Tag Archives: Joe Gores

Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

We need another plan,” May told them.  “We need some other way to get to that money that isn’t dynamite and that Tom Jimson will go along with.  But John won’t even talk about it, and he absolutely won’t think about it.  So what I was hoping from this meeting, I was hoping one of us would come up with something I could tell Tom, something that would at least slow him down, some kind of plan, or even an idea for a plan.  Something.”

There was a little uncomfortable silence in the cab, punctuated by Mom’s maledictions against the world of drivers and pedestrians and New York City traffic conditions generally.  At last Tiny spread his catcher’s-mitt hands and said, “May that ain’t my field.  I pick up heavy things, I move them, I put them down, that’s what I do.  Sometimes I persuade people to change their minds about certain things.  I’m a specialist, May, and that’s my specialty.”

Stan said “I’m a driver.  I’m the best in the business–”

“He is,” his Mom said, as she swerved around a wallowing stretch limo driven by a Middle Eastern refugee who’d cleared Customs & Immigration earlier that morning.  “I’m his mother, but I’ve got to admit it, my boy Stan is a good driver.”

“The best,” Stan corrected.  “But, May, I don’t do plans.  Getaways I can do.  Vehicles I can drive; there isn’t a thing in the world with wheels and a motor I can’t drive.  I could give Tom Jimson very professional advice on how he’ll never get away from that county if he blows the dam, but that’s about it from me.

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”

“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

“God damn the State of New York!” Mom cried, sideslipping past a pipe-smoking psychiatrist in a Mercury Macabre.  “They give anybody a license to drive a car!

“They also released Tom Jimson,” May pointed out.

Ken had his Cadillac, but as he drove away, he just didn’t feel very happy about it.  Much of the fun had gone out of the transaction.  There were right ways and wrong ways to do things.  A repo-man took a car, the people driving it resisted.  That was the way it had always been, that was the way it would always be.

But not with these cheesecakes.

Halfway back to the city, however, the Toyota behind him on the towbar, Ken brightened.  First Gyppo blood for him, right?  He turned on the radio and started to drum his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music.  He’d finally figured out what was wrong with those screwy people who’d just given him the Caddy without any argument.

They were crooks; and you just couldn’t trust crooks.  Crooks never did what was right and proper.  Only the old guy who’d wanted to kill him had it right.

From 32 Cadillacs, by Joe Gores.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
“Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot

This is the second and final Westlake novel to cross-over with a Joe Gores novel about the San Francisco based detective agency, Dan Kearny and Associates (DKA for short).   The first had actually been a Stark novel, Plunder Squad, and the crossing of paths took place relatively early in both books.  Dan Kearny is looking for a guy Parker is tangentially connected to–they met briefly just before the events of The Hunter, and it’s just enough of a connection for Kearny to persuade Parker to help him–more or less just to make Kearny go away.  It’s understood (not least by Kearny himself) that if Kearny was enough of a problem, he’d be going away for keeps.  But Parker doesn’t make murder the answer to every problem in life.

32 Cadillacs isn’t as long as Drowned Hopes, but it’s much longer than Dead Skip, the book that crossed over with Plunder Squad.  It’s also very different in subject matter and tone and even style.  Whereas Dead Skip was a grim hardboiled detective drama, full of life and death choices, 32 Cadillacs is a light comedy, where nobody gets killed at all.  DKA goes after a band of gypsies (the Romany kind, nothing to do with Jimi) who have used false identities to swindle (not heist) their way to thirty one brand new fully loaded Cadillacs  on the same day (and there’s one more, but I don’t need to explain that here).  The bank responsible for all those never-to-be-repaid loans wants the cars back.

What you see up top is a passage where a new employee of the firm, tough savvy Vietnam vet and repo zen master Ken Warren (introduced in this book, and I enjoyed the sections dealing with him most of all) proves his superior mettle once again by finding one of the Caddies,  which Kelp had unknowingly stolen from one of the Roma who had stolen it via subtler methods (it had MD plates, how was he to know?).

Contrariwise to the previous collaboration, this crosstextual encounter happens quite late in both books.  Ken’s interaction with the gang (and all other aspects of his life) is complicated by his very serious speech defect, which Westlake refers to as a ‘glottal stop.’  I have no idea if this is technically accurate in speech therapist terms, but it gets the point across.   Ken drives up in his rented Toyota Chemistra (Gores just calls it a red Toyota, since his readers won’t get the joke), and takes possession of the pilfered Caddie, only to be caught in the act.

There’s this moment of disorientation, Ken and the gang misunderstanding each other’s motives, and then Kelp figures out the mistake, and there was never a more affable guy than Kelp.  Sure, take the car, what do we care, have a great day.   Tom Jimson, who absolutely does want to make murder the answer to everything, briefly argues for killing Ken.  Well, it’s not an argument so much as a dictate, but he’s not in charge, so it’s ignored.  The Dortmunder Gang doesn’t make murder the answer to anything.  Ken, perversely enough, seems more sympathetic to Tom’s outlook.  The most hard-boiled character in Gores’ book, even though he’s got a heart as big as all outdoors.

32 Cadillacs is a light-hearted romp, as I said–a good part of it involves two members of DKA who are secretly sweet on each other going to bed with two dangerously attractive gypsies they’re pumping for intel (and I use the word ‘pumping’ advisedly), and there’s also something about a gypsy king who is said to be dying, which triggers a lot of the machinations of the book.  Ken Warren aside, it’s about as hard-boiled as a one minute egg.  I assume it was always meant to be such, since Gores says in the introduction that he was already well into writing it when Westlake, having read some early chapters, suggested another cross-over, which turned out to be in this book we’re looking at now.

But Gores, who quite possibly might have retooled aspects of his book to link up better with Westlake’s, certainly is trying for his own version of Westlake’s comic stylings here, and I will state my opinion that while Dead Skip was a fair match for Plunder Squad, this one doesn’t come close to the level of Drowned Hopes–which is a comedy, of course, but a very black one indeed.  The darkest of the Dortmunders.  The starkest, even.  So it’s both funnier and harder than Gores’ book.  Which is still well worth reading, for fans of that series.  But for fans of this series, the most interesting stuff is probably Ken’s (and therefore Gores’) impressions of the gang.

Kelp: A wiry little guy with a sharp nose.

Dortmunder: Tall and bony and middle-aged.   (Ken isn’t impressed).

Tiny: An elephant in clothes.  Not a fat elephant either.  (Ken is rightly confident in his ability to handle the toughest customers, but he gives himself no chance of taking this guy).

May: A not-bad-looking woman making unconscious motions like a person lighting a cigarette.  (Drowned Hopes is the book where chain smoker May finally kicks the habit, and it’s been hell on her, as it is on everyone).

Murch’s Mom: A feisty little woman in a man’s cloth cap.

Now of course, if we wish to, we may say that this proves that Dortmunder and Parker inhabit the same universe, since both have had dealings with DKA (even though Parker is indirectly cited as a fictional character in Drowned Hopes, when Dortmunder brings up the events of Jimmy the Kid).

But to me, 32 Cadillacs is so different from Dead Skip as to make it an alternate universe take on the DKA characters, even if it’s part of the same series overall (and the timelines don’t match up very well either).  I’ve never been a huge fan of literalism, anyway, and least of all when it gets in the way of a good story. Worth mentioning that this was the first DKA novel since the late 1970’s.  A lot has changed in the genre during the interim.  Gores is updating his technique.   To some extent so is Westlake, but he’s on much surer footing in comic terrain.  Anyway, it was a good excuse to read Gores’ book.  Back to the book at hand.

May convenes an impromptu meet of the string members in Murch’s Mom’s taxi cab.  This meeting pointedly excludes Dortmunder (who won’t even discuss going back to the reservoir) and Tom Jimson (who is in the process of recruiting people to help him blow up the dam and drown all the townspeople, something you suspect he’d cheerfully do for beer money, let alone the $700,000 buried there).

Nobody has any useful ideas as to how to persuade Dortmunder to help, nor can any of them come up with a viable plan for getting at the money without the use of dynamite.  Because none of them are heist planners–not their area of expertise.  Dortmunder is the planner, and two consecutive incidents of nearly being swallowed alive by that malevolent body of water  has left him with a serious case of PTSD (Positive Terror of Stupidly Drowning).

So Murch’s Mom (her first name still unknown to anyone other than her son–I would hope), who is, like so many loyal residents of Gotham, experiencing that periodic burnout that comes from living in the most stressful place on earth that isn’t in a state of all out civil war (not formally, anyhow), comes up with her own plan–she and May go to Dudson Center.  They rent a house (a bungalow yet!).  They live there.  Directly in the path of the impending deluge.   May keeps house.  Murch’s Mom gets a job driving for the local cab company–she drives a Plymouth Frenzy.   She gloats over the fact that the drivers there “don’t fight back.” This is what she calls a ‘vacation,’ and that’s what any real New Yorker would call it.

Dortmunder hears about this from Stan, who is peeved at his mom for abandoning New York City (and endangering her life, that too).   Dortmunder is appalled, horrified, but at the same time, he must admit to himself that the woman he’s sharing his life with is no one to be trifled with when her moral dudgeon is up.

And much as May, consort to a thief, serial shoplifter of her own employer, may practice situational ethics with the best of them, nothing arouses her moral dudgeon like the death of innocent people.  To the best of her knowledge, at least some of the people in Dudson Center and the adjacent lesser Dudsons are innocent.   And after all, God said he’d spare even Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous men living there.   And now there are two (selectively) righteous women living in Dudson Center (possibly two more, and we’ll get to them).

Dortmunder isn’t God, but since whatever else you may say about him, he loves May with all his scruffy downtrodden Wile E. Coyote heart, it is now his sad Lot in life to try and spare this picayune Gomorrah from destruction.  (That pun was old school.  Not to mention Old Testament).

In the meantime, Doug Berry, diving instructor/playboy of the southeastern coast of Long Island, is fishing–for clues.  He knows these criminal types who had him train and equip them for freshwater diving are after something good at the bottom of a reservoir, and he wants a piece of it.  There are a lot of reservoirs in New York, but he assiduously eliminates them until he comes to do research at the North Dudson library, which is staffed by none other than the delightful Myrtle Street, illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson, daughter to Edna, newfound friend to Wally Knurr, and now potential love interest for Doug Berry, though his primary interests lie elsewhere (namely the mirror).

The girl at the counter was pretty enough, though not as pretty as he, which he knew without gloating about it; his good looks were simply a fact of nature, a part of who he was.  (Pretty men feel differently about their beauty from pretty women, are less proud of it and protective toward it and prepared to display it.  Their attitude toward their looks is rather like the attitude of the old rich toward their money: they’re pleased to have it but consider mentioning it vulgar, even in their thoughts).

Doug approached the pretty-enough girl, smiling a winning smile, and said “Hi.”

“Hi,” she answered.  As women tended to do, she perked up in his presence.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’m interested in two things,” he told her, then grinned at himself and shook his head and said “Let me rephrase that.  Right now, there’s two things I’m interested in.”

“Two library things,” she amplified, flirting with him just slightly

Very reminiscent of Grofield’s exchange in Butcher’s Moon with Doreen, the perky young blonde librarian he charms into helping him do research, then later genially fucks in a Chevy Impala.  Is Doug a variation on Grofield?  Leaving aside the fact he’s blonde, and Grofield most definitely isn’t, Grofield is very serious and committed about both of his professions by the time we meet him. The blondes are just a sideline.  He’s already found his life’s work, and his life’s companion.   Grofield has everything he ever wanted in life other than enough cash to put on his plays.

Doug seems more like he’s shopping around for a new modus vivendi.  He’s athletic, friendly, flirtatious, generally lacking in malice but determined to get the better things in life for himself without doing the 9 to 5 crap, and while he feels the odd bit of guilt here and there, he’s mainly looking out for #1–doesn’t form strong personal attachments, at least in this stage of his life.  He figures there must be somebody who can point him to a better way of getting what he wants, give him a few pointers, get him on the road to real freedom at last.  Doesn’t think of himself as a crook, but not the least bit averse to breaking the law as long as he figures he can get away with it.  An amateur on the way to becoming a pro.

Oh right.  Stan Devers.  That’s where Doug comes from.  But this time with a very specific skill (diving) and without the military background.  Not nearly as tough and ruthless as the guy from the Parker novels (Doug wouldn’t have been able to cut it there), and with the exception of Tom (who he hasn’t met yet), neither are the guys he’s been working with here, who have tried to shut him out of this sweet score, working for a mere pittance.  He’s a bit intimidated by them, but not really scared (yet). And right now, courtesy of some old newspapers, he’s figured out that he has found both the site of the buried cash and a good looking girl to seduce and abandon.  He can multi-task.

So while Doug begins a relentless campaign for Myrtle’s maidenhead (her mother, who was getting knocked up by a felon when she was Myrtle’s age, is a bit disgusted that her girl’s still a virgin in her 20’s–each generation inverting the mistakes of the one before it), Dortmunder must embark upon the far less pleasurable and considerably more dangerous campaign of persuading Tom Jimson to give him another crack at solving the reservoir puzzle without resort to high explosives.

He’s in luck–well, you know–Dortmunder luck.   Tom is holed up in a rundown apartment building in Alphabet City, the intersection of 13th St. and Avenue C, which is a crime and drug invested hell hole in 1990 (if you want to know what it costs to live there now, you couldn’t afford it).  He recruited a few addled addicts to pull the job, figuring he didn’t need real pros to just blow the dam–two of them get blown up along with the dam, and as Dortmunder quickly deduces, the other, tasked with pulling the money coffin out of the mud would meet with some unfortunate accident afterwards (“You know me so well, Al,” Tom chuckles without actually smiling).

Well, just before Dortmunder got there, these guys decided that since they knew where the reservoir was, they didn’t need Tom.  A mistake only slightly less serious than agreeing to work with him in the first place.  The police will find their bodies eventually.

Tom was not at all pleased that Dortmunder is only interested once more in pulling the job because of a woman.  Had his existing string not unraveled so abruptly, he was probably going to give Dortmunder the same treatment.  But he must admit, finding solid professionals with absolutely no scruples or knowledge of Tom’s reputation for whacking his accomplices is harder than one might think (outside the financial sector, of course, but this isn’t their kind of job).

As they descended, Tom said, “The quality of help these days, Al, it’s a real scandal.”

“I guess it is,” Dortmunder agreed.

“You and your pals, Tom went on, “seem to have a little trouble closing with the problem, but at least you’re steady and reliable.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

“And nothing at all up your veins.”

“My blood and me,” Dortmunder said as they reached the ground floor and headed toward the smashed defense of the front door, “have an agreement.  It does its job and I don’t pester it.”

So it’s agreed.  Tom will once again put off the drowning of the Dudsons, to see if Dortmunder can find an alternate path to the coffin full of cash.  They will all move out to the bungalow in Dudson Center.   Yes, that means Tom too.  Tom himself says, the only way they can be sure he’s not blowing up the dam is if he’s directly in the path of where the water would go afterwards.  So once again May’s firm moral stance comes not without a personal price for her (and everybody else in the gang).   Well hey, if doing right didn’t have any drawbacks, we’d all be saints, right?

We see Tom take the Amtrak train from Penn, robbing a naive kid along the way, and enjoying  what the narrator describes as ‘interior monologue’, informing us parenthetically that “A man no one can trust is a man who can trust no one, and therefore is a man liable to take to the diversion of internal monologue.”

But internal monologue can only divert one so long.  And in this transit-based chapter, there’s a reference I’m still trying to comprehend.  We’re told Tom is reading a paperback book.  Fiction.  Something we know Parker would never ever do, and probably not Dortmunder either, unless Kelp made him.

The book is Dark Hazard, by W.R. Burnett, and I’m belatedly pleased to confirm my earlier suspicions that Westlake was well familiar with that pioneering crime author, not that there was ever much doubt in my mind.  I’ve read Drowned Hopes before, but didn’t pick up on this last time out.  Having recently read The Asphalt Jungle to prepare for my article about potential influences on the Parker novels, my curiosity was piqued.  I got a copy of Dark Hazard.  First edition.  Not expensive.  Wish I’d gotten the paperback.

Tom has almost finished the book after two hours on the train (it’s over 300 pages in hardcover, so Tom’s a fast reader).  We’re told that he can see by that time that it’s not going to have a happy ending.  We’re not told what that means, though.  We’re not told a blessed thing about the book except its title and that Tom Jimson is reading it intently.

So when I reached that passage a few weeks back, I figured maybe Tom just likes to see a lot of mayhem and murder in his stories (and who doesn’t?)–we’ve been told about his unnerving habit of cackling gleefully when he’s watching television and bad things happen to good people, so for him maybe the only happy ending is a tragic one.  Or maybe it’s a heist story, and for him a happy ending means the crooks get away with it.  But see, neither of those could be the answer to the question of why he thinks it’s not a happy ending, because this isn’t really a crime novel at all, per se, and there’s absolutely no killing and damned little violence in it.  Two brief fistfights is about all.

Dark Hazard is about Jim, a big shambling good-hearted guy who used to keep a string of thoroughbreds.  Gambled on the races and any other action he came across.  He was good with the horses, but he had to give them up, because they eat a lot, and his finances were erratic, as is the case with most gamblers.  Then he met this classy dame whose once-genteel family had come on hard times due to irresponsible men, and somehow the two of them clicked, and got married, and he reformed for her, because she despises all aspects of the Sporting Life, considers it low-class (she’s from Ohio–as was Burnett himself).  It’s all very O. Henry, up to this point.  You could imagine him selling his watch, only to find she’d sold her hair.

Then through an odd series of events, he becomes enamored of greyhound racing, and in particular of this one dog named Dark Hazard (you can just call him Pat), a shy mild-mannered coal black pooch who just happens to be a demon on the track, and who returns the hero’s affections in full measure.

Clearly Burnett knew his onions about these dogs, as he ought to have done, since he owned War Cry, a champion racer, who appears in the movie version of this book with Edward G. Robinson, because nearly every book Burnett ever wrote had a movie version, only they should have waited until Sterling Hayden was available (but how could they know that in 1934?).

Anyway, Jim’s wife feels like he’s backsliding, she’s pregnant, she’s terrified of economic ruin, of coming down in the world, after what she’s been through already, so she leaves him, taking most of his winnings with her, leaving Jim destitute and broken.  He eventually rejoins  her in Ohio, but then he finds out Dark Hazard has fallen on hard times, and will be destroyed if he doesn’t buy him, so he does.  Having such a dog, he wants to race him.  That’s the final straw for the marriage (the wife had already cheated on him with her old Ohio boyfriend, who she will now marry, and whose physical description sounds oddly like Burnett’s, based on the photos I’ve seen–Jim knocks him down before he leaves).

So as the book ends, our hero is heading towards the dog track, homeless and broke, and he’s sad over what happened, but he never belonged in that life, you see.  It was never right for him–he was just pretending, working boring dead end jobs in the Depression, never having any real fun, never being who he was, just so he could stay married to a woman who didn’t even want to understand him.

And then he cheers up at the very end, forgets his sadness, faces life bravely once more, because now he can have the life he originally wanted, the one he had before with the ponies, except anybody who isn’t a total bum (which Jim isn’t) can afford to keep a dog (hell, I’ve seen actual bums with dogs who looked happier than many a pampered poodle).  And the dog, unlike the woman, loves him for exactly who and what he is.  When this dog dies, there’ll be others, perhaps sired by Dark Hazard.  Jim’s living the life he was meant for, and it’s not perfect, it’s not without risks, but neither is any other.  So to me, that actually is a happy ending.  Bittersweet, let’s say.

But not to Tom.  Why?   He doesn’t care about women–when Dortmunder braces him about May, he says Dortmunder needs to realize there’s a lot of women in the world and just one you.  From Tom’s POV, Jim wasn’t living the good life when we met him, he was working as a hotel clerk, with basically zero chance of advancement.  All he’s done is change a life he didn’t want with a woman he loved for the life he does want, with a dog he loves basically just as much, only the dog doesn’t nag.  Jim’s attractive to the bolder brassier women who frequent the racing world, so there’ll be female companionship as well as canine.

Tom probably doesn’t give a damn about dogs either (maybe he’s even a bit scared of them, as Dortmunder is, and as I’ve sometimes thought Westlake was), but what would have been a happy ending for him?  Westlake knows, because he always knows more about his characters than he tells us in the books.  But I can’t figure the angle here.  And that bugs me.  The book is referenced three times in this chapter.   Why mention it at all?   There was never a more thoughtful writer than Donald E. Westlake.  He had his own interior monologue going on at all times.

Hmmm.   Maybe that’s it.  Tom Jimson is Donald E. Westlake.   An aspect of him he doesn’t often give voice to in his books, except maybe here and there in his villains.  A darker version of his own self, with that patented sardonic sense of humor, and a jaundiced view of human nature–without the compensating empathy and friendliness, not to mention a means of self-expression that doesn’t require actual violence.  Somebody who has entirely tuned out the needs and wants of others, to concentrate exclusively on what he wants and how to get it.

And here’s the clincher (and it took me too damn long to notice it).  Burnett’s novel first saw the light of day in 1933–same year Westlake was born (prematurely) in New York.  Coincidence my Aunt Fanny. Tom is Westlake.  Westlake isn’t Tom, but he doesn’t have any problem imagining how he could have become some version of Tom, if a few things had gone differently (like for example if his father hadn’t gotten him out of trouble when he was caught stealing that microscope in college).

Same way he created Parker–imagine a different path, focus in on an isolated part of his identity, magnify and extrapolate it–but Parker was given life by the romantic in him–Tom by the cynic.  What all romantics become someday.  And as he told us in an earlier book, cynicism is a spectrum–there’s always somebody more cynical and selfish than you.  But suppose you turned the dial all the way up to eleven?  Then you’d have Tom Jimson.

So for Tom, a happy ending would be Jim realizing that caring about anyone else, even a dog, is the bunk.  He should have gone back to the life he enjoyed, sure, ditch the ball & chain–but just live for himself, nobody else.  Take what he wants, who he wants, when he wants.   But the big dumb ox is a natural born simp–he’s got to have somebody in his life to care about, to look after, to come home to, even if it’s just a dumb animal.  That’s why it’s not a happy ending to Tom Jimson.

And how many people reading this book would get any of that?   This isn’t Little Caesar.  Dark Hazard is barely even remembered as a movie these days.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Westlake knows his man.  Because part of him is that man.  And the best way to exorcise a devil in yourself, or at least hold him in check, is to see him, clearly, for what he is.

Okay, now I feel better.  By the way, ending aside, I personally didn’t think Burnett’s book was that good (you can ask me why in the comments section if you give a damn), but that isn’t the point either.  Synopsis resumes.

Dortmunder knows Tom isn’t going to wait very long for him to solve the problem.  He goes back to see Wally Knurr, who serves John cheese and crackers (he does this anytime somebody comes calling), and Dortmunder levels with him about what Tom is going to do if they can’t find an alternate plan.  Realizing that people he’s come to like–Myrtle Street and ‘Miss May’ (this is what he calls her, nerds can be courtly)–Wally runs through a bunch of simulations on his computer, and the ones that involve Spaceships from Zog go fine, but the ones that involve dynamite invariably mean drowning a lot of people.

Dortmunder expresses his discontent that he came to talk to a person about his problems, and now he’s talking to a machine that thinks there’s a planet named Zog–Wally realizes he’s been using the computer as a crutch to avoid dealing with people.  He turns it off, and they talk–and he asks a simple question–why not just get that diving instructor guy in on the job?  This is his area of expertise, just like heist planning is Dortmunder’s, and computers are Wally’s.

Dortmunder is dumbfounded as to why he didn’t think of this before–he realizes he likes to be the one who makes the plans, and was resisting bringing in another specialist.  He tells Wally to sell the computer, he doesn’t need it.  And of course Wally won’t do that, but that’s Dortmunder’s way of telling him he’s smart.  If the computer is any good for anything, it’s because Wally made it that way.

They can’t find Doug, because Doug is too busy trying to find his way into Myrtle’s vagina, and he’s almost fucking there (I know what I said), when Dortmunder catches the two of them on the porch of Myrtle’s house, about to adjourn to the bedroom.  Doug gets dragged away, and Myrtle is very confused, and somewhat relieved, and very disappointed, and still a virgin.  And I’m somewhat reminded of a similar and yet very different coitus interruptus scene in Memory, involving an amnesiac actor and a plain girl named Edna (which I’ll remind you again is Myrtle’s mother’s name).

After listening to Tom Jimson calmly discuss how they should dispose of his body, then having Stan Murch do an abrupt 180 turn on the highway as they head back to New York (just to show off his own skill set, Doug is feeling very very cooperative, as people in a state of mild shock generally tend to feel.  He’ll take whatever cut they’re offering.

Studying the layout on Wally’s computer, he says the way to do it is to get a boat and dive for the treasure–there are ways to triangulate in on it, and to get it up to the surface, without resort to walking along the surface, or following the train tracks in a converted AMC Hornet.  Dortmunder was thinking like a landlubber, because he is a landlubber (he’s lubbing that land more and more, all the time).

So Dortmunder and Tom retrieve one last old stash of Tom’s to get the needed materials, and if you’ve somehow gotten this far without having read the book, and I told you where it was, you wouldn’t believe it.  Honestly, I don’t believe it either.  Call it an homage to The Master of Suspense.  Or The Great Emancipator. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

So they’re all set–and the weather is wrong.  Clear skies, day and night.  Big bright moon in the sky.  Like all thieves, they need the cover of darkness.  So they wait for the clouds to set in, and as they wait–they change.  They’re just living there in Dudson Center, in this little bungalow, and it’s not their natural habitat, and it’s changing them.  Travel, a change in setting, changes people, alters their identities in ways subtle and otherwise.  Westlake wrote an entire book about that, you may recall.

Stan buys an old wreck of a Lincoln Atlantis (I’m pretty sure that’s another made up car name, but I won’t check, because I kind of wish it wasn’t), and starts fixing it up in the driveway.  His mother starts playing canasta with Myrtle’s mother Edna (neither of them knowing they’re connected to each other through Myrtle and Doug), and I know there is such a game as canasta but I have no idea how it works, and I’d rather no one told me.

Murch’s Mom was enjoying the country at first–the way nobody fights back on the road, the way they let you make a turn, the way everybody is polite–as Stan warned her, it’s starting to wear on her now–she’s afraid she’s getting soft. They’re all getting a bit soft (except for Tom, obviously–he’s happy to watch the rest of them getting soft, makes his part of the job at the very end easier). They’re all starting to lose that city edge.   They’re on vacation.  Until the clouds roll in.   And they always do.

Andy’s going to have to dive with Doug, and Dortmunder feels a bit guilty watching him get ready, but not guilty enough to volunteer to go into that water again.  Andy ends up enjoying the dive, once he adjusts–this is fun!  He’s flying like Superman!   Dortmunder’s plodding along the bottom was never the way. He and Doug find the coffin with the money in it.  They grin at each other down under the water–a meeting of minds.  Two rogues with a shared purpose.

In the meantime, Myrtle has been spying on the bungalow, just a stone’s throw from her house.  Who are all these people?   So much intrigue–the father she’s never known, the seemingly nice little fat guy who showed her how to use a computer, and the big handsome guy who almost showed her how to–you know. Somehow they’re all connected.   There’s some kind of master plan.  But who could be behind it?   Who’s the boss?   She’s a librarian who has led a sheltered life in a small town.  All she really knows is books.   And since it’s a small town library, mainly not very good books.

Conspiracy.   Was Wally the mastermind?  Or was he even now in contact with the mastermind, either in an experimental laboratory concealed within Mount Shasta (Bond) or in an unknown cavern deep beneath the Pentagon (Ludlum)?  Absorbed by Wally’s absorption, feeling that secret pleasure known to peeping Toms everywhere, Myrtle rested the front edge of the binoculars against the window and watched that round, gleaming, wet-eyed, passionate face.  Aliens?  SPECTRE?  A conspiracy at the very highest levels of government?

Or could it, could it somehow be…the Mafia?  Good God!  Was she going to have to read Jackie Collins?

Now that’s what I call a fate worse than death.  Myrtle wonders what nefarious schemes Wally is concocting through his diabolical device.

Wally, of course, is communicating not with a mastermind in an experimental laboratory, but with his computer, which isn’t hooked up to the nascent internet, but still has all the protocols Wally has programmed into it, so he can use it to puzzle out the varied dilemmas of his life.  He sees Myrtle as The Princess, and wishes to rescue her–but he’s not sure she needs rescuing from anything.  The computer, only knowing the games they play, assures him that the hero need only wait for his moment.  But the computer has been given to understand that this particular game is being played in the Real World, which it only knows through Wally.

Remember the specific rule of the game of Real Life.

Of course I remember it.  I entered it into you myself.

Nevertheless.  It is:

  • The tape of Real Life plays only once.
  • There are no corrections or adjustments.
  • Defeat is irreversible.

I know.   I know.  I know.

Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.

(And why I even try to replicate these typographically complex exchanges here in the digital world is also a bit of a puzzle.  As I’ve mentioned, even the Kindle edition doesn’t really manage to get it right.)

So out on the reservoir, that specific rule is asserting itself–it’s raining.  Well, they wanted clouds, didn’t they?   Dortmunder first writes it off as just another jest of the Almighty at his expense, but quickly realizes the inflatable dinghy with the outboard motor Doug said would be adequate for the job is filling with water. It’s going to sink.  He tries to stop it from sinking.  He ends up making it sink faster.

So when Doug and Andy see Dortmunder’s shoe sinking down towards them, they get the idea something’s not right.  They go up, and they can’t find the boat. Or Dortmunder.  A search is made.  No Dortmunder.  They go home sadly.   May, just beginning to despair, goes into the bedroom she and John share. Dortmunder.  She screams.  Women, right?

He saw a light off in the distance and swam for it.  It was the reservoir office in the dam itself, where Bob works.  Remember Bob?   Oh I won’t do that to you again.   But Dortmunder does it to Bob one last time.  He crawls into Bob’s car. In his underwear.  Just to get out of the rain.  He falls asleep.  Then Bob and two co-workers get into the car, to drive home.

Bob has just gotten out of the hospital recently.  Many strange things have happened to him.  His grasp on sanity has become tenuous.  The drugs are not entirely helping.  Apparently he’s now seeing an irritated looking man clad only in wet underpants, crouched below the front seat of his car, frowning at him, and warning him with various threatening gestures not to tell his co-workers (both of whom think Bob is nutso anyway) he’s there.

Dortmunder made his escape without Bob’s coworkers noticing.  Bob quietly asked to go back to the hospital.   No more is seen of Bob.

And no more remains of the Third Down.  Just one more to go (well, there’s a small fraction of a down after that, but we’ll just roll that into the fourth one, because seriously).

I think I myself need a vacation, and in fact I shall soon be departing my fair city, currently in the grips of a heat wave, and make my way to a fine hostelry in Upstate New York for a few days of west and wewaxation at wast.  The Overlook Lodge.  I don’t know why you’re reacting that way, it’s a real place, I can assure you.  We have reservations and everything.   It’s dog friendly (I believe we have the Cujo Room).  I do hope they have red rum there, I’ve always wanted to try it.

So I will try to get this one finished before the end of the month–there’s wifi there, and like Murch’s Mom, I sometimes do a little work while I’m vacationing. All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred…….

PS: If anyone’s wondering, no, I am not getting any payola from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in beautiful Cleveland (I’m not even getting free beer!), but I finally managed to get some of their superlative brews, bizarrely unavailable here in New York City–ordered them from a company there that specializes in Trappist Ales and other quality items made in monasteries, and Great Lakes decidedly isn’t a monastery, but Clevelanders stick together, which I trust shall stand them in good stead tonight. You survived burning rivers, guys. You’ll survive this.  We all will.  And I love my new t-shirt I bought on ebay.

At times in this world, we all are.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Drowned Hopes, First Down


A secret is revealed.

But why is it a secret?  The treasure is hidden, but it isn’t a secret.  Comment.

Tom plus treasure is the secret.

That’s right.  So it matters to Tom that he has a secret.  Comment.

One secret means more secrets.

Tom is a man with many secrets.  Also, Andy and the one called John were both afraid of Tom, but they tried to hide that.  Comment.

Tom is the warlord.

Does Andy work for Tom?

The warlord stays in his castle, surrounded by minions.

Are Andy and John minions?


What are the roles of minions?

Guard.  Soldier.  Knight.  Spy.

So Andy is a knight, employed by Tom.  Andy does knight errands for Tom.  Andy is a knight-errand.  What is John?

John is the spy.

No. The characteristic of spies is that they look trustworthy but are not.  John does not look trustworthy.  Comment.

Tom is the warlord.  Andy is the knight.  There is nothing to guard, so John is the soldier.

But what do they want?

The treasure beneath the water.

The cascade of doom, yes.  But why do they want it?  What is it?

More information is necessary.

Loudly the bell in the old tower rings,
Bidding us list to the warning it brings:
Sailor, take care! Sailor, take care!
Danger is near thee, beware! Beware!
Beware! Beware!”
Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep,
So Beware! BEEEEE-warrrrre!

Arthur J. Lamb

And now we come to the longest, the darkest, the weirdest, and by far the wettest of all the Dortmunder novels.  Fully twice the length of a normal book in this series, even longer than Butcher’s Moon, the ultimate Richard Stark epic.  422 pages in the first edition.  A veritable airport novel of a heist book, though it’s debatable whether any actual heists are seen in it. Maybe if you count grand theft auto as heisting, which Stan Murch probably would.  Andy Kelp just borrows cars from wise physicians who understand the fragility of life, so he probably wouldn’t.

There’s something for everyone here.  In many ways a summing up of everything Westlake had done with the Dortmunder franchise to date, and a return to the recurrent theme of the habitual crime–the job you have to keep pulling over and over again, until you get it right, or until it gets you.  That’s how he’d started off, with The Hot Rock.  He’d tried it again, much less successfully, with Nobody’s Perfect, and then you might say he inverted it with Why Me?

Here Dortmunder is trying, over and over again, to recover money that was stolen a long time ago by a past acquaintance he devoutly wishes had remained in the past, that is now lying at the bottom of a reservoir in upstate New York.  And if he thought he was having problems with the Balabomo Emerald, or Folly Leads Man to Ruin, or even the Byzantine Fire, well he ain’t seen nothing yet.  Westlake had given him a pretty nice day out with the previous escapade, the one where he rescued a nun, and walked away with a small fortune in valuables, and I think Dortmunder would have been quite happy if his saga had ended right there, with him and May lounging on a beach in Aruba.  But we his devoted readership would not.   Get off of that beach, Dortmunder–once more into the breach with you.

And once more, much to his disgust, he’s being forced to do a good deed.   The kind of job Richard Stark would never impose on Parker.   But there is much of Stark about this story, and most of all in its primary antagonist, Tom Jimson, whose name is an anagram of Jim Thompson, whose novel The Grifters Westlake was adapting into a film when he first started work on this novel.

And I’ve already explained in the previous article here that I don’t actually think anything Thompson wrote was much of an influence on this book, except perhaps for one brief interlude set in Oklahoma, where Thompson originally hailed from, and even that isn’t really what you’d call Thompson-esque.

Westlake would also have been thinking about a certain flowering weed, and as I explained last time, one of the basic story ideas in this book is probably lifted from a novel by Dan J. Marlowe.   But as always when he borrowed from fellow writers, Westlake so drastically remodeled the merchandise as to transform it into something entirely new, and in many respects, superior to the original.

Taking all this into account, Tom is most of all a symptom of something we’re going to see a lot of in the first half of Westlake’s work from the 90’s–Westlake starting to recover that part of himself that was Richard Stark.

What’s the biggest difference between a Parker novel and a Dortmunder novel?  Lots of people die in the first, absolutely no one in the second.  Not so here.  Death comes to the Dortmunder-verse, for the first and I believe only time (offstage deaths don’t count).  Actual death and potential death, the latter looming over an entire town, like the Johnstown Flood (referred to in the book–kinda).  This is the grim outcome Dortmunder must somehow prevent in this case.  Because he is our champion.  Whether he likes it or not.

Is Tom Jimson the Dortmunder-verse’s equivalent of Parker?   No, because that’s Dortmunder himself.  Tom’s something else again [Tom is the warlord]–computer, if I want you to start writing these reviews, I will let you know, okay? We’ll have plenty of time to talk about Tom.  Three more articles after this one.  This is just the First Down.  (Westlake divided the book into four main parts and one brief epilogue, which in his ineffable quirkiness he called ‘downs’, like this was some sort of aquatic football game, and actually isn’t there such a game in reality?–oh never mind.)

Check your tanks, spit on your masks, and we’ll start the dive.   Mind the sharks.  Not normally a problem in New York reservoirs but this book is the exception to every rule.

Dortmunder comes back from a typically harrowing honest night’s burglary (dogs.  why is it always dogs?), only to find May waiting up, and there’s a guest with her.  Tom Jimson.  I mentioned him already.  A tall wiry cold-eyed heister out of Oklahoma and the dust bowl era, and boy does he look it.  He used to be in Dillinger’s string–called him ‘Dilly.’  He addresses Dortmunder as ‘Al’ for reasons you can read the book to learn (Westlake’s reasons probably have something to do with Ring Lardner, but it’s worth noting Westlake’s father was named Albert).

“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Dortmunder says, “They let you out.”  He seems less pleased than you would expect by a colleague’s reprieve.

They roomed together in prison for a while.  Tom, who more or less defines the word ‘recidivist,’ and a few other terms derived from criminology, was never supposed to get out, but as he explains, there’s all kinds of unqualified people committing armed robbery these days, amateurs on drugs, screwing up the whole profession, and the prisons are so full of these yo-yo’s they gave him what they call compassionate release at age 70.  But ya know, just because somebody’s compassionate to you does that mean you have to respond in kind?  Golden Rule?   He who has the gold…..

Tom made a big score before he went inside, all of 700 g’s (he had a few partners, but they’re all dead, which seems to happen to pretty much everyone he ever works with, hmm…).  He buried the cash in an airtight coffin of all things, in this little upstate New York burg called Putkin’s Corners.  But then the cops nabbed him for something else (he likes to keep busy–the devil really does make work for idle hands, it seems), and then just a few years after the heist, the state of New York, in its infinite wisdom, built a dam that put Putkin’s Corners under water, for keeps.

I mean, they moved the people out first, of course.  Bureaucrats, always adding unnecessary details to a job.  Tom favors a more efficient approach than those pork barrel politicians.  He wants his money.  The water is in the way.  He wants to blow up the dam, dig up the coffin, retire to Mexico.  He’s asking Dortmunder if he’ll help out for a cut.  He doesn’t mention the dynamite part up front.  He probably figures that part of it goes without saying.  Dortmunder has never particularly relished the thought of working with this guy, but 700 g’s is 700 g’s, so they rent a car and check it out.

It’s a large dam–the kind you can drive over.  The kind that even has offices and stuff inside of it.  A whole lot of water behind that dam.   And right in front of the dam lie several slightly less forgotten small towns (all of them with Dudson in the name), that still have people in them.  This is where Tom chooses to mention the dynamite part of the job.   Dortmunder doesn’t shock that easy.  He’s shocked.

“Everybody asleep down there,” Dortmunder said, musing, imagining it, “and here comes the water.  That’s your idea.”

Tom looked through the chain-link fence at the peaceful valley.  His gray cold eyes gleamed in his gray cold face.  “Asleep in their beds,” he said.  “Asleep in somebody’s bed anyway.  You know who those people are?”

Dortmunder shook his head, watching that stony profile.

Tom said, “Nobodies.  Family men hustlin for an extra dollar, an extra dime, sweating all over their shirts, getting nowhere.  Women turnin fat.  Kids turning stupid.  No difference between day and night because nobody’s goin anywhere anyway.  Miserable little small-town people with their miserable little small-town dreams.”  The lips moved in what might have been a smile.  “A flood,” he said.  “Most excitin thing ever happened to them, am I right?”

“No, Tom,” Dortmunder said.

And he means it.  And just for the record, I think Parker would say the same thing.  This is nuts.   It’s not morality speaking here, or humanity.  It’s sanity.   Something Tom Jimson said goodbye to, maybe during all those years in prison, maybe sooner.

You know how I’m sure Westlake didn’t intend Tom as a satiric Parker?  He talks too damn much.  The one thing Dortmunder most remembers about Tom in prison is that he never stopped gabbing.  He even talks too much about how he talks too much, explains that it comes from being alone so much of the time, so once he’s in the company of somebody else on the bend that he can open up to, the words just come pouring out.

He’s actually a pretty eloquent guy, with a lot of interesting and deeply nihilistic ideas.  In that respect, not much like Blackie, the character from Dan J. Marlowe’s Four For The Money (see previous article).  Much more like like Tyrone Ten Eyck from The Spy In The Ointment, without the political gloss, or the inherited wealth, or a formal education.  Just for the record, we’re told there’s a Ten Eyck Hill overlooking this reservoir.  Westlake was never averse to borrowing from himself, either.

Tom explains, with unusual insight for a sociopath, that other people just aren’t real to him.  He can wipe out all those lives without losing a minute’s sleep.  Well maybe just one minute–to chuckle softly, envisioning the townspeople’s reaction when the water hits them, all those astonished gurgling sounds.   You can’t accuse him of not having a sense of humor, anyway.

So they drive back to the city, and as they do, Dortmunder is made to understand that his refusal to participate in this dam(ned) job hasn’t dampened Tom’s enthusiasm in the slightest.  He’s got a list.  Dortmunder was at the top of it.   He’ll just keep going down it until he finds some guys who’ll do it, and then they’ll do it.  This is the part of the book where Parker would just pull out a gun and shoot Tom for being a liability.  Unfortunately, Dortmunder can’t do that either.

So most unhappily, he proposes to Tom that he will find a way to get at the money without blowing up the dam.   Although Tom doesn’t quite see the point of going to all that trouble, he is forced to concede that the manhunt for a gang of mass murderers might be a slight hitch in his retirement plans.  But where’s he going to stay in the meantime?    Guess.

May is most displeased with the ensuing domestic situation (Tom likes to watch television in the living room and cackle loudly when somebody gets hurt or killed), and though she’s no rat, she does broach the tender subject of maybe just telling the law what Tom wants to do. Yes, she understands it’s not professional, but maybe they could make an exception to the sacred heister’s code of ethics, just this once?  Particularly since it only exists in crime fiction, anyway?

Dortmunder points out that the law can’t arrest Tom on the basis of hearsay evidence regarding something he hasn’t done yet.  All they could do (since he’s not on parole) is give him a stern talking to, tell him “Don’t you dare blow up that dam, you mischievous old rapscallion!  You should know better at your age!”  Tom would then murder Dortmunder and May for informing on him, then blow up the damn dam in spite of the civics lecture, because that’s the kind of thing people who have said goodbye to sanity tend to do.   Just because Dortmunder won’t kill for money doesn’t mean he’ll die for nothing.   They need some help from their side of the law.

So as ever, the call goes out for that hero of heroes, Andy Kelp, who is just then engaged in some serious shoplifting at an establishment called Serious Business.   It’s some kind of techie store.  Games, apps, etc.  His cellphone rings.  Yes, of course he has a cellphone already, have you not been paying attention?   If there’s a gizmo, a geegaw or a doodad to be had out there, Kelp already has it, and odds are he didn’t pay for it.

Dortmunder is confused.  He called Kelp at home.  Oh now he remembers, the forwarding thing.  They talked about that in Why Me?     But see, now Kelp can forward his calls to a compartment in his voluminous many-pocketed peacoat, now bristling with pilfered wares, of the soft variety.   As he prepares to head over to the apartment, figuring there must be a job in the offing, he thinks about how Dortmunder should have a PC.   But Andy, he’s the creative type–shouldn’t you steal him a Mac?

Yes, at long last, the cyber-age has impinged upon the literary domain of Donald E. Westlake.  At the very moment in history that Westlake was writing this book, a fellow named Tim Berners-Lee was writing the code that would shortly lead to the World Wide Web (and just typing those words, I realize they would make Dortmunder very very nervous–isn’t a web something you catch unwary flies in to suck their blood?  That’s exactly what it is, John).

The Dortmunders are always about social change to some extent, but never more than in this book.   Westlake, still working on a manual typewriter, couldn’t know just how soon even technoklutzes like me would become intrepid navigators of the netscape, but he could see the general trends emerging, with his usual precognitive perspicacity.

And he could see just as easily that a certain class of formerly despised persons would now suddenly be in great demand. You know.  Nerds.   There was a movie in the 80’s, you may recall.  But this particular nerd isn’t the vengeful type.  Well, not in three dimensions, anyway.  Wally Knurr wouldn’t hurt anybody.   Though I could imagine him possibly someday filing a lawsuit against the producers of The Big Bang Theory.

You roll aside the two giant boulders and the tree trunk.  You find the entrance to a cave, covered by a furry hide curtain.  You thrust this aside and see before you the cave of the Thousand-Toothed Ogre.

Wally Knurr wiped sweat from his brow.  Careful, now; this could be a trap.  Fat fingers tense over the keyboard, he spat out:

Describe this lair.

A forty-foot cube with a domed ceiling.  The rock walls have been fused into black ice by the molten breath of the Nether Dragon.  On fur-covered couches loll a half-dozen well-armed Lizard Men, members of the Sultan’s Personal Guard.  Against the far wall, Princess Labia is tied to a giant wheel, slowly rotating.

Are the Lizard Men my enemies?

Not in this encounter.

Are the Lizard Men my allies?

Only if you show them the proper authorization.

Wally Knurr is  twenty-four years old, four feet fix inches tall, exceedingly plump, friendly, and perennially damp.   Companionable though he is, he does not have a lot of friends, but one he does have is Andy Kelp, who shares his passion for computers–they met at a computer course Wally was giving at the New School For Social Research.  Kelp sees Wally as a potentially useful ally, to whom he need show no authorization–Kelp, as we have seen, collects people as eagerly as he collects devices.

Kelp brings Dortmunder and Tom to see Wally, figuring Wally’s computer might be able to find a solution to getting that money out of the reservoir without resort to high explosives.     They are necessarily vague about the parameters of the problem, telling Wally they’re doing a sort of treasure hunt, a game.

Wally is naive, not stupid (he lives in a very bad neighborhood), and just one look at Tom tells him these guys are not playing around.   That conversation he’s having with his computer up top is basically him using the computer’s pre-programmed responses to tell himself what he already knows–which isn’t much. A sort of gamer’s version of symbolic logic.  Useful to a point, but not very rooted in reality.  More information is necessary.  And he’ll be getting plenty of that as his latest scenario unfolds–as he thinks later in the book–“Real life.  The greatest interactive fiction of them all.”   Indeed.

As he was in Jimmy the Kid, when Kelp suggested using a lousy crime paperback as the blueprint for a kidnapping, Dortmunder is offended that Kelp is bringing in yet another amateur to do his job for him.  He’s the planner.  But underwater salvage isn’t really his area.  He’s reading up on it–he finds a book in the library, Marine Salvage, by one Joseph N. Gores.   Here it is–check out the subtitle on the first edition–“The Unforgiving Business of No Cure, No Pay.”   You know, there’s something familiar about that style…..

Donald Westlake also collected potentially useful people, and as it happens, this is the very same Joseph Nicholas Gores who ended up writing crime fiction for a living, with whom Westlake had formed a close friendship (Marine Salvage was only his second published book, from 1971)–one of Gores’ DKA novels crosses-over with the Parker novel Plunder Squad (from 1972).  And in fact, one of his novels in the same franchise crosses-over with Drowned Hopes, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet.   (Nor am I ready to shell out for a copy of Marine Salvage, because damned if it’s not a lot more expensive than most of his crime books).

John and Andy head back to Wally’s apartment to hear what he and the computer have come up with–to wit–

  1. Laser Evaporation
  2. Spaceship From Zog (don’t ask)
  3. Magnet
  4. Ping Pong Balls
  5. Plastic Bag

John tries not to look too smug, and Andy tries to look somewhere else.  But in fact, John’s preliminary research tells him some of these ideas are potentially workable.  Not the first three, though.  Not in this genre.

But they need to actually go under the water to make anything work.   Meaning they need diving equipment, which is to say sporting equipment, and when New Yorkers need sporting equipment, they go to a sporting goods store; in fact the Paragon of all such stores.  Mr. Westlake takes some pleasure in informing us that their underwater equipment is sold on the top floor, even though they have a perfectly good basement (where I have on occasion purchased footwear).  I have just now ascertained this is no longer the case, that the diving gear is currently located at street level, and they no longer sell oxygen tanks.  They did then (at least in this book), but there’s a catch.

Kelp said, “You know, you’re not supposed to drive a car without a license, too, but I bet some people do.”

She gave him a severe look and shook her head.  From a sunny happy healthy young woman she had segued with amazing suddenness into the world’s most disapproving Sunday School Teacher.  “It doesn’t work quite the same way,” she said, sounding pleased about that.  Pointing at the display of tanks, she said “I’ll sell you as many of those as you want.  But they’re empty.  And the only place you can get them filled is an accredited dive shop.  And they won’t fill them unless you show them your certification or agree to have an instructor go with you.”  Her look of satisfaction was pretty galling.  “Diving or walking, gentlemen,” she said, “you will not want to go very far underwater, or for very long, with empty tanks.  If you’ll excuse me?”  And she turned on her heel and went off to sell a $350 Dacor Seachute BCD to a deeply tanned Frenchman with offensively thick and glossy hair.

Leaving, slinking away, clumping morosely down the wide stairs towards Paragon’s street level with their tails between their legs, Dortmunder said, “Okay.  We gotta getta guy.”

(Though the location and variety of the diving equipment at Paragon Sports may have changed, this I can assure you–that pitying look the younger salespeople there direct at you when you say something stupid has not.)

Dortmunder just figures they can walk on the floor of the reservoir to the area where the money is buried, and dig it up.  Simple, right?  But they need somebody to show them how to use the equipment, so they avail themselves of the services of yet another expert, Doug Berry, the tanned blonde proprietor of South Shore Dive Shop in Islip, Long Island.

Doug’s not quite exactly on the bend, but he’s not 100% on the up and up either. He’s one of those in-between guys who tend not to fare so well in Westlake novels (always a first time).   He knows a guy named Mikey Donelli (Donnelly? Doug’s not sure, and he’s afraid to ask).  Mikey provides him with fine diving equipment to sell his customers, at a bargain price, and Doug doesn’t ask why the price is so good.  But now Mikey’s providing him with two customers, and Doug’s not supposed to ask them too many questions either.  But he gets the general picture–there’s money somewhere, lots of it, at the bottom of a body of fresh water, and in his mind, it’s there for whoever gets to it first.   But that’s for later.  In the meantime, he’ll gladly train and equip these guys for a nice fee.

And John now has to remind Tom that since he’s the one who insists on getting this money from a place he shouldn’t have put it in the first place, he should be the one who finances the job, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny.  “Oh I dunno,” Tom said.  “Dynamite and life are cheap.”   He still hasn’t completely reconciled himself to the prospect of getting his loot without loss of life.  (In fact, there’s going to be loss of life no matter how they get it, but that’s also for later).

So they drive back up to Dudson Center, one of the towns Tom would like to see underwater in place of Putkin’s Corners, and crash a wedding.  The money’s stashed under the altar of the church, you see.  The Elizabeth Grace Dudson Memorial Reformed Congregational Unitarian Church of Putkin Township (depopulation has led to consolidation).  The wedding involves someone we’ll be seeing more of later in the book, but on the way there we see somebody who has already been introduced, one Myrtle Street, who happens to live on Myrtle Street, in Dudson Center.  Myrtle is described as being pretty, but not ostentatiously so (I figure maybe Anna Kendrick pretty, which is pretty good).

And she is, as we’ve already been informed, Tom Jimson’s illegitimate daughter. Her mother, Edna Street, had a brief ill-fated affair with Tom (as if there could be any other kind of affair with Tom) while he was in the area for criminal purposes, years before.  Edna, who had been devoutly circumspect about the identity of Myrtle’s dad, figuring like everybody else he ever met that nobody would ever be dumb enough to let him out of prison, blurted out his identity when she happened to see Tom driving by with Dortmunder some weeks back, thus arousing Myrtle’s curiosity about the nature of her long-lost progenitor. And now he’s down there again, with a larger group of suspicious-looking individuals.   It’s all very mysterious and exciting.

So back to the wedding, which has something of a shotgun aspect to it, the bride being pregnant.   Mr. Westlake’s first marriage, also perpetrated in upstate New York, may in fact have had a similar element of biological compulsion involved, but we don’t have much in the way of details.  He makes up for that with a wealth of detail regarding this wedding.  Jane Austen never provided more details of a wedding, but I’d say there’s considerably more prejudice than pride going on here.

Relatives of the bride continued to predominate for first ten minutes or so; giggling awkward large-jointed people wearing their “best” clothes, saved for weddings, funerals, Easter, and appearances in court.  Soon this group began to be supplemented by members of the groom’s family: skinnier, shorter, snake-hipped people with can opener noses and no asses, dressed in Naughahyde jackets and polyester shirts and vinyl trousers and plastic shoes, as though they weren’t human beings at all but were actually a chain dental service’s waiting room.  Intermixed with these, in warm-up jackets and pressed designer jeans, were the groom’s pals, acne-flaring youths full of sidelong looks and nervous laughter, knowing this was more than likely a foretaste of their own doom: “There but for the grace of the Akron Rubber Company go I.”  The bride’s girlfriends arrived in a too-crowded-car cluster and hovered together like magnetized iron filings, all demonstrating the latest soap opera fashion trends and each of them a sealed bubble of self-consciousness and self-absorption.  The groom, a jerky marionette in a rented tux, a wide-eyed pale boy with spiky hair and protuberant ears, appeared with his grim suspicious parents and entered the church with all the false macho assurance of Jimmy Cagney on his way to the electric chair.  The church door shut behind him with a hollower boom than it had given anyone else.

Mr. Westlake isn’t done with the groom yet, or the bride for that matter, but let’s leave that to one side for now, and observe that Tom’s stash is obtained, and Dortmunder & Kelp obtain their underwater training from Doug–at a high school pool in Islip, no less.  It’s more complicated than that, but I don’t have the time.

Wally Knurr, who has delighted Andy Kelp by informing him that he knows they’re obtaining stolen money from a reservoir (Tom is not so delighted) ventures himself to Dudson Center, and makes the acquaintance of Myrtle Street.

He is (understandably) smitten.  She is  (understandably) not.  Friendzones him in two seconds flat, but he shows her how to use the computer terminal at the library she works at, she is suitably grateful at finding out how useful digital information resources can be, and friendship with a gal like Myrtle is nothing to sneer at.   As much to her surprised as anyone’s, she introduces herself to Wally as Myrtle Jimson.   The Warlord’s Daughter!   A Princess!

And, as his computer aptly reminds him, The Purpose of the Princess is to be rescued.  This is the part where he thinks that thing about life being the greatest interactive fiction of them all, but somehow one sadly suspects he’ll never know the half of it where girls are concerned.

It just keeps getting more complicated–they need a really big strong guy to winch the coffin out of the reservoir, and also to keep Tom in his place.   Who better than Tiny Bulcher?   Still happily domiciled with the delectable J.C. Taylor (who most unhappily does not appear in this book), Tiny is approached by Dortmunder and Kelp during a meat heist he’s perpetrating in the wholesale meat section of Manhattan, on Ganesvoort Street (now better known for being an access point to The High Line)–he’s carrying an entire dead cow on his own meaty shoulders, as easily as you or I would tote two pounds of ground round.

After the usual string of reminiscently threatening remarks, he’s amenable to joining their enterprise–there’s just this one little bit of news they have to break to him.  One would not wish to say this to Mr. Bulcher’s face, or anywhere near it, but–well, listen in, as they and the dead cow are traveling together in yet another unfortunate physician’s purloined automobile.

Tiny thought about that.  “From inside?”

“That’s the one,” Dortmunder agreed.  “That’s where we both knew him.  He was my cellmate awhile.”

“Nasty poisonous old son of a bitch,” Tiny suggested.

“You’ve got the right guy,” Dortmunder told him.

“A snake with legs.”


“Charming as a weasel, and gracious as a ferret.”

“That’s Tom, okay.”

“He’d eat his own young even if he wasn’t hungry.”

“Well, he’s always hungry,” Dortmunder said.

“That’s true.” Tiny shook his head.  “Tom Jimson.  He was the worst thing about stir.”

Looking in the mirror, Kelp said, “Tiny, I never heard you talk like that before.  Like there was a guy out there somewhere that worried you.”

“Oh, yeah?”  Tiny frowned massively at this suggestion that another human being might give him pause.  “You’re lucky you don’t know the guy.”

At which point Mr. Bulcher must be informed that Kelp does know the guy, because the law was actually stupid enough to let said guy go, and they’re doing this job with said guy, upon which it becomes very difficult to persuade Tiny and his cow not to exit the vehicle.   Tom Jimson, Tiny points out, has a way of not having any partners left to split the take with after the job is over.  He is assured they’ll watch Tom carefully for any sign of treachery.  “Birds watch snakes” Tiny replies.   Yeah.  He’s scared.  (He’s scared!).  But it’s a lot of money.

So it is that the four of them, Dortmunder, Kelp, Bulcher, and (unfortunately) Tom arrive at the reservoir late one April night (in a doctor’s stolen Dodge motor home), and the first two of them, donned in scuba gear, march resolutely into the water, attempting to find the old blacktop road that will lead them to the site where the money is buried.  They have underwater flashlights and everything. Much good it does them.

As they walk along the silt-encrusted floor, they stir up debris.  Turbidity, it’s known as in salvaging circles (you learn so much in these books!).  Visibility goes from bad to non-existent. There’s also stumps of felled trees, and various other unanticipated obstacles to ground navigation.  Their feet become enmired in the mud.  Dortmunder’s boots come off.  They don’t know where they are.   They don’t know how long they’ve been down there.  They don’t know which direction is up.  They panic.  You can imagine a self-satisfied look on the face of the girl at Paragon Sports right about now.

Kelp remembers his gizmo that controls buoyancy, and surfaces.  Dortmunder does not, and has to be winched all the way back in by Tiny.  In the process, he scares the living hell out of the young man we just saw get married a few chapters back, who works nights inside the dam, and thinks Dortmunder is some kind of lake monster.  Nobody believes him, of course.  Nobody will ever believe him.

So really, a typical first attempt in a Dortmunder novel.   And equally typical is Dortmunder’s reaction, much as Kelp tries to deny it.

This creature, looking in fact less like a sea serpent and more like one of the clay people of Mayan mythology and Flash Gordon serials, stomped up out of the reservoir and slogged straight to Tom, who actually looked kind of startled at this abrupt approach, saying “Al?  You okay?”

“I got one word to say to you, Tom,” Dortmunder announced, pointing a muddy finger at Tom.  “And that word is dynamite!

Tom blinked.  “Al?”

“Blow it up!” Dortmunder raned wildly, waving in the general direction of the reservoir.  “Do it any way you want!  I’m through!”

Tiny, sitting up from his supine position, said, “Dortmunder?  You’re giving up?”

Dortmunder swiveled around to glare at him.  In a clear and praiseworthy effort to keep himself more or less calm and under control, he pointed again at the reservoir with his mud-dripping finger and said, “I am not going down there again, Tiny.  That’s it.”

Kelp approached his old friend, worry creasing his features.  He said, “John?  This isn’t you.  You don’t admit defeat.”

“Defeat,” Dortmunder told him, and squished away to the motor home.

Huh.  An unusually negative ending, even for a Dortmunder.  But that’s where Westlake leaves us, in Chapter 29, Page 150 of this–oh damn.  I forgot.   This is just the First Down.  We’ve not even halfway through the book.   It’s taken me over a week just to write this.


[Computer here.  Fred Fitch squished away to the basement to do laundry, vowing never to return.  The blog lord has no pity.  Maybe if we baked him a nice tuna casserole?  Actually, he would probably prefer a case of that beer you see up top, which is very difficult to obtain in New York City for some reason.  Well, see you next week. Hopefully.   Can’t wait to learn how Wally’s computer rescues the Princess. Spaceship from Zog, I bet. Computer out.]


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Uncategorized