Tag Archives: Lawrence Block

Review: The Perfect Murder

Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon trial, which lasted seven years. In summing up, the judge of the Court of Acquittal remarked that it was one of the most ghastly crimes that he had ever been called upon to explain away.

At this my counsel rose and said:

“May it please your honor, crimes are ghastly or agreeable only by comparison. If you were familiar with the details of my client’s previous murder of his uncle, you would discern in his later offence something in the nature of tender forbearance and filial consideration for the feelings of the victim. The appalling ferocity of the former assassination was indeed inconsistent with any hypothesis but that of guilt; and had it not been for the fact that the honorable judge before whom he was tried was the president of a life insurance company which took risks on hanging, and in which my client held a policy, it is impossible to see how he could have been decently acquitted. If your honor would like to hear about it for the instruction and guidance of your honor’s mind, this unfortunate man, my client, will consent to give himself the pain of relating it under oath.”

From My Favorite Murder, by Ambrose Bierce

So.  You’re beginning to enjoy our correspondence, are you?  That may change, my friend.

Granted, I had understood from the outset that you were adding to your risk of exposure by consulting others as well as myself–yet another indication of your ambivalence toward the entire operation–but I had expected you would be forming a jury of at least my, if not your peers.  The latest Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy, say.  Dr. Hannibal Lector.  Pol Pot.  Imelda Marcos.  A member of the Senate’s Intelligence Oversight Committee.  An executive from Drexel-Burnham.  People, in other words, who had already gotten away with  murder.  I’d thought, quite naturally, you understood that my own…

Well.  Never mind.  The point is, I had no idea at the outset that you intended to insult me in this fashion; to cobble me together with these, these scriveners.  I had no thought that you expected me to hobnob, rub elbows, shuffle along with the likes of these makeweights, these cutpennies, these artificers.

Well, it’s not their fault.  I mustn’t blame them overly.  They’ve done their best, poor catchpoles, and I shall give them–not you, my friend, them–the decent respect of treating their humble offerings with sympathetic patience and a critical eye well tempered by compassion for human imperfectibility.

Donald E. Westlake, writing to ‘Tim.’

For an article in the September 1988 issue of Harper’s Magazine, journalist Jack Hitt convened a panel of distinguished experts in the fine art of literary murder, which was held at the Union Club in New York City.  The participants were Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman, Peter Lovesey, Nancy Pickard, and Donald E. Westlake.

To these worthies Mr. Hitt posed a problem–suppose his name was Carl, and he wanted to murder his wife Linda, who was having an affair with someone bearing the Joycean name of Blazes Boylan, and intended to divorce Carl shortly, cutting him out of her large inheritance.  How could he do this in such a way as to 1)Avoid being caught, 2)Have Blazes take the blame, and 3)Make the murder memorable and stylish, not at all the usual sort of dull tasteless thing one reads about in the papers nowadays.  Something that would be talked about for generations to come. Lovesey seems to have made the suggestion that Carl could publish the details in his posthumous memoirs.

What followed was seven pages of enthused back and forth between the writers (with little in the way of interruption from their moderator, if that’s what you want to call him–nothing terribly moderate about that discussion, you ask me).  Feeling suitably encouraged by the results of his thought experiment in execution, the aptly-named Mr. Hitt decided to do it all again on a larger canvas, and the result can be seen above.

Lawrence Block was brought in to sub for Ms. Pickard.  I want everyone to know that the images of him and Mr. Westlake up top being larger is a formatting thing, and not me playing favorites, though they are in fact the only writers in that assembly I am well familiar with,  ‘cozies’ not being my usual thing.  I just wanted to make a suitably chilling rogue’s gallery, and of course only black and white photos would do for this macabre array of blood-boltered fiends.  Though Mr. Block looks good in sepia, I must say.

And instead of a convivial bloody discussion over Bloody Marys (I’m sure Westlake and Block opted for bourbon), it became a round robin correspondence between Hitt–now taking the deceptively mild-mannered name of ‘Tim’–and the five avariciously adversarial authors, who have been promised much in the way of filthy lucre should Tim successfully employ one of their plans.  Tim proposes, they disposes.  Perhaps literally, in one case.   Hitt mentions in the preface that the correspondence took about a year to complete–meaning, I’d assume, that the authors were not merely dashing off their responses–they were taking the project seriously.  Though not somberly.

(I wish the original article was available free online, but Harper’s has opted to insist that you either subscribe or shell out $6.95 to read it on their website–that’s nearly a dollar a page!  Did they even pay Hitt that much?  However, working at a library has its perks, and one of them is a thing called Proquest.  I have a print-out of the piece on my desk as we speak, for which I paid precisely bupkus. I had hoped to be able to send it to my readers individually upon request, but that doesn’t seem to work, so I’ll post scans next week.)

‘Tim’ opens with a lament on the sadly diminished state of the fine art of murder (consciously echoing De Quincey, whose famous Blackwoods essay on this subject is referenced specifically in his introductory missive).  He lays out a specific set of circumstances–he married for money.  He studied to be a doctor before that.  His wife is betraying him with his best friend, still named Blazes Boylan, but no Leopold Bloom is Tim.  He wants revenge, and he wants to inherit his wife’s fortune, and he wants Blazes to be punished for the murder, and he wants the murder to be artistic enough so that when he posthumously reveals it in his memoirs, people will never stop talking about him in awed and reverent tones.

He’s just read in his morning paper about a man who murdered a neighbor for money, and then attempted to destroy all evidence of the crime by feeding the body into a woodchipper–the police, unfortunately (unfortunately?), found residues of the deceased on the leaves of a nearby oak tree.   Had he just moved the chipper a bit further away before proceeding, he probably would have gotten away with it.  And Tim then poses a truly diabolical question.

Can it be true?  That we wish him to get away with this crime?  Of course, it’s true!  Because what really attracts us to this story–whether we are sitting in our housecoats after breakfast, or catching a paragraph or two at a red light on the way to work, or absorbing the details as we roar along in the common carrier–is the novelty of that damned woodchipper.  In some strange way, we wish to reward this man, privately, each to ourselves, with our regret over his loss of liberty for taking an act so wretchedly common these days and endowing it with a certain freshness.  I belive there is an entire school of thought that considers such cleverness to be the very soul of genius.

Mr. Westlake is the first of the consultants to respond, and he applauds Tim for his sagacity in seeking informed advice.   So many people just blunder their way into murder, as if just anyone can do it.

What your story demonstrates initially is that it is never too late to begin acting sensibly.  You yourself will, I think, admit that your choices till now have been less than satisfactory.   Let us begin by recapping the erroneous steps that that have led you to this impasse; an impasse which, happily, you seem to at least have delved deep within yourself to tap some previous unsuspected lode of wit and make the right move for a change, by turning to experts for their guidance and counsel. Would you install your own plumbing?  Take out your own adenoids?   Prepare your own tax return? Park your own car at a better restaurant?  Of course not.  In the very nick of time, at the ultimate brink of fate, you have suddenly realized what we all must sooner or later acknowledge: You need help.

Westlake makes a rather detailed analysis of what he perceives to be the crucial defects in Tim’s character, his mistakes in life, deduced from the slight biographical data provided.  Each writer is free to a certain extent to improvise upon the basic scenario provided them, to add certain crucial details to the tapestry being woven. This does, in fact, lead to some minor contradictions in the unfolding improvised narrative, because everybody is just making it up as s(he) goes along.  Did Tim provide a correct return address with his letters?  You would think not, but some correspondents behave as if they don’t know where and who he really is, and others claim to know literally everything about him. Westlake starts out by just taking Tim’s story as a given, and working from there.

His plan is, all admit, ingenious.  Tim must create and then assume a false identity, using methods any Westlake reader is familiar with–Tim is amazed to find that Westlake is correct in saying that you can claim the identity of a child that died shortly after birth, and through that ruse get a social security number, and a bank account under that name.  Tim must also get Blazes to join a local shooting club with him (this assumes there is one, but we know it’s a well-off community, so that’s not pushing things).  This will lead to Blazes’ fingers testing positive for gunpowder residue.

Basically, Tim is to use his false identity as his alibi.  He will go on a business trip to meet with his double, and then fly back again, going to the hotel room Blazes and Linda habitually use.  He will kill Linda right in front of Blazes, in mid-assignation.  He will hand the terrified (and naked) Blazes the gun and spray him with mace.  He will then fly to another city, where he will supposedly be meeting with his other self, establishing the alibi.   He will have to work at creating an alternate persona, so that the police interrogating both him and his alias won’t suspect anything.  Blazes will know who framed him, but the police will have him red-handed, and will not believe his ridiculous story.

Personally, I see some flaws in the scheme–which I half-think are put in there on purpose–Westlake could create the perfect crime if he wants to, but like the Navajo weavers, puts an intentional flaw in the pattern so as not to anger the gods (for which one of our authors might accuse him of poaching on his domain).   But still–with some variations–I think you could actually do this (be easier if you didn’t have to leave a witness alive).

In truth, Tim has set his experts a nigh-impossible task.  He wants to kill his wife, frame his best friend, get off scot-free, live a long prosperous life, and then brag after his death about the artful and original murder he committed, so that his name will rank with the immortals like Jack the Ripper or Gilles de Rais. Each writer will have to err in one direction or the other–to make the murder more practical, believable–or to make it more colorful.  Our next writer chooses the second alternative.

Peter Lovesey comes up with a scenario he entitles “The Jellyfish in the Jacuzzi.” It contains some of the same elements as Mr. Westlake’s scenario–obtaining a pass key to the lovers’ hotel room, traveling back and forth by air to develop an alibi, but it’s far more complicated and baroque (and the more complex a scheme, the more things that can go wrong with it, but Mr. Lovesey can rightly claim to have come up with the most unorthodox method for dispatching the unfortunate Linda, perhaps cribbed just a wee bit from A. Conan Doyle).

Basically, Tim is to spend some time creating the suspicion that Blazes is playing elaborate practical jokes involving marine life on Tim and Linda.  Then he is to obtain a Sea Wasp (a particularly lethal species of box jellyfish) from a local research laboratory in Tim’s community that just conveniently happens to stock them, and where they are left completely unguarded in an unlocked room most of the time (I must sniff a bit at this threadbare contrivance, but we’re supposed to be having fun here, right?).

Then, at a time when he can establish he was somewhere else, he leaves the jellyfish in the jacuzzi (an ideally warm environment for the tropical creature), where Linda can be expected to encounter it, and Blazes to be blamed for it.   In fact, people do often survive encounters with the Sea Wasp, which has caused only 63 documented fatalities since 1884–it depends on the size of the victim, and the amount of venom administered.  But if she’s by herself when stung, death is certainly the most likely scenario by far.

She could die from a non-lethal dose, simply by drowning after losing consciousness.   That happened to an uncle of mine–it’s happened to lots of people.  The drowning in a hot tub thing, not the stung by a jellyfish improbably resident within the hot tub thing.  I don’t believe.   The question never came up in my uncle’s post-mortem, to my knowledge.  A lovely man, but a drinker.  He slipped and hit his head.  Isn’t it grand, boys?   And wouldn’t you know, I inherited a fair sum of money from him.  Why are you all looking at me that way? I was nowhere nearby when it happened.  Let’s move on.

Tony Hillerman, author of many a best-selling multicultural murder mystery, who died only a few weeks before Donald Westlake, offers a western perspective, and heartily concurs with Tim’s opinions on the degraded state of modern murder.

Crime in our republic has indeed suffered a serious decline.  If you have noticed it in the effete East, consider how much more galling this condition must be to us Rocky Mountain Westerners.  Lacking ballet, literacy, major league baseball, and the other daintier pastimes, we had to build our culture principally on larceny and homicide, stealing all the states west of the eighty-third meridian from their previous owners, shooting the inhabitants thereof, and then, when that supply was exhausted, shooting one another.  Our bandits–from Black Jack Ketchum to Butch Cassidy–were giants in the land. Even our lawmen, I point to Wyatt Earp and the infamous Sheriff Brady of the Lincoln County War as notable examples, were often criminal enough to warrant hanging.

Alas, that was yesterday.  Today, as your complaint notes, we can boast only of quantity.  My own smallish city, Albuquerque, tallied fifty-two bank robberies last year–so many that the gunmen were reduced to robbing the same places two or three times.  Not one of these felonies showed the slightest sign of originality or imagination.  Nor were any of those elements applied by the polce.  The only arrests made recently were of a robber who used a bicycle as his escape vehicle and wasn’t very good at it and another who parked at the drive-up window, handed the teller his note demanding money, and waited patiently until the police came to lead him away.  The once proud Federal Bureau of Investigation, formed in large part to protect our banks back in the halcyon days of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, was finally stirred from its lethargy.  To what end?  It issued a press statement criticizing bank security systems, then went back to investigating librarians whom it suspects of checking out subversive books to Democrats.

His scheme in many ways is the simplest–but also the riskiest.  Tim is to confess to drowning his wife in her bathtub in a fit of rage.   The police, upon investigation, will find that she had no water in her lungs.  She was, in fact, a victim of mushroom poisoning.  As were many others, who happened to shop at something called the Yummie Yuppie Deli, where somebody–various hints will point to Blazes–put a handful of poisonous mushrooms on a mixed display of fancy fungi.  The natural suspicion of the police towards the husband of a dead wife will then naturally be diverted to Blazes.  Tim’s desire to confess to his crime will convince them he committed no crime at all.  When in fact he’s slaughtered half the community.

(More than one other contributor points out a critical failing here–how many police detectives, faced with a confession of murder from a cuckolded husband, are going to look a gift perp in the mouth?   There is quite a bit of skepticism regarding the efficiency of police departments in this book–from people whose livelihoods often depended on depicting policemen as relentless seekers of truth, armed with the latest deveopments in forensic science.)

Hillerman brought up this scenario at the original gathering, but in embryonic form–merely the spore of an idea, you might say.  Westlake responded by mentioning a large coffee table book he had of home, composed entirely of photographs of beautiful mushrooms, which included a  loose errata sheet shoved unceremoniously into the back of the book, which mentioned all the highly poisonous mushrooms the author had erroneously identified as edible.   Bon appetit, gourmets.

The late Sarah Caudwell (born Sarah Cockburn) hailed from a family of some renown–I used to read her uncle Alexander’s columns in the Village Voice (back when that publication was still worth reading) and even occasionally rubbed elbows with her niece Laura Flanders at various seditious gatherings in times long-gone, but I have not read her four highly regarded mystery novels, a situation I fully intend to remedy in the near future, because she was clearly brilliant, and the books sound intriguing as hell.

Still, she was a barrister by trade, not a writer.  That may be why in the original Harper’s article, she was one of the dominant voices–far more than Westlake, who was fairly reticent by comparison, offering only a few scattered (though telling) comments.  Her knowledge of criminal law and crime itself stands her in good stead there.  She is on familiar ground.

By contrast, I would say she’s a bit self-effacing (and quite brief) in her contributions to the book–perhaps just a mite overawed by the distinguished company she’s in, and while a trained legal mouthpiece (and a Brit to boot) may rightly feel she can out-talk anybody, particularly in a club that serves alcohol, she knew she couldn’t out-write the assembled company once they’d set about seriously to business (a few more books to her credit, she might well have done). She still comes up with a very engaging response to Tim’s query, that is not quite as impractical as her countryman Lovesey’s, but rivals it for vividity.

She says right off the bat that Tim must not even think of committing a murder in the United States.  It’s so–common.  Statistically, I’m afraid that is still true. No, she insists, he must somehow spirit Linda away to Europe–and after a quick overview of the grisly heritages of France, Italy, Greece, and foggy London Town, being of Scots heritage, she settles on a locale for the crime.   Again, terra cognita.

No country to compare with Scotland, and no city to compare with Edinburgh.

A city one might almost think designed with deliberate purpose to symbolize the dichotomy between reason and passion, the light and dark aspects of the human psyche.  Through it runs the long, deep cleft of Princes Street Gardens; on one side is the orderly decorum of the eighteenth century, wide streets and elegant squares, the quintessence of rationality; on the other the tenebrous wynds and narrow stairways of the old medieval town; and dominating all, the dark, majestic outline of the Castle and Cathedral.

Wow–!

She’s going into some depth about the long treacherous sanguinary history of Bonnie Scotland, and she’s making me feel more like visiting than anything ever produced by either Hollywood or their tourist board ever did (or Westlake’s one novel set there, for that matter).   She’s damned good, our Ms. Caudwell.   I find myself already lamenting how quickly I’ll get through her oeuvre.

But it’s very hard to see how her murder could be made to work.  It involves the Edinburgh Festival, a splendid affair held each summer, which I could see Linda agreeing to attend with Tim and Blazes tagging along just for fun, but already we’re pushing hard at the limits of plausibility here.  Now everybody has to be in traditional attire, and both Tim and Blazes are in full Highland regalia, kilts and all (the shameless feminine preoccupation with masculine limbs on full display here, pure objectification I calls it), and each ensemble comes with this little ceremonial dagger, the Sgian dhubh  (she uses the anglicized spelling, for which I am subtracting points from her final score).  Tim will arrange to get Blazes’ implement away from him without his knowing it.

You see where this is going.   Tim will immolate Blazes’ dirk in the blood of his bride, but through a very elaborate chain of events involving a tape recorder and a grand banquet with candelebras and all, Blazes will end up being the one caught red-handed, while Tim tenderly cradles Linda’s encrimsoned corpse, murmering broken endearments, and asking Blazes how he could have possibly done such a thing.  It’s very romantic, isn’t it?  Bring the life back into a marriage, while taking it out of one of the partners, but nothing’s perfect.   I suppose you’d prefer they took a weaving class together, or learned to do the cha-cha.

Finally Mr. Block has his say, and while none of the writers have been entirely complimentary to poor cuckolded Tim, he’s flat-out derogatory and dismissive.

You think this is funny, don’t you?

That’s what’s galling about this whole unhappy enterprise.  You think it’s amusing, with all your brittle patter, your happy horseshit about murder as an art form.  Murder is never artistic and it is rarely formal.  It is a means to an end.  Almost invariably, it is a bad means to a bad end.  An unamusing means, if you will, to an unamusing end.

Life, we are told, is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. You, sir, reveal yourself as one who does neither.  You seem to crave applause for the artistry of your efforts at homicide while at once wanting to escape detection.  If your crime should be perfect, if your wife should perish and your friend Blazes be blamed for your death, whatever artistry you would purport to have displayed would in fact remain forever undisplayed.  It is as if you would feed to the woodchipper not a human corpse but the good Bishop Berkeley’s tree, the one that falls unheard, the one that makes no sound.

And having said all that, he provides the most ghoulish plan of all.   Tim shall set about becoming a full-fledged serial killer, who makes appointments with ill-starred sex workers (the preferred prey of Jack the Ripper, you’ll recall), has coitus with them, then kills and dismembers them, and arranges their body parts in various imaginative ways, to get the attention of the police.   He shall obtain physical evidence in the form of male pubic hairs from the adulterous sheets of Blazes and Linda, with which to implicate Blazes (while making sure none of Tim’s pubes are ever found at the crime scenes–okay, already I’m shaking my head a bit).

Mr. Block seems to think the one objection to his plan is that Tim may find out that he enjoys killing strangers so much that he no longer will wish to pursue his original plan.  He also says killing Linda, much as he hates her, might prove harder for Tim to stomach than murdering some anonymous whore.  Well, serial killers rarely go after people close to them, that’s true.  That’s actually a major recommendation for Block’s plan.  Except isn’t Blazes close to her as well?   So really, this is a variation on Christie’s The ABC Murders–somebody pretending to be a serial killer, in order to kill someone who has become inconvenient, and pin the blame on someone else.  You can’t get away from Dame Agatha in this area of endeavor, can you?   For sheer inventiveness, she topped the bill.

Mr. Block claims to have satisfied here both the need for getting away with it, implicating Blazes, and attracting the attention of the media to the murders, so that Tim may achieve the notoriety he so desires.   Block does not seem to have fully processed that Tim plans to reveal all the bloody details of his crime and/or crimes after he’s shuffled off the coil himself.  Maybe read the opening letter a bit too quickly, and of course he wasn’t at the original meeting at the Union Club.  (I was a bit worried about what Block might have done to Nancy Pickard to get her slot, but she’s still alive and presumably in one piece.)

Taken simply as pieces of writing, Block’s contributions are superbly enjoyable–he’s in rare form.  You don’t often get to see him play the curmudgeon in his fiction, and he’s deuced good at it.

So Tim, delighted by the malevolent machinations he has inspired, writes back to each author, enclosing copies of all the other scenarios, and explaining that as he received each new missive in the mail, he would be so taken with it that he’d immediately set about executing it–only to receive the next one, and he’d be so taken with that he’d start carrying it out, and so on, and so forth.

He’s just mixing and matching after a while, never carrying any one writer’s scenario out to the letter because he wants to be creative about it (maybe he should try making movies), and it sounds like a bloody shambles, only without any actual blood.  He’s done much of what they recommended in terms of set-up. He’s even created (elaborating on Westlake’s plan), a female identity for himself, named Diana Clement, and seems to greatly enjoy being a girl.  But he hasn’t actually killed anybody yet.  And since he hasn’t used any of their ideas to dispatch Linda thus far, obviously he doesn’t owe any of them a check.  It’s not like he signed a contract.   Maybe he should have just taken one out on Linda.

Is there anything in God’s own creation that so infuriates a professional writer as accepting a commission, and then not receiving full payment?  Or any?   If there is, it’s probably seeing another author vying to nab that paycheck away from you. Professional jealousy rears its verdant head.  Each will strive to excoriate Tim and eviscerate each rival’s scheme, while still insisting on the sheer perfection of his/her own.

Mr. Hillerman begins this round of recrimination (heh), purporting to be surprised to learn the original letter was a mere ‘fishing expedition’, without any commitment.  In fact, most of the respondents claim not to have realized this, even though it was made pretty clear (just not precisely who the other conspirators would be).  His analytical mind finds serious flaws in all the other schemes, predicated mainly on what he refers to headscratchingly as the Peter Principle, though he clearly means Murphy’s Law.

Caudwell’s tape recorded scream will malfunction, leading people to believe there are ducks in the house.  Lovesey’s complex advance scenario, which is supposed to draw the media’s attention to the events coming before the murder, will be pushed aside in favor of the Queen’s second cousin developing hangnails–or alternatively, some American equivalent of aristocracy, such as Donald Trump (okay, full marks there, Mr. H–just as well you didn’t live to see how right you were).  Lovesey’s scenario depends far too much on planes in America departing and arriving on their scheduled times (he’s English, he couldn’t know).

He accuses Lawrence Block of the high crime of being an intellectual, who holds Tim in contempt.  He says Block is trying to set Tim up to take the fall, not Blazes Boylan.  Honestly, I’m not sure he’s wrong about that, not that Block would ever admit it.  He also cunningly exposes Block’s inspiration, by mentioning The ABC Murders, and thus insinuating that if Block’s scheme were used, the check would be properly payable to Agatha Christie’s estate (not-so-veiled accusations of plagiarism are rife in this part of the book, and you’d expect nothing less when the ire of authors has been aroused).

He can’t find too much wrong with Westlake’s plan, but he does score one palpable hit–Westlake said Tim could get a copy of the key to the lovers’ room by making an imprint in soft putty.  Imprint of what, pray tell?

Mr. Westlake’s fame among mystery readers is long established.  For him the day has since passed when his publisher’s marketing people bundle him up and send him off on those awful tests of stamina known as book tours.  Thus, while Westlake remembers that a hotel with a room  number as high as 1507 must be a big hotel, he seems not to know what has happened to hotel keys in such monstrous places.  We who must still endure these mind-numbing journeys from one hotel to another know that Room 1507 isnt’ opened by a key these days.   The hotel key is another victim of America’s progress in crime and technology.  The door to Room 1507 these days is opened by a little rectangular strip of stiff plastic.

To which I’d respond that I was just staying in a very small hotel that uses that same type of ‘key’, and the cleaning woman had one that opened all doors in the place, and how hard could it be, really, to get one of those?   Harder than planting poisonous mushrooms in a busy delicatessen?  Mr. Westlake’s tradecraft does need some updates, but I call that quibbling.  I’m far from convinced Westlake didn’t already know all that, since I doubt very much he was outselling Tony Hillerman in the early 90’s, and his love of Travel is well known.

But I do perceive the outlines of a professional compliment there, all the same.   Each writer is trying to say, at the very same time, to each of his/her colleagues, both “You are an adornment to our shared profession who inspires my deepest admiration” and “You are a shameless hack.”  And I have no doubt they are deeply sincere in both sentiments.  It’s a writer thing.

On the whole, Lovesey’s second response is the weakest of the bunch, if only because he knows as well as anyone that his murder scheme is the least practical of the bunch.   He also expresses great admiration for Westlake’s scenario, and then pokes holes in it, along with everyone else’s.  But mainly he’s just saying that his jellyfish is so much more memorable than anyone else’s weapon of choice that it would be criminal not to employ it and send him a check forthwith. Practicality be damned, this is art!

Caudwell, as I already said, is a bit too deferential here (as she was decidedly not in person at the club, when she met all the authors other than Block), and all the more once she’s read the other proposed murders.  She seems somehow more offended on Westlake’s behalf than on her own–she says “he has devised for you, at considerable personal sacrifice–he might have used it for his own next novel–a plan of great beauty and artistic elegance, and that you, by your rash and self-indulgent action, have rendered it entirely useless.”  I think she may spend more time defending Westlake’s plan than her own!   She doesn’t like the bit about changing the alternate identity to a woman, either.  Her generosity is breath-taking–but a bit out of keeping with the general tone of the book.

(Caudwell raises a valid point, though–she was probably wishing Westlake would write a novel about a murderer who painstakingly creates an alternate persona to serve as his own alibi–that actually would have been amazing, and much in keeping with Westlake’s usual obsession with identity.  Probably he had considered just such a book, and had discarded the idea for one reason or another. We’ll never know just how many Westlake books we missed out on.)

Still and all, she concludes by saying, as Lovesey before her, that her plan is the most aesthetically pleasing, and therefore the best.  She says she has enclosed a copy of the program for the Edinburgh Festival.   She wants to see those bekilted male legs.   But Lawrence Block suggests another motive for her.

Block is even more enraged with Tim now.   His vituperative bile fairly leaps from the page.   It’s always a pleasure to watch him work, but never more than when he is angry (or pretending to be).  He says he doesn’t know how he missed the implication that he was not the only writer being consulted, and has many a disparaging thing to say about his competitors, Mr. Westlake not least among them.

My first impulse, I must admit, was to toss out their contributions unread.  I have for years been doing just that with their novels, which their publishers persist in sending me in the hope of eliciting promotional blurbs.  A word from me, evidently, goes a long way in establishing a lesser writer’s reputation, and I’m continuously besieged with galleys from hopeful editors.  I have thus long formed my opinion of the work of Westlake, Lovesey, Hillerman, and Caudwell, and could well imagine what sort of a murder they would lay out for you.

Westlake would enlist the aid of some bumbling criminals, and he’d have all of them try to kill your wife, and they’d all fail, until she died laughing. Lovesey would have her slain in the ring by a bare-knuckled pugilist. Hillerman would dress you up in a feather headdress and have you make a sand painting, calling down the Great Spirit to crush your wife to death in a buffalo stampede.  And Caudwell would shuttle you between Lincoln’s Inn and the Isles of Greece, in the company of people named Ragweed and Catnip.

He then professes surprise that their actual plans are not so bad as all that.  He finds little things to admire about each of them.   Then, as all the others before him (with the partial exception of Caudwell vis a vis Westlake) rips them to shreds.  Like Lovesey (the artfulness of whose proposal he admires, while attacking its efficaciousness), he drips disdain for Westlake’s means of killing Linda–a gun.  So boring.  He rips into his closest friend more than anyone else here, even Tim–no doubt anticipating a similar fusilade from Mr. Westlake, aimed in his direction.  Well, that’s what friends are for, right?

But I particularly like what he did to Caudwell–which is to point out that Caudwell is, after all, a woman.  Of the unhappy coupling of Linda and Tim, who is more likely to hold her sympathy?   Who will really end up dead, or carted off by the bobbies, when her Scottish Play (Lovesey’s term for it) has concluded?   She’s luring Tim into a trap!  I can imagine Caudwell roaring with laughter at this.   Unless she just smiled slowly in a sinister secret sort of way….

Mr. Block then claims to have made private investigations (well, he is the progenitor of Matthew Scudder, and the back dust jacket informs us his most recent book was A Dance at the Slaughterhouse).  He says he’s found proof that Tim is in fact carrying out his plan (ie, murdering a series of unrelated women).

I don’t know, that seems almost like cheating to me–claiming victory over his peers on the basis of killings he’s made up himself (I would assume).

But he probably knows by now who’s going to follow him, and I think I’ve mentioned he and Westlake had a lifelong rivalry that went along with their lifelong camraderie.  A competition he probably misses as much as anything else in that friendship.

As he was the first to respond to Tim’s original letter, Mr. Westlake gets the last word in the second.  And the best.  I’m biased, that goes without saying.  But here is where we really do see that even in such a literally cutthroat environment as this, there was only one Donald E. Westlake.   And there is an air of cool practiced deadliness about him we have not seen in some time.  Not since 1974, to be precise.

Westlake has, as Block probably feared, done him one better.  He hasn’t just made discreet inquiries over the phone.  He’s tracked Tim to his (we are informed) tastelessly appointed McMansion, and he’s been inside of it.  He’s planted certain things in it.  He’s watching Tim, as Tim is reading his letter.   He’s not getting mad.  He’s getting even.   Certain promises were made to him, as he sees it.  Those promises were not kept.   What does Parker do when somebody makes a professional arrangement with him, then fails to keep his end of the bargain?  That’s right.

So here’s the deal.   Tim will carry out Westlake’s plan to the letter–the innovation of making the alternate identity female Westlake applauds as a worthy embellishment to the plan, that he wishes he’d thought of himself.  But Tim will, in all other respects, carry out Westlake’s plan as detailed.  He must show that he is proceeding with it–Westake will know if he does not.  Westlake will see.  Westlake sees all.  And after all is completed, Tim will be given some time to bask in the glory of his achievement.  And then—.

And just imagine, if you were to be found dead somewhere–oh, say, a stroke, an auto accident, you know the kind of thing–in Diana’s fig.  The police arrive, the medical personnel, the folk from the mortician.  Such surprise! Such confusion!  There’s art, if you want.  The laughter of the gods o’erlying a minor everyday human drama.

But there I go again, getting ahead of myself.

He is, of course, equally merciless and efficient in eliminating all his rivals’ proposals, one by one.  I doubt he’d read Caudwell’s admiring description of his own plan before penning his of hers–which he describes as having ‘a certain je de paume which would no doubt have a certain appeal for frivolous minds; the sort of people who can never guess the ending of a “Columbo” episode.’   Ouch.   Though he admits it probably will work in terms of Tim getting off with the help of good lawyers, if only because Scottish courts uniquely have a third possible verdict–“Not Proven.” Which he says means “You didn’t do it, and don’t do it again.”

He dismisses Hillerman’s proposal as impossible–Tim studied to be a doctor. Which means he will be automatically suspected of a poisoning.  Not to mention that all those grieving yuppie family members will hire private detectives to find ‘the real killer’, and while private detectives may be stupid, they also have no scruples, and they will be all over Tim like the cheap suits they typically wear. He says the same objection–as well as the tawdry repetitive aspects of it–eliminate Mr. Block.  If Tim was lucky enough to make Lovesey’s bizarre and complex plan work, he wouldn’t need to kill Linda–she’d drop dead of natural causes before he ever got around to slaying her.

(Block’s best salvo against Westlake also involved private detectives–hired by the wealthy Blazes Boylan to expose Tim’s alibi as a fraud.   Westlake has no defense to offer in this regard, and given that Tim’s life is reportedly in his hands, does he really need one?  In the comments section, we might be moved, I think, to try and plug the holes in Westlake’s scheme–or any others that take our fancy.   That would be highly diverting, I believe.)

Westlake’s entire response is a small masterpiece of chillingly methodical mastery–turning the tables on Tim, and establishing his dominance over the situation.  Others in the group have tried this gambit, but none half so well.

And Hitt, writing as Tim, seems just a tad unnerved to me as he concludes the book with a letter that amounts to a polite complimentary brush-off.  He tries to make it seem that Block must be lurking about his house as well, and Westlake should be watching his own back, and all the writers should be worried about each other instead of him, but that doesn’t hold water.   Block has made no such claim to proximity.  The others are mainly just concerned with getting their pay.

After Westlake’s final word, Hitt, a very fine writer whose three chapters in this book are all a delight to read, can’t quite avoid a sense of anticlimax.  He can’t follow Donald Westlake in top form.  Who ever could?

But in saying he still intends to go ahead with the murder, and that none of his consultants have any purchase over him at all (since they would be implicated in his crime were he found out, and then instead of being remembered as great mystery authors, they’d be remembered as his accomplices), ‘Tim’ does have one very interesting thing to say about all contrived murder scenarios that we scoff at in books–but don’t some of them actually work in reality?  Isn’t there always an element of luck in any plan?

One, I think, simply has to believe that it will work–that the planes will leave on time that day, that the damned cassette recorder will click on when the button is pressed, that Blazes will join the club on cue, that the detective will sense a contradiction in the neat confession, and that the tiny evidence when magnified by forensic technology will appear to be a milewide swath leading to Blazes.  One could make a case that the forensics of murder are the aesthetics of contingency–the beauty of luck.  It is only fitting that an art form that aspires to such high ideals must raise itself above the aesthetics of craft associated with other pursuits.  Who wants an art whose beauty is under the complete control of the artist?  Who could care for a beauty that would undoubtedly be atomized and sifted into categories of technique and become the subject of soporific seminars at the annual PMLA meeting?  Rather, let us have an aesthetics built upon the exacting hand of the artist and the palsied hand of fate, upon talent and faith.  I like it.

And I like this book, very much.  Which is why I’ve typed over 7,000 words about it, and I could probably manage 7,000 more without trouble.  I’ve left many an intended observation by the wayside here, and hopefully I can get to some of them in the comments section, or some of you will beat me to them.  But one last observation I must make.

Westlake, in his brief contributions to this work, seems, I must say, almost Godlike in his perceptions and abilities.  In the quote up top, he is putting himself in the same category as those who have destroyed untold numbers of human lives.   Why is that?  Probably because  of his work on our next book in the queue, mentioned as forthcoming on the back dust jacket for this book.  A novel in which God Himself sets about to destroy all life on earth. And chooses as His means of accomplishing His will, a rather odd assembly of players, human and otherwise.  A very elaborate murder scheme indeed, and His intended victim is Earth.  Hey, that’s our job!

And as I’ve said elsewhere, I think this could have potentially been one of Westlake’s very best books.  He sometimes referred to it as one of his favorites. And sadly, it’s not one of mine.  I consider it a failure.   But I’ll take an inspired failure over a safe success any day.  Because Hitt was right.   An art that is fully under the control of the artist is not art.  And a God that can be fully understood by mortals is not God.  As He remarked to Job once.

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Review: Resume Speed

Strange the world about me lies,
Never yet familiar grown–
Still disturbs me with surprise,
Haunts me like a face half known.

In this house with starry dome,
Floored with gemlike plains and seas,
Shall I never feel at home,
Never wholly be at ease?

On from room to room I stray,
Yet my Host can ne’er espy,
And I know not to this day
Whether guest or captive I.

So, between the starry dome
And the floor of plains and seas,
I have never felt at home,
Never wholly been at ease.

World Strangeness, by William Watson

It does happen now and again (and I mention this in my intro to the blog, so can’t accuse me of bait&switch) that I review the work of authors who are not Donald Westlake, but who have some connection to him, and no author ever fit that description better than Lawrence Block, Westlake’s lifelong friend and frequent collaborator, and that’s why I’m taking the opportunity to review Mr. Block’s latest offering, more or less as a stopgap until my next review is ready.

One problem I’ve had as I work my chronological way through the canon is that many of Westlake’s later books are a lot longer than most of his earlier ones, and I am consequently still rereading High Adventure–but I took a quick break over the weekend to devour this novella, a mere 21,000 words in length, and it seems much shorter than that.  I sat down for a sandwich and a few beers at my local, and I was two thirds done before I paid the check.

On his blog, Block says Resume Speed was indirectly inspired by a story he heard from some guy over thirty-five years ago.  He thought it had the potential to serve as the germ of an idea for a work of fiction, but he wasn’t quite sure how, so he let it germinate a while.  I’d rather like to hear that story, but I guess I’ll have to settle for the story inspired by that story.

The novella is a neglected form these days–not much of a market for it.  It may perhaps be having a bit of a comeback with the advent of ebooks.  I downloaded this story for $2.99 from the Kindle Store, which in modern terms is equivalent to what a short sexy little paperback of the type Messrs. Westlake and Block used to crank out by the score in bygone days to make rent used to run you.   Maybe less.

I’ve no intention of doing my usual lengthy synopsis and analysis–this is too new to take full stock of yet, and the book just went on sale a few weeks back.  Buy it, read it, see what you think.  But here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.

This is the story of a drifter–or rather, one short chapter in a drifter’s life.  You ever think about drifters?  They’ve always been with us, though never for long in one place.  People who, for one reason or another, get dislodged from society, move endlessly from one locale to another, never settle down, never have a career, a family, a fixed place of abode, maybe even a fixed identity.  They live on the periphery of our world, stopping for a while perhaps, to rest and refuel, flirting with the idea of permanence, building a name for themselves–then rejecting it.  Moving on.   Because the only permanent thing in their lives is impermanence.

And they are, for many of us, the stuff of romance, of popular songs, of television shows about guys in cool cars or on motorcycles, off to see America–or, in a different type of story, fugitives on the run from something, forced to wander endlessly, in search of a one-armed man or a cure for turning into a giant green monster, or whatever.  You know the drill.

There’s some drifter in everybody–we get tired of where we are, we wonder if something better might be over the next hill, around the bend of the road.  That’s how America got settled in the first place.  Footloose and fancy free.  The lifestyle has some pretty serious disadvantages to it (what happens when you get sick, injured, old?), so we’re more inclined to dream about it than to actually do it (though some of us, due to poverty, might be left with no choice).  Fictional stories about this kind of life are endlessly appealing to us.

And in fiction, the hook of that kind of story is that you wonder each time if this new place our drifter has arrived at is the place, whether this girl he’s just met is the girl (you could write the drifter as a woman, obviously, but hardly anyone ever does, and it’d be worth trying, wouldn’t you say?)–whether this might be the spot he finally calls home.  But if he does, the story’s over.  And after he’s been in enough places, met enough women, it seems like for him to settle down in any one place with any one girl would just be a purely arbitrary act by the storyteller–not organic to the character.  A drifter’s nature is to drift.

My favorite TV drifter is probably Dave Blassingame, played by Brian Keith in Sam Peckinpah’s very shortlived 1960 series The Westerner.  Just a tough two-fisted kind-hearted cowboy, with a good horse, a good rifle, and a damn good dog (played by Spike, who you more likely remember as Old Yeller).   Dave’s goal in life is to buy himself a spread and live out his days as a rancher, but he’s got no money, and no prospects, and really not that much ambition.  A rolling stone,  and there’s not much in the way of moss out on the prairie.

So the ending they stuck on the final episode, when they realized the network was pulling the plug, with Dave meeting a lovely big-breasted senorita with a fine rancho of her own,  feels entirely tacked on.   You just know at some point he got back on that horse, whistled up his dog, and kept moving. Maybe leaving a kid or two behind him, but not on television in 1960.

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But that’s fine–all the home a man needs is a saddle, all the roof he needs is the sky, all the company he needs is a dog.  And I can imagine my significant other nodding approvingly when she reads this.  Just as true for a woman–at least in the mind’s eye.  I can’t ride worth a damn, by the way, and horses kind of scare me, but that’s not the point.  The point is freedom.  Which we all give up to some extent for security, but some much more than others.  And some much less.

Yeah, used to be we were all nomadic tribesmen and tribeswomen, but a nomad isn’t a drifter–a nomad takes his whole society on the road with him (which Westlake suggested was the way to deal with the disorienting effects of endless Travel in Brothers Keepers).  A raggle taggle gypsy has a whole band of gypsies to raggle taggle along with him.  A true drifter goes it alone.  Floats between societies.  Rootless.   Alone.  Like The Tramp.

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American music invokes the drifter constantly–Woody Guthrie–Robert Johnson–Leadbelly–Bob Dylan–the Allman Brothers–Jim Croce–do I need to mention the songs?  So before I drift completely away from the subject at hand, let me come back to my point–we romanticize drifters in our stories, our films, our poetry, our art, our songs, our collective imaginations.  But how often do we ever think about what it would really be like to just–drift?   Without a net–a family to return to, friends to stay in touch with, a fixed identity you could home back in on when you needed it?  Well, Lawrence Block thought about it.

Westlake thought about it differently–in Memory, he basically forces his protagonist to live this way.   A brain injury makes him increasingly incapable of retaining memories of past events, and he tries first to hang into his old identity as a stage actor–already half a drifter–then realizing he’d abandoned the more viable identity he’d created for himself in a little factory town he’d worked in after his injury, and a girl who might accept him as he is, he tries to return to that–only to find it’s too late.  Without memory, you can’t have roots.  Block loved that book.  I can see bits and pieces of it here.

But I can see Block’s own past work more clearly in it–notably Keller, Block’s melancholy hit man, featured in several collections of short stories, who leaves his home in New York (where he has put down no roots, has no real friends) to go kill this or that person in some small town out in the hinterlands for some nameless client, and as he learns the lay of the land, preparatory to doing the job, he thinks to himself that he could enjoy living here, there’s a nice restaurant he could hang out and have lunch in, he could make friends, he could belong.  Then he does the job and drifts back to New York.

My favorite Block novel to date, The Girl with The Long Green Heart, is about an aging grifter, who pulls one last long con to get enough money to buy up a stake in a hotel, have something to fall back on in his old age.  But his best-laid plans gang agley (the title gives you a hint), and even though he could still go back and buy that hotel, he realizes it’s not who he is.  He was born to grift–and to drift.  Until he can’t anymore, and then he’ll just die.

In the Matthew Scudder novels, Block shows us a man drifting in one place, with the assistance of alcohol and guilt, and bit by bit, he manages to pull himself back into the world, and make a new life for himself–but Scudder wasn’t ever what you’d call a real drifter.  Still, it’s easy to see how he could have become one, if he hadn’t had an ex-wife and kids to support with his off-the-books detective work.  Or a smart hooker girlfriend he could eventually make a new life with.

A lot of Block I haven’t read yet, but as far as I know, this is his first story about a full-on drifter (might well be his last), and I don’t know it’ll go down as his very best work, but it’s still a small polished bit of old school craftsmanship, and as you can see, it got me thinking, which is what a good story is supposed to do.

A man is on a bus passing through a small town in Montana (drifter country par excellence).  Town is called Cross Creek (probably a reference to Cross Creek Pictures, which was involved in the production of A Walk Among the Tombstones).   The bus passes a little Greek diner, with a sign in the window advertising a vacancy for a short order cook.  There’s a vacant room in a boarding house as well.

The man (I’d give you his name, but it’s not his real name, and for all we know the name he had before wasn’t real either) was headed for Spokane, but he just abruptly gets off the bus, gets the job, gets the room–oh, I’ve seen this movie–Follow Me Boys, Fred MacMurray, Walt Disney, 1966–he ends up leading the scout troop–either that or he’ll end up leading a marching band, 76 trombones and all, right?  No, this is Lawrence Block, not Meredith Willson.  There may be trouble in River City, but if there is, he brought it with him.

So he doesn’t quite settle down, but you might say he settles in, makes himself comfortable, starts building a name for himself around town–even hooks up with the town librarian.  Whose name is not Marian.  And we know he’s running from something, but there are so many variations on this basic story by now, it’s hard to be sure from what–or whom–and the clues are a bit fuzzy.  It’s not 100% clear he’s got anything to run from, except maybe himself.  But he’s still running.  Or rather, drifting.

At the end, we’re left with the realization that his true crime was to let himself slip into a new identity, try it on for size, then walk out of the store, leaving it behind–along with all the people who believed in that identity, invested in it–the rooted people who gave him everything they had to offer–while he was simply not able to respond in kind–because he figures they don’t want to know the real him–if there even is a real him anymore.  But don’t we all fake belonging at times?   While in our minds, we’re just drifting through this strange world, looking for something real?   Well, maybe that’s just me.

The people in that town all dream of travel, adventure, pulling up stakes, finding out what’s over the next hill–but for him, it’s not a dream.   Or rather, it’s a dream he can’t ever wake up from.  If you’re a drifter, it’s like everything else in life–all the way in or all the way out.  You can only fake it so long, and then you have to resume speed.  And how many times has he done this already?  How many times will he do it again?  How many more towns will he stop in?  Forever unknown.

So I can’t do more of a synopsis than that.  Fair is fair.  This just got published.  Buy it, read it, see what you think.  Your guess is as good as mine (not as good as Block’s, obviously).

Now I think on it, Westlake did do a story somewhat comparable to this, but it was a collaborative effort (Brian Garfield was involved)–a screenplay, also based on a real story.  We’ll be getting to that soon.  Comparable–not really that similar.  But their minds did run on parallel tracks a lot of the time.  Different gauges, though.

The way Block makes you believe in this story–and there is nothing in this story that could not have happened, and probably nothing that has not happened–it’s really something.  But it’s still just a 21,000 word novella.  So maybe I’ve rambled on long enough about it.  $2.99 at the Kindle Store.  Zero dollars and zero cents if you have Kindle Unlimited.  Drift on over and let me know what you think.  We can get to spoilers in the comments section.    Anyway, see you in Belize next week.    Hopefully.

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Review: Adios Scheherazade–Chapter 1

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Great Beyond

From: ‘Fred Fitch’ via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

I hope I am not interrupting any conversations/drinking sessions/amatory exploits you might currently be engaging in with O. Henry, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Benchley, or Ambrose Bierce (parenthetically, did you find out what happened to him in Mexico? Given the circumstances of your passing, you had a perfect excuse to raise the subject).  But I have a problem I hope you can help me with.

As you might have gathered, I publish something called ‘The Westlake Review’ (I had to call it something), under a pseudonym derived from a book of yours–the objective is to review everything you ever wrote.  Yes, I know, but it passes the time.  This is an internet thing, in case you were wondering.  Our correspondence shall be shared with other people.  Not a whole lot of other people at present (though it might please you to know you still have readers all over the planet), but I wanted to make that clear.

I am about to embark on a review of your novel Adios, Scheherazade, in which I also intend to discuss The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books and Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, written respectively by your longtime friends and colleagues, Hal Dresner and Lawrence Block.  Mr. Block I know is still among the living–Mr. Dresner seems to have vanished from the face of the earth (or at least the internet), but has no NY Times obit, so I guess he’s still with us as well.  I could probably contact Mr. Block via email, but somehow one hates to take up people’s finite personal time.  You, by contrast, have all of eternity on your hands, and it never hurts to ask, right?

Since the more elevated plane you now inhabit (I’m assuming you’re not in Purgatory, though us lapsed Catholic boys should probably never assume anything) may have blurred certain details of your mortal existence, let me refresh your memory.  To put it bluntly, you wrote a quite a lot of books that could be described as pornography, though few people nowadays would consider them to be that.

The ‘sleaze’ genre, as it is now called in collector’s circles (yes, people collect them, and they’re usually a lot more expensive than your other books, sorry to tell you), was basically a bunch of aspiring writers–many of whom went on to greatness, you not least among them–who to pay their bills wrote a lot of quickie novels featuring a lot of sexy goings-on, that were nonetheless not explicit enough to warrant being confiscated by the law.

In Prohibition terms, they were ‘near-porn’, like the near-beer that often is sold where real booze is illegal.  They could be displayed in public places of business–newstands, drugstores, and all the usual places cheap paperbacks were sold.   They had racy covers, suggestive titles, and sold for maybe 35 cents or so.

They were probably not as obscene as Henry Miller or James Joyce; no more so than best-selling potboilers of the period–the sex acts were described euphemistically, and young people hoping to learn valuable techniques from them were invariably disappointed.  But what made this a viable publishing niche was that the books were short, and there was sex all through them–you didn’t have to keep turning pages to find the good parts.   Sex was basically the entire point of the endeavor, not merely a side-attraction.

While many if not most were badly written, because so many of the authors employed had genuine talent, and were basically using this as a venue to hone their craft while they sought more legitimate outlets, you could often find some decent quality prose in them.   Certainly none of them were as bad as E.L. James.  Oh wait, you don’t know who that is, do you?  That does sound like heaven.

You got into this racket via the famed Scott Meredith literary agency, and it’s never been terribly clear how many of these things you wrote.   You employed several pseudonyms, most notably Alan Marshall.  But as opposed to your other non-porn pseudonyms, there’s always been some controversy as to which of the books published under these names were actually written by you.  Some we’re sure about, others are more ambiguous.   Apparently your first wife wrote some of them.  That must have been an interesting conversation.

And as the years passed, you never seemed much inclined to help anyone figure out who wrote what.   You seemed to mainly want to forget the whole tawdry episode ever happened.  This gentleman here, who worked for Scott Meredith at the time, doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t proudly embrace your pseudo-pornographic past.  He’s rather indignant about it, in fact.  But once you’d reached the point where you could make a good living without the sleaze books, you stopped writing them, and were never terribly eager to discuss them–except, indirectly, in the book I’m reviewing here.

Probably the turning point was reached when you started publishing the Parker novels at Pocket Books–a few of those a year, combined with your book-a-year contract with Random House, combined with short stories, articles, and sales to Hollywood–by that point you had more than enough income to turn your back on the flesh pits forever.  Parker got you out of it.

However, like many others in this field, you seem to have briefly farmed out your porn names–letting other people write the books in your place, then taking a commission.  This didn’t last very long, and neither did the sleaze market itself, which dried up and disappeared as the 60’s ended.  A transitional stopgap, that was no longer relevant in an era where those who wanted porn could find the real stuff with increasing ease.  Also, I suspect the male libido prefers images to words.

And these days we have internet fanfiction–people writing stories and indeed entire novels, featuring famous fictional characters, often performing acts that would scandalize the relatively demure characters in your books, and the people writing these things aren’t even getting paid (except for E.L. James, but she had to change the names first).  So to sum up, sleaze is eternal, but the sleaze paperback book market is dead (perhaps someday to be followed by paperback books themselves).

While it lasted, there was a lot of money in it, though, and some pretty classy writers taking their turns at the trough.   You, Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain (as he came to be called), Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Jim Thompson–the list goes on and on and on.  Charles Willeford seems to have written sleaze under his own name, which was typically atypical for him.  It’s more a question of which prominent genre writers did not write sleaze.  I don’t think Patricia Highsmith ever did, which is a mite ironic, no?  It was a big big thing, and now it’s gone.  And you didn’t miss it one tiny bit, did you, Mr. Westlake?

I think Hal Dresner agreed with you about that.   He was one of your group, your poker-playing porn-writing practical joke playing gang of aspiring wordsmiths who bonded in the 50’s.   And earlier than many of you, he seems to have decided he had to escape the sleaze market.  He went into writing for film and television, and had a pretty decent career–few of us haven’t seen something of his, at some point.  But I get the feeling from his one novel of any repute–the one I’m going to look at briefly now–that he once aspired to be a ‘serious writer’.  Whatever that is.

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The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (aka This is a Plain Brown Wrapper) is a very funny novel, written in epistolary form–the entire text is letters and memos going back and forth between a writer of sleaze paperbacks named Mason Clark Greer (aka Guy LaDouche), his publisher, his lawyer friend Michael Westlake (we’ll come back to him), Mason’s mother (Jewish, of course), various other male and female acquaintances, and (most importantly) Lt. Commander E.B. Dibbs, a demented former naval officer, who wants to sue and possibly horsewhip Mason for (as he thinks) defaming his daughter Barbara’s morals under a slightly altered name in a recent book, and also for referring to her parents in a less than respectful manner.

Although he had a character with a somewhat similar name in that book, and coincidentally described the real Miss Dibbs with a fair degree of accuracy in his book (including a birthmark in an embarrassing location), Mason has never met the daughter in question–though many other lascivious scoundrels have, judging by the way her father keeps coming up with new boyfriends of hers to accuse him of being.   Dibbs finally settles on referring to Mason as Karl Vechtenmeisser, a former Nazi officer from Austria, who is related to the Habsburgs (or so Dibbs insists), and had a brief liaison with Barbara.

Mason, who is holed up in a cabin in Vermont, trying desperately to finish his next dirty book, assumes this is just a prank his friends are pulling on him, but as he starts to get letters from the law firm of Berry, Lock & Gru, it sinks in that he really is being sued for defaming people whose existence he was totally unaware of at the time.   Mason tells Dibbs his real name, and (rather imprudently) gives him his selective service registration info, which only incites the Lt. Commander to try and have him investigated for impersonating an American citizen.

(As the story goes on, it is revealed that the United States Navy had its own problems with Lt. Commander Dibbs during WWII, and had to find ways to distract him from the war, so he wouldn’t lose it for them.)

The lawyers Dibbs has hired are quite willing to believe Mason is Vechtenmeisser, as long as they see a good cash settlement in the offing, and likewise keep referring to him by that name.  Mason, suffering from cabin fever in a nasty Vermont winter, with no companionship other than a Weimaraner named Bastard, starts playing along with the gag, and referring to himself by that name as well.   He starts vindictively sending heavy boxes full of rocks to the law firm–C.O.D.   They inquire how he wants the rocks to be stored.   His missives to his friends become increasingly odd and off-kilter (and funny, but his friends mainly don’t seem to get the joke, or to understand what’s going on).

And as all this is going on, we learn the true reason for Mason’s mental distress–he’s been trying to write a serious novel, and he keeps ripping the pages up and burning them, because they’re terrible.  He’s worried that all he’ll ever be able to do in his life is write dirty books–which it turns out a lot of the people he meets in the course of this story have read.   He’s a very successful near-porn writer.  It’s just not what he wants to be.   It isn’t who he is.

He complains that his imaginary sex life has put an end to his real one–his own romantic resume seems limited to a few brief flings.   He’s been making it all up from Day One, but people keep asking him if this stuff in his books really happened–and they don’t want to hear it when he says it didn’t.   His fiction, bad as it is, has eclipsed his actual life.  Then a frustrated young FBI Agent shows up at the cabin to investigate Dibbs’ accusations, and it starts to get really weird.

Before long he’s sending farcical responses to a questionnaire sent him by a psychiatrist friend of Dibbs who specializes in delusions, and seems to be pretty deluded in his own right.   And no matter how crazy any of his responses to various communiques are, people insist on taking them all seriously.   And on believing he’s an Austrian Nazi jet setter who seduces gullible maidens in his spare time.   His life has become one of these bad novels he’s been writing.

The defamation lawsuit actually ends up in front of a judge, with predictably chaotic results.   I’d remind you how it’s all wrapped up, but I don’t want to spoil it for my readers–the novel is available in ebook form–maybe you could get it up there?  I mean, you’re literally in The Cloud, right?   Regardless, I think it would have made a good movie.  Or perhaps a staged theatrical reading, ala Dear Liar.   But maybe a bit dated now.  Very much of its era.  Still a lot of fun to read.

In the end, it’s Mason’s former frat buddy and present-day lawyer, Michael Westlake (I told  you we’d come back to him) who tells Mason that he can’t worry so much about not having lived up to his dreams of greatness.   Good or bad, Mason Clark Greer is a writer, and his letters prove that.   Maybe he can’t write The Great American Novel, but what really matters is to do what  you’re meant to do, and let other people worry if it’s any good or not.   If he doesn’t want to do the porn anymore, he can do something else.

And Mason decides that’s what he’ll do.   He informs his publisher that he won’t be finishing the book he was working on (and never got past the first chapter of), and starts thinking about maybe writing a play–it seems like dialogue is more his forte than descriptive prose.  And yes, this does does seem a trifle autobiographical, but I would assume not very.  You’d know better than me.

And as you already knew, this book is not about pornography, smut, or even sleaze.   It refers to it, uses it as background color, but it’s really about how people are nuts, and how youthful aspirations don’t always work out as you hoped.  Mason does talk about how flabby actual women he meets seem compared to the vixenish viragos he populates his fiction with (and he has no illusions about his own appearance), but you get the feeling he’d take flabby reality over fulsome fiction any day.   Still and all, this takes up a very small part of the book, which is mainly about his running duel with Dibbs, and his unfulfilled literary ambitions.  And apparently FBI men say ‘fut’ instead of ‘fuck’, because of some directive from J. Edgar Hoover, but that would take too long to explain.

I don’t know how well this book sold (it got more than one edition), but I don’t need you to tell me that you and Mr. Dresner’s other writing buddies liked it a lot, enjoyed all the in-jokes tremendously, and were pleased to learn that their tiresome apprenticeship in the porn pits could actually serve as the raw material for a funny book.

Working for Nightstand Books or one of the other publishing houses that cranked this stuff out, they had to stick very closely to established formulas–but as the form died out, they had a chance to write something reminiscent of sleaze, that was no longer so–constrained.   And another of your friends, Lawrence Block, who had rather enjoyed writing these books, bad though he knew they were, was moved over a decade after Dresner’s book, to write something directly inspired by it–and this book really is porn, I think.   If it isn’t, I’m not sure what porn is, and Judge Stewart did say you know it when you see it.

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It’s hard to know what to say about Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, except how did this guy not get arrested?   I mean the protagonist, but also quite possibly the author.   This is also available as an ebook now, and Block wrote an excellent afterward for that edition, explaining its origins.

By 1970, he was, as you know, a well-established writer of crime novels, like yourself, with most of his best work still ahead of him.  But the fact is, he missed writing about sex.  You and he had collaborated on several sleaze novels, most notably A Girl Called Honey, in which you took turns having protagonists modeled quite clearly after your own lustful selves seduce the titular seductress (an honest hard-working prostitute), and compete over her, and kill each other off, and drive her to madness and drug addiction in the process, and honestly you should both be ashamed of yourselves for what you did to that poor girl.  I suspect you actually were a bit ashamed of it, Mr. Westlake.

Writing in a New York City apartment, while his family were out in the suburbs, Mr. Block found he got a lot more work done, and had time for all kinds of literary escapades, and perhaps other kinds of escapades, I couldn’t say.  He decided to try writing a few sex books, to see if that was something a guy could still make a buck doing–they were mostly written under pseudonyms, like the sleazes, but this one–Ronald Rabbit–was published under his own name, and given the success other writers had been having with this kind of book published in a more mainstream environment–I assume he was thinking of a certain Mr. Portnoy and his various complaints–he briefly thought he might get rich off this one.

But two things prevented that from coming to pass:

1)The publisher chose that moment in time to go under.

2)The book isn’t that good.

I mean, he wrote it in four days–he says so in the afterward.  So I tend to take it with a grain of salt that he really believed he had a huge seller here, but as the publishing scene changed, it was hard to know, really.  I mean, who would have believed E.L. James would become so wealthy from writing  a bad Twilight fanfic?   Okay, I know I’m losing  you here, but trust me–nobody could have possibly predicted that.   You writers just never do know what’s going to hit big, do you?  We the reading public like to keep you guessing.

He didn’t write it to make money–that much is plain–it is, you  might say, a labor of lust.  Primarily lust for girls in their middle teens.  And any heterosexual post-pubescent male who claims not to feel that lust is a goddam liar.   But few men would cop to it as cheerfully as Mr. Block, and while I may disparage this book’s merits, I also read it with a great deal of prurient interest, which was of course the entire point of the endeavor.   It’s not badly written–Block doesn’t do bad writing–it’s just too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  With a thinly-disguised rendition of the author himself at its center.

Laurence Clarke, failed poet and 32 year old editor of a children’s magazine called ‘Ronald Rabbit’s Magazine for Boys and Girls’, is laid off from his job–the reason being that there is no job.   The magazine folded shortly after its previous editor was found to have committed (thankfully) unspecified improprieties with an 11 year old boy (who the man swore he thought was 14), and they hired Laurence (we’ll just call him Larry) as a replacement, before realizing the scandal couldn’t be hushed up.  Because this is a very large publishing business, they forgot to fire him–forgot he was even there–and as a result, he never did any actual work for over a year–just came into the office every day and did nothing but read, collect his paycheck, wait for somebody to give him something to do.

Clay Finch (something of a clay pigeon in this book), the President of Whitestone Publications, only came to realize they were paying Larry for nothing when he noticed Larry had never used his expense account (that would be dishonest, Larry explains to him).  So Larry is fired.  Obviously.  And his ex-wife is demanding her alimony.  And in his letter to her, explaining why no alimony payments are forthcoming (this being yet another epistolary novel), he goes on to say that on returning home, he learned that his current wife had just left him for his best friend, and they’d absconded to Mexico, with every penny he had in the world.  Seemingly oblivious to what a tired narrative cliche they were perpetuating.

Larry goes on to write another letter to his friend Steve (the one who went to Mexico with his wife), describing his current situation in depth–and he relates how he was walking down MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, stone drunk, and singing Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi (the one that says you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, remember?), when he hears two youthful female voices singing along with him–and the miracle happens.

See, the youthful female voices are coming from a station wagon full of teenaged girls–six, to be precise.  Escapees from The Convent of the Holy Name, a Catholic Girl’s School in Darien, Connecticut.   Which is quite clearly based on The Convent of the Sacred Heart, situated in Greenwich, Connecticut.

He calls them the Daughters of Lancaster (a sort of riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III).  They dub him “Mad Poet”, and proceed to abduct him to Darien, necking with him in the back all the way there, hide him in a tiny apartment they rent on the sly, and in the ensuing weeks he ends up having highly inventive and unbridled sexual congress with all of them, there and in New York.  Yeah, I didn’t think you’d have forgotten that.

His first conquest is ‘Merry Cat’ (real name Mary Catherine O’Shea, and I can’t help but think her nickname is a winking homage to We Have Always Lived in The Castle–would you know if Mr. Block is a Shirley Jackson fan, perchance?).  Though really, she conquers him–the little black-haired colleen slips into bed with him the next morning, and this is what follows–

“Oh God,” she said.  “Oh, you’re ready.  Oh, how nice.  Don’t wait, don’t even touch me, just get in me.  I want you inside me, I can’t wait.”

She wasn’t exaggerating.  She got off the minute I was inside her, coming in a sweet soft pink dissolve.  She came twice more and then it was my turn, and then we clung to each other while I waited for the earth tremors to quit shaking hell out of the room.

This is one of the tamest erotic passages I could find to quote from in the book.  He gets a lot more specific as things progress.

Five of these girls are sixteen.  The youngest (‘Naughty Nasty Nancy’ Hall) is fifteen, and the wildest of the bunch (she likes being spanked during intercourse).  It really doesn’t matter what the age of consent was then, you know–he’s in his 30’s.  At no time in the 20th century was any of this ever not a felony in the United States.

But all through the book he is fucking them ragged, with their hearty and full voiced consent that would matter not a damn in any court in the land, and they are minors, and their parents are rich, and there are supposed to be nuns watching over them, and they are trading filthy letters back and forth, and nobody ever gets wise, and no policemen ever materialize, and he’s never the tiniest bit worried that they will.   This book makes Lolita look like a documentary.    And no Clare Quilty to spoil the fun, naturally.  Guilt, as a concept, does not exist within the pages of this book.

(Maybe we better pause now to give some of my male readers a chance to download this book to their digital devices.  All done, fellas?)

Now it’s worth mentioning at this point that Lawrence Block had two major inspirations for the story of this book–one was an acquaintance of his who actually did spend many months sitting around an office with nothing to do before they got around to firing him (with a nice severance package, though not as nice as the one fate gives Larry), and the other was a member of your little poker-playing group of writers, who related one night a story about he himself hitching an impromptu ride to Connecticut with a bunch of errant Catholic school girls, only that was presumably as far as it went.  That wasn’t you, by any chance, was it?  Oh like you’d admit it if it was.  I withdraw the question.

And just to remind you, we are learning of these experiences through letters he is writing to his friend Steve, to his former and current estranged wives, and even his former employer–and he’s sneaking into his former place of business to Xerox them and send copies to seemingly everyone he knows, though Mr. Finch keeps remonstrating with him to stop doing that.

And at first, the assumption is that he’s making it all up, which would seem the most likely supposition, except we see that when he writes to the Daughters of Lancaster, at camp and such, they write back to him.   They are real.  There is no ambiguity about that.   The book is fiction, but Larry Clarke is not an unreliable narrator–whatever he tells us happened, happened, as far as his reality is concerned.   He is, if anything, excessively honest and forthcoming.

Then he manages to seduce Rozanne, the personal secretary of Mr. Finch, who has been typing Finch’s letters to Larry.  She is Italian American (why should Irish girls have all the fun?), beautiful, with a truly magnificent bosom, and is of course a repressed 26 year old virgin who needs to be rescued from her fear of sex.   Which Larry does by way of anal intercourse she had not previously given consent to–it’s not exactly rape, because they were doing stuff, and he just had this sudden impulse to go there, and Rozanne is incredibly happy about it afterwards, even though she was screaming bloody murder while it was going on.  And I am not typing that passage out.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, I must again make an inquiry–Mr. Block mentions two specific literary influences on this book–the first being Hal Dresner’s novel I just talked about, but the other is a book I have not read–Wake Up, Stupid, by Mark Harris.  Both are composed of letters written by various people, which add up to a story.  I don’t doubt these are the primary influences, but I also feel like somewhere in Mr. Block’s apartment in New York where he wrote this there must have been a heavily thumbed-through copy of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.  There’s a lovely repressed virginal spinster who needs sexual healing in that one too, you may recall.)

His relationship with Rozanne becomes serious, and they live together, but that does not in the least impair his relationship with the Daughters of Lancaster, because the women in his life are all (who would have guessed it?) bisexual to some extent, and they come over and have sex with him and Rozanne, and everybody is just having this wonderful Bonobo-esque polyamorous experience, with Larry at the center of the scrum, except isn’t Bonobo society matriarchal?  Oh never mind.

Obviously Larry does not have sex with other guys the girls like (remember whose fantasy this is), and there are a few mildly slighting references to genuinely homosexual persons (it turns out Larry’s ex-wife–the one who stole his money and ran off with his friend–is a dyke–the exact word used), but I think you’d have a hard time making the case this book is homophobic.  It’s just very very hetero-centric.

Having had this amazing reversal of fortune through meeting the Daughters of Lancaster on MacDougal St., due to the good graces of Joni Mitchell, Larry Clarke seems to go letter-mad the same way that Mason Clark Greer did–but his madness is not merely a satiric overrreaction to the (much more pleasant) situation he finds himself in, but increasingly a way to manipulate everyone around him.   He eventually realizes that he can make anyone do anything he likes through the power of epistolary suggestion.

By the end of the story everything is going his way.  The wife who left him for his best friend dumps the friend–who ends up marrying the first wife, who Larry cunningly sets him up with, so she’ll stop dunning him for alimony payments.  And Mr. Finch agrees to buy a book he’s writing about his recent sexual exploits–he’ll change the names, though I don’t know why he even bothers.

So this is porn, and I have to say, pretty damn good as porn goes (emphasis intended).  It achieves the desired result, which is sexual stimulation, mingled with laughter (though it’s not nearly as funny as Dresner’s book).  The characters are not fully fleshed out (well, you know what I mean), but they are not mere stick figures either–he goes to some pains to give each Daughter of Lancaster her own personality and interests (and I’d assume he had some real-life models for them).

It’s quite clear that Larry Clarke cares about all the various women in his life, and feels no sexual jealousy when the girls relate their entanglements with boys their own age to him (but of course mere boys can never compete with a grown man who happens to strongly resemble the author).   After all, the teenagers seduced him, and the secretary self-evidently wanted to be seduced by him–matters have been arranged so that he has absolutely nothing to be guilty about.  Because sexual guilt has no place in true pornography.  Neither does reality.   And neither does emotional honesty.  And that’s the trouble with porn, isn’t it?

And that’s why you wrote the book I’m going to review now, isn’t it?  A far better book than either of the two I’ve been talking about.  And a much harder book to read, and review.  Only I’m actually going to review it next week.  Because in an homage to that very book, I’m going to call this Chapter 1, and end it when the little counter-thingy at the bottom of my computer screen says I’ve got exactly 5,000 words.

So until next week, Mr. Westlake, I remain your humble servant,

‘Fred Fitch’

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, erotica, sleaze paperbacks