“We got the clearance to rub him, just day before yesterday. I had it set up for over in Jersey. Friday night, he’s on this bowling league, see? And it struck me, a bowling ball, now, that looks a hell of a lot like the old fashioned kind of bomb, you know what I mean? So I thought I’d–”
“You’re supposed to rub Menchik,” Nick Rovito reminded him, “Not the whole Bowlorama.”
“Sure, so this is better. We can double up. Willy goes with Engel, see, and helps him dig it up, and then Engel rubs him and leaves him in the coffin with Charlie and covers it all up again, and who’s to find Willy? You gonna look for him in a grave?”
Nick Rovito smiled. He didn’t do that very often, and it made the boys around the table happy to see him do it now. “That’s pretty nifty,” he said. “I like the feel of that.”
Somebody else around the table said “It’s like a poetic humor, huh Nick?” and Nick Rovito said “Yeah.”
Though I suppose it very slightly resembles The Trouble With Harry (I’ve only ever seen the Hitchcock film based on Jack Trevor Story’s–um–story), as you can see from my choice of book covers this week, I don’t particularly have any works by other authors to compare this book with. I’ve got the deliciously morbid Ballantine paperback reprint cover up there because I happen to like it much better than the rather generic caricatures of the original Random House edition.
One thing that is almost always missed in visual interpretations of Westlake’s comic novels is how straight-faced they are. Keatonesque, you might even say. You may be laughing, but nobody in the book is, most of the time. They are all taking the proceedings very seriously, particularly the protagonist, who is usually in mortal peril. To do Westlake’s style of comedy right, you have to play it like a particularly crucial hand of poker. One where your life is at stake.
But for some reason everybody who adapted them wanted to play up the comic angle really hard, just so the audience would know they weren’t being serious about it–the same way when they adapted Richard Stark, they kept finding some way to make Parker seem like a nice guy. And since they didn’t take the proceedings seriously, that’s why the movies were almost never funny. And absolutely never as funny as the books. And they pretty much always flopped, with audiences and the critics. And for some reason, Hollywood kept making more of them, and they kept right on flopping. But the checks they made out to Westlake kept clearing. So the joke wasn’t on him.
The reason I’m mentioning all this is that the film Hollywood made out of The Busy Body was the first Westlake adaptation to go into general release in the U.S., and really the first film based on one of his books that got any mainstream attention. There had been three French movies already–an anthology film that incorporated one of his short stories into it (that is literally all I know about it), Godard’s unauthorized & 99.9999% unfaithful adaptation of The Jugger (see the previous two reviews here), and Alain Cavalier’s Mise a Sac, which transposed the events of The Score to rural France.
Westlake said he saw Mise a Sac once, on video (probably taped from a TV broadcast), at a friend’s apartment in Paris, without subtitles, and he thought it looked pretty good–I’ve seen a high quality print, with subtitles, at the Museum of Modern Art and it’s very good. I’ll get around to reviewing it pretty soon. The Busy Body I will never bother to post a full review of, because it’s terrible. Ditto with Godard’s film. I have no idea where you’d get a copy of that anthology thing, but give me time.
The Busy Body was released in March of 1967, and John Boorman’s Point Blank came out in August of the same year. They definitely saved the best for last. Please note that even though I’m mentioning this movie, I didn’t put an image of the poster up above. The film is currently available on Netflix, if you’re curious. I urge you not to buy a copy. It’s a train wreck, made all the worse by the amazing cast they put together for it. Sid Caesar, Richard Pryor, Robert Ryan, and the hilariously delectable Arlene Golonka, and here is the only image I choose to recall from the entire film.
That scene isn’t from the book, and do I care? I most emphatically do not. Ms. Golonka’s breathtakingly busy bod aside, the movie stinks, and Westlake thought so too. He said after this one, William Castle finally decided to stop trying to be a director, and just produce movies. Castle’s next production, Westlake noted ruefully, was Rosemary’s Baby. Timing is everything.
It’s strange that this was the only ‘Nephew’ book that became an actual movie–several others were optioned, including The Fugitive Pigeon, which would have been a much better choice, though maybe a bit too counter-cultural for the likes of William Castle (and not enough for the directors who dug that kind of scene). One gets the impression that a very large part of Westlake’s income derived from studios buying the rights to this or that book and then never doing anything with it. Most of the time, that was probably just as well.
To me, this is one of the weakest of the Nephew stories. It’s self-evidently a comic re-telling of The Mercenaries, featuring a mob boss’ right hand man dragooned into investigating a mystery for his employer, and ending up on the chopping block himself. It also contains elements freely recycled from The Fugitive Pigeon, which had been Westlake’s first really big seller for Random House (even outsold the Parker novels that had come out thus far).
Westlake’s comic technique is improving here, and there’s much to like about the book. It’s a more polished work, with better gags, and improved execution overall–but there’s less conviction behind it. He’s still figuring out how to make this kind of story work. Enthusiasm alone won’t cut it now, but neither will mere technique. He needs characters people will care about who are still genuinely and uniquely funny. Characters from whom the story will flow naturally. He doesn’t have that here.
He wrote the first comic novel more or less as a reaction against the overly serious mysteries he was expected to keep cranking out, and his relief at getting to express the humorous side of his nature is abundantly clear–as is the fact that he can easily imagine himself being in Charlie Poole’s situation (and falling in love with a girl like Chloe Shapiro, as I suspect he really did at some point in time).
But here, he’s writing about an older guy (over 30, I think) who has chosen to be somebody’s flunky for life–a second generation mobster–an organization man practically from the cradle to the grave–almost literally, in fact. His protagonist is an empty suit, with lots of money, and no real self-understanding. He feels no strong attachment to anybody in his life, or to his job. Typically, in a Westlake story, this kind of character ends up dead, or about to be dead. But this is a comedy, and not really a dark one, in spite of the subject matter–so the guy has to live. How to work it this time?
Aloysius Eugene Engel (of Irish and Jewish parentage, going by the name) is the son of a smalltimer in the New York syndicate, whose general lack of direction in life led to him becoming a messenger boy for the rackets himself. Engel Sr’s overbearing ambitious wife (clearly the Irish side of the family, though she’d give any Jewish mother a run for her money) noodged him into using some information he had to boost their son’s career.
Engel Jr. was therefore put in a position where he could tell the boss of the outfit, one Nick Rovito (very reminiscent of Nick Ganolese from The Mercenaries) that his right hand man was about to betray and supplant him–and in the process, Engel Jr. ended up taking the guy’s place.
In the process, Engel inadvertently killed the guy he was informing on–without really thinking about it, since the guy was about to strangle him, and Nick helpfully tossed him a gun, which he emptied at the guy with his eyes tight shut. Nick kept the gun, with Engel’s prints on it, just in case it was needed someday. Yeah, very reminiscent of The Mercenaries. (And yeah, I know I said Nephews don’t kill, but the rules of imaginary sub-genres are notoriously flexible–we never see him kill anyone on purpose, and it’s clearly something he’d much rather not be doing).
The story opens in earnest with the funeral of another mob guy–a huge expensive affair for a very unimportant guy, named Charlie Brody (kind of interesting that Westlake chose to give the stiff in question the same first name as the protagonist of his previous comic crime novel–he loved morbid little injokes like that).
Charlie’s only job of any significance was to transport large quantities of narcotics sewn up in his blue suit. Rovito just felt like there hadn’t been a good funeral in a while, and this was as good an excuse as any. Belatedly, it’s realized that the grieving widow, a former call girl for the syndicate, has chosen that very blue suit to bury her husband in. The suit with a quarter million dollars worth of drugs sewn into the jacket.
Engel gets tapped to go dig up Charlie and get the suit jacket. In the process, as the opening quote makes clear, he’s supposed to whack this other mob guy who has become a problem, after the guy helps him dig it up. But the coffin is empty, and the guy skedaddles, and Engel is now seriously in dutch with his boss. Bad enough he had to play grave robber, but now he’s got to play detective, solve the case of the missing corpse, and retrieve the drugs–or at least find out what happened.
So here we go again–another guy who doesn’t want to be solving a mystery forced by a rather contrived set of circumstances to do precisely that–but his reaction is a bit different–see, Engel isn’t the cool competent customer that Clay in The Mercenaries is–who eventually turns out to not be as smart as he thinks he is. Nor is he the clueless terrified schlemiel that Charlie Poole in The Fugitive Pigeon is–who finally turns out to be smarter than he thinks he is. Engel is pretty much exactly as smart as he thinks he is–and kvetchy as a man could possibly be. He’ll start monologuing on his grievances at the drop of a hat.
“I might as well gone to college,” said Engel, “like my mother wanted. I might as well gone legit, and took the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. So I got money, I got prestige, I got the respect of my community, I even got a pipe with my name on it at Kean’s, but is it worth it? To be involved with slobs like this masochist on the floor here, is it worth it? To go dig up graves and conk people on the head with shovels and drive a standard-shift car and get lost forty times in Brooklyn and associate with slobs like Willy Menchik at this hour of the night. I might as well been a milkman.”
He opened the door and stepped out, still grumbling. “I might better off been a milkman, they got a union.”
That is world-class kvetching, and another strong indicator that he is of both Jewish and Irish descent (arguably the two most gifted groups of complainers, and historically having much to complain about, in all fairness).
Engel is tall, lean, and saturnine in countenance. His reaction to every new difficulty that arises in his life is to grouse and brood over it, with a general aura of aggrieved melancholic resignation–like he expected this to happen, because fate is determined to play an endless series of practical jokes on him, but he still has to say something about it, just to make it clear he’s not okay with this wholly undeserved treatment he’s getting from what powers there be. Does this remind you of anyone else you’ve ever met in a Donald Westlake novel? Let’s come back to that later.
So Engel goes to the funeral home where Charlie was prepared for his interment, and since it must be obvious by now I’m not that interested in the story of this one, let me do a bit of comparative quoting here–Parker visited a funeral home in The Jugger, which was written around the same time as this book (I’m going to hazard a guess that Westlake attended a funeral or three around then and was making mental notes amidst the mourning).
Let’s see how different the styles are–here’s Richard Stark–
The room stank of flowers and death. Orange light bulbs shaped like wrinkled mosques shone dimly in wall fixtures on the left, gleaming on the tangled pattern of the wallpaper, muting and deadening in the thick maroon rug and the heavy dark draperies around the doorways. To the right, rotting flowers in green wicker baskets stood around a coffinless bier; a few white rose petals had fallen on to the flat table-top of the bier and were slowly browning and curling into tiny fists.
Here’s Donald Westlake–
The sign on the front lawn that said
was three feet wide and in neon, but it was blue neon, for dignity. Behind this sign and beyond the manicured lawn was the building, a robber baron’s town house when it was built in the latter part of the nineteenth century, its gables and bay windows all done in a rotten stucco now painted a gloomy brown. A broad empty porch spread around the broad vacuous face of the house, and as Engel came up the slate walk he saw that this porch was full of uniformed policemen.
Going through the curtained doorway at the far end of the room was like time travel, like leaping across the years out of the muffled darkness of the Victorian era and into the plane geometry of IBM. The walls of this corridor, painted grey, looked like some sort of spackled plastic in a poor imitation of stucco; the ceiling was a gridwork of white sound-proofing panels with small black holes in rows; and the floor was black composition that deadened the sound of Parker’s feet almost as much as the maroon rug in the other room.
He was in a different world now, though just as dim and cluttered a one. Out ahead of him stretched the hallway, narrow and low-ceilinged. Two wall fixtures shaped sort of like candles contained amber light bulbs shaped sort of like candle flames, and these dim amber bulbs were the only source of light. The walls were painted a color that was maybe coral, maybe apricot, maybe amber, maybe beige; the woodwork was done in a stain so dark as to be almost black, and the floor was carpeted in dark and torturous Persian. If a Pharaoh had died in A.D. 1935, the inside of his pyramid would have looked like this hall.
It’s not that Westlake is so much wordier than Stark–it’s really a difference in attitude and emphasis, more than anything else. There’s a very dry dark humor in Stark, but it’s not meant to make you chuckle–or even smile. And he keeps it very simple (hence the name). Westlake, by contrast, likes to throw in that bit of extra commentary, that snark-laden aside–he becomes Stark, in a sense, by suppressing the part of himself that sees the humor in everything, that wants to find that extra line (like the 1935 Pharaoh) and this suppression makes his sentences crisper, cleaner, more to the point–which works much better for a hard-boiled crime novel, but obviously much less well for a story that plays the same basic set of circumstances for laughs, and a protagonist who is far less sure of himself than Parker.
Back at the funeral home, Engel blunders into exactly the same scenario Charlie Poole did before him–he wants to talk to the mortician, and finds him in his study, with a knife in his back. And then this attractive woman sees him and starts screaming. And then comes a scene right out of Buster Keaton, with Engel fleeing what seems to be roughly half the NYPD (there’s a cop’s funeral going on at the same time), and negotiating a series of obstacles to evade them–and by dint of desperation-fueled ingenuity, making those obstacles work in his favor–he ends by plugging an alleyway with a handy truck, leaving them all stuck in there, while he walks nonchalantly back into the funeral parlor to ask more questions–and again, doesn’t this remind you of somebody else? Again, let’s get back to that.
He does the usual Westlake reluctant detective stuff, talking to this person and that, working up a list of suspects, meeting several attractive women with dubious agendas he can’t quite fathom at first; failing to meet his sort-of girlfriend Dolly, an ‘exotic dancer’ who works on the West Coast, just blew into town, and wants to hook up with him, and we never see her once–she keeps leaving him increasingly irate notes written in lipstick and fastened to his apartment door with false fingernails. It’s not a romantic comedy, like The Fugitive Pigeon. There are girls, but there is not The Girl. Another rule of the Nephew genre that gets bent here, if not outright broken.
But if there’s one rule of the Nephew stories that holds true book after book, it’s this–the hero will end up in trouble for something he didn’t do. Engel finds out that some businessmen have told Nick Rovito that he’s been shaking them down for money–none of which has gone to Nick. Nick has sent two trigger-men pretty much identical in appearance and personality to Trask and Slade from The Fugitive Pigeon, only this time they’re named Gittel and Fox, same difference.
Not only are they going to whack him, but Nick Rovito pulled that murder weapon with his fingerprints on it out of storage, and used it to frame him for the death of that guy he was supposed to have conked with a shovel anyway. What we’re seeing here is what probably just what happened to Clay from The Mercenaries right after the last paragraph in that book–only without the comic hijinks. And probably with a much darker finish.
Engel is taken for a ride, in the good old 1930’s gangster movie sense of the term, just like Charlie Poole before him, but instead of talking his way out of it the way Charlie does, he makes a break for it at a traffic plaza, and slips away into that labyrinthine redoubt that is Queens.
Then Engel holes up (in more ways than one) with Charlie Brody’s widow, the once and future hooker (working name Bobbi Bounds)–who offers him the comfort of her bed, and you know what, in the movie they must have figured they’d combine Bobbi the hooker/widow with Dolly the exotic dancer/girlfriend, and make it a romantic comedy, and it might have worked, but Sid Caesar and Arlene Golonka had zero chemistry and the script still stunk on ice.
There’s a lot more investigating, and running from the cops, and Gittel & Fox, and some more oddly familiar moments involving an office building full of shady businesses, and Engel using a fair ride on wheels full of joyfully screaming kids to make his getaway, and maybe it’s just time to cut to the chase. Engel finds out who took Charlie’s body. It wasn’t for a reason anybody would have suspected. It involves one of the attractive women with dubious agendas. It ties everything up neatly in a nice bow for Nick Rovito, and Engel gets offered his old job back.
And here’s where he proves himself a Nephew at last–he nixes the offer. He’s not going to pull a George Clayton from The Mercenaries, and double down on his choice to be an organization man. He decides working for people you can never trust is for the birds. He’s going to try being his own man–and part of that means telling his mother goodbye–she’s been pestering him to have dinner with her all through the book–this woman who wanted him to be a big career man with the mob, but never could process what this would actually mean for him.
He’s been putting her off by threatening to move to California. She calls his bluff this time–it’s not a bluff this time. He hangs up on her, finds out where Dolly lives, and heads for the airport.
Westlake had probably spent some time in California by now, relating to his new sideline of selling books to Hollywood, and this marks the beginning of yet another dichotomy in his books–the part of him that was a loyal New Yorker to the bitter end–and the part that was oddly attracted to the West Coast. Usually New York won, but not always–in this case, Engel finds out that a relentless police detective has it in for him (geez, you trap half the police force in a blind alley they take it so personal), and intends to see him dead or permanently jailed. So that tips the balance in favor of California–like I said, a very loyal New Yorker, but loyalty has its limits.
Needless to say, in the movie, made for a mainstream audience that would have a whole lot of mothers in it, Engel does not coldly abandon his mom, and they are all happily reconciled; Engel, his mother, and the Bobbi/Dolly amalgram. And that is the very last thing I shall ever have to say about that movie. Unless it comes up in the comments section.
I admire the skill with which Westlake put this all together–but I don’t really love the book. Again, it’s the characters. Most of them come across as cleverly reworked cliches, and a cleverly reworked cliche is a cliche nonetheless. They don’t have much in the way of soul, and I don’t think you’re even supposed to care about them–I mean, the hero telling his mother ‘good-bye forever’ (his exact words!) over the telephone kind of tips you off to that.
It’s Westlake experimenting with the comic form–he’d made the main characters very warm and empathetic in his first comedy, so now he’s going to try going the other way with it. It doesn’t work as well. I’m also pretty sure it didn’t sell as well, and Westlake was not in a financial position to say the hell with that. (Editing, long long after–I just recently found out Westlake got 50k for the movie rights to this book, which would have the equivalent of a quarter mil back then, so he wasn’t in a position to say the hell with that either).
But it does show some potential–it’s funnier, for one thing. Too much sympathy can be bad for comedy. You have to measure out the ingredients just right. Great comedy always has an edge to it. But it also needs great memorable characters–Bertie Wooster and Jeeves come to mind. Yes, you love them, you root for them–but you also know they aren’t ever going to change. Bertie will always be a silly ass layabout who gets himself into trouble with some oddly-named young lady or other; Jeeves will always be a laconic Machiavellian schemer, manipulating his hapless employer at will to make him stop wearing those ridiculous Etonian spats, or to take Jeeves to Florida for a spot of Tarpon-fishing.
It’s like the mantra the Seinfeld writing staff always held to–“No hugging, no learning.” Because that may warm the cockles of your heart, but it won’t tickle your funny bone. Truly funny people don’t have to be nice all the time–we’ll love them just for making us laugh.
The problem with Engel isn’t that he’s not as easy for us to sympathize with as Charlie Poole, but that he’s harder for Westlake to empathize with–because until everything fell apart, he was perfectly happy to throw away his life being a cog in a machine. Because this is a comedy, he has a change of heart and of mind, extracts himself bloodlessly from his employers, and strikes out for terra incognita, to make a life for himself (possibly with an exotic dancer, but that’s not really the point here). Charlie embraces maturity (and Chloe, who vividly symbolizes it for him), but Engel just sort of passively accepts it. It’s better than the alternative.
But that all being said–Engel is still a seminal creation for Westlake–a prototype, if you will. Because as I have kept hinting throughout this review, he promises greater things–he just needs a bit more of a backbone (not too much more)–a suitably individualistic profession to practice–perhaps a few equally comic colleagues–a girlfriend he can rely on, who bakes a mean tuna casserole–and a set of burglar tools.
Yeah, you heard me right. Aloysius Engel is John Dortmunder in embryo. Did you ever wonder why we’re told Dortmunder used to be married to a showgirl whose professional name was ‘Honeybun Bazoom’? A character we never met? I often think Westlake’s favorite jokes were always the ones only he was in on. Or so he thought. Didn’t count on internet review blogs helmed by people with way too much spare time, did you, Mr. Westlake? Though I guess you did kind of anticipate us with Wally Knurr. Credit where credit is due.
And what is due next here is my review of what many consider The. Best. Parker. Novel. EVER.
Let’s just say that seven isn’t Parker’s lucky number–but if you were following these books as they came out in the 60’s, you were feeling pretty damn lucky when you spotted this one on the revolving book rack. Sex. Violence. Football. Tiny psychos with huge Napoleon complexes. Big psychos with tiny–um–never mind. It’s a good one. And heavily reviewed. Can I possibly find anything to say about it that hasn’t been said a hundred times before? Maybe not, but I’ll go down swinging.