hotwires the cars he steals–he’s got a ring of keys, and sooner or later he finds one that will unlock the car and start the ignition.  Was this really a thing?  Even if it was, given all the security tech now embedded in modern autos, I’d assume it wouldn’t work anymore.  So what would Stan have nowadays?  Some little gizmo that keeps sending electronic pulses to the car’s sensors until it hits the right one?   Is that a thing now?

You can always just put the car on a flatbed truck and drive away with it.  That’s what happened to my friend’s old reliable Toyota Camry.  Heisted over near the George Washington Bridge, taken off to New Jersey, probably meant for the used car market in Latin America, or else they were going to chop it.  The cops found the car theft ring in Paramus, if memory serves, but by that time my friend had the insurance money and a new Ford Escape, which he still has.

But I was there when he discovered the theft, his jaw kind of hanging down to the sidewalk as he gaped at the space his car had occupied only an hour or so before (and do I need to mention that many many people drove right by on that busy bridge-access road, as the theft was occurring in broad daylight?   I guess it’s kind of humorous in retrospect.  I wouldn’t have given him any Dortmunder novels to read around that time.  It’s funnier to read about than experience.  I’ve never owned a car, so I’m Murch-proof.  End-sidebar.)

So anyway, Stan and Max have their usual lively discourse, and as they’re out there on the lot, there’s these swarthy gentlemen eagerly perusing an ancient ugly Chevy Impala, which no reasonable person would want, but they do, and Stan suddenly starts talking about how perfect this car would be for a suicide bomber, and the guys make their excuses and leave in something of a hurry.

Max is livid–why would Stan do such a thing?  Sure, probably that’s what they wanted it for, but so what?  All that means is that they’ll never come back complaining about how the car broke down on them, as most of the cars he sells invariably do.  Good hard cash, no returns.  The Perfect Customer.   Stan points out that he would shortly afterwards receive a visit from the FBI, who could not arrest him for the legal sale of the Impala, but would surely notice all the many other illegal activities going down there at the lot.

Max realizes Stan did him a huge favor–and we realize that these guys will eventually just rent a van,  try to blow up the World Trade Center with it, then claim it was stolen in order to try and get the four hundred dollar deposit back, and if there was one problem Westlake had about writing realistic crime stories it’s that he hated writing about stupid criminals.

So for doing Max a solid, Stan gets in return, absolutely free, an AMC Hornet, with the necessary alterations (engine removed, top taken off) made by Max’s mighty mechanics.  Stan had intended to give Max the nearly-new Aston-Martin in order to get this favor, but now he will simply sell Max that creampuff for a price so low he’s practically giving it away.

(And hey–it’s not spelled out–but wouldn’t Tom’s Cronley stash have mainly been for the purposes of getting this car and the alterations needed to turn it into a sort of gravity-powered locomotive/submarine?  So did Stan just pocket the cash they gave him, produce the vehicle without a lot of unnecessary details regarding its procurement, and get paid again by Max into the bargain?   Not a man to underestimate, Mr. Murch.)

So it’s time to pull the heist.  Again.   Off to the reservoir.  Again.  This time with Stan Murch, in addition to Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny Bulcher, and Tom Jimson.  The string keeps getting longer.   Tom is supposed to get half of the 700k, and the remaining funds get split up between whoever Dortmunder needs to do this thing without dynamite.  Tom keeps going “Hee Hee” every time somebody mentions the split.  A whimsical fellow.

And here comes what may well be the only Buster Keaton reference in a series of books I have good reason to believe was at least partly inspired by The Great Stone Face.

The thing is, the railroad doesn’t have handcars anymore.  Those terrific old handcars with the seesaw type of double handle so one guy would push down while the other guy facing him pulled up, and then vice versa, and the handcar would go zipping along the track, that old kind of handcar that guys like Buster Keaton used to travel on, they don’t have them anymore.  All the good things are gone: wood Monopoly houses, Red Ryder, handcars.

Which is why the big sixteen-wheeler that Stan Murch airbraked to a coughing stop at the railway crossing on the old road west of Vilburgtown Reservoir at one A.M. on that cloudless but moonless night did not contain a handcar.  What it contained instead, in addition to diving gear and a winch and other equipment, was a weird hybrid vehicle that had mostly been, before the surgical procedures began, a 1976 American Motors Hornet.  A green Hornet, in fact; so not everything is gone.

And still not gone–I can’t find one converted into a handcar, but I found this pretty easy. Just try to imagine it with the top sawed off and the tires deflated, and you get the general picture.  Just mentally airbrush out the happy picnickers.  Little do they know the bizarre and terrible fate that awaits Old Betsy.  Please don’t tell them.  It might upset their digestion.197620amc20passenger20cars-17

So as we and Dortmunder wait to learn what goes wrong this time, we are moved to ask–what about Bob?  Bob whose wedding got crashed by the gang in the First Down, Bob who got his girlfriend pregnant and reluctantly tied the knot, Bob who works inside the dam Tom Jimson still wishes he could blow up just for the sheer hell of it, Bob who saw a struggling gasping Dortmunder break the surface of the reservoir during the last salvage attempt, and assumed he was a lake monster, Bob who then decided he was going to become a mercenary and leave this unsatisfactory Dudsonian life of his behind forever, Bob who was unable to find a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and ended up coming back home, and had to accept psychiatric counseling as a condition of keeping his job and his pregnant wife?   That Bob.  You surely could not have forgotten.

So as Dortmunder and Kelp climb into their green Hornet (obviously Kelp is Kato), and start rolling down the train tracks into the murky depths (with full air tanks, obviously, and slightly shady dive shop proprietor Doug Berry is still trying to figure out if he can grab a piece for himself of whatever they’re after), and coast down to the very bottom, and the large quantity of ping pong balls they brought with them to float the coffin to the surface (an idea Wally’s computer might not wish to take credit for now) become more and more buoyant as they get deeper, and start lifting the Hornet (never a large car to start with, and significantly lightened by the removal of its engine and roof) up off the tracks, taking Dortmunder and Kelp with it, back up to the surface of the water, only upside-down this time, Bob, who gazing up at the starry skies,  coming to terms with his sheer insignificance in the cosmic scheme, just then reaching a state of calm acceptance of his unsatisfactory Dudsonian life, has yet another epiphany, influenced no doubt by reading too many science fiction stories and maybe supermarket tabloids, I couldn’t say for sure,  I love run-on sentences, don’t you?

A submarine?  In the reservoir?  Ridiculous.  It couldn’t possibly–

And then, with a sudden leap in his heart, Bob knew.  A spaceship!  A flying saucer!   A spaceship from the stars, from the stars!   Visiting earth secretly, by night, hiding here in the reservoir, taking its measurements or doing whatever it was doing, now rising up out of the water, going back, back to the stars!   To the stars!

Bob ran forward, arms upraised in supplication.  “Take me with you!” he screamed, and tripped over a root, and crashed flat onto the ground at the edge of the water, knocking himself cold.

(The notion of a human secretly wishing to be abducted by aliens could have been obtained from any number of sources, including Westlake’s own youthful yearnings, but I would like to think he at some point read this classic story by James Tiptree Jr., aka Alice Sheldon.  It’s not only the women men don’t see who might like to get off this dead end dirtball sometimes.   Plenty of beaten-down males out there, o my sisters, with your faces filled of light.)

So once more–defeat.   Kelp and Dortmunder emerge yet again dripping with muck, and devoid of cash.  Dortmunder, now quite certain this reservoir will not rest easy until it has drowned him, emerges from his aspiring watery grave, divests himself of everything but his underpants and boots, and stomps off going “Oo!  Oo!  Oo!.”   Nobody tries to talk to him.  It would not be prudent at this juncture.  And the Second Down concludes.

So this is just a bit under 5,000 words.  For a section totaling 78 pages.  And I have two more Downs to go.   I am literally drowning in detail trying to review this book in all its labyrinthine intricacies, and I still had to leave things out.

Oo!  Is that an alien spacecraft I see?   TAKE ME WITH YOU!!!!!

They left without me.  No room left in the ark.  Damn yuppies.  Okay, fine, see you next week.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books, and there’s a lot of them in this one).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels