Tag Archives: Lionel White

Mr. Westlake and Mr. Marlowe

As I mentioned when I started this blog, I’m a relative newcomer to crime/mystery fiction.  Sure, I encountered the usual stuff growing up, Poe, Doyle, Christie, a bunch of short story anthologies.  A little Hammett.  Lots of old movies.  But several years ago, more or less on a whim, I started reading the Parker novels, and when I ran out of those, I started on the Tobins, and when I ran out of those, I moved on to the books Westlake wrote under his real name.

And I began to be curious about his influences, and his contemporaries–about writers who were like him in some ways, who shared certain affinities, who covered some of the same ground.  If he mentioned an author favorably, I tried to read works by that author.  I also reasoned that if I really liked these particular books about a tough enigmatic armed robber, I might like other books about similar characters written by different authors.  Sometimes I did.  More often I didn’t.  But I learned things, either way.

Thanks to bloggers like Trent at Violent World of Parker and Nick Jones at Existential Ennui, who were similarly interested, I began to selectively explore the rest of the crime/mystery field, a fathomless genre, most of which remains a cipher to me, and quite honestly much of which doesn’t seem worth the deciphering (as Sturgeon’s Law helpfully informs us, 90% of everything is crap).  Ray Garraty, who has often posted here, was perhaps more helpful than anyone–as I helped him with his voracious book-collecting habit, often reading the books I ordered on his behalf, before dispatching them off to the general vicinity of the Urals.  We helped each other, as fellow enthusiasts so often do.

I’m still very far from being any kind of expert on the mystery genre, and doubt I ever shall be.  But I can honestly say I know more than most, for what that’s worth.  And coming at the field from a somewhat unusual perspective, I may have sometimes picked up on things that more experienced eyes missed.

One of the crime authors I became interested in for a time was Dan J. Marlowe.   And he is nothing if not interesting.

Marlowe was well into his 40’s when he became a professional writer, a very late start for anyone.  His wife had died, and after living a seemingly staid Middle American lifestyle for most of his life, full of grey flannel suits and offices, he just decided to pursue his long-suppressed creative ambitions full tilt.   He did not produce that many books, and most of his books are not that impressive–but a few of them became minor classics, and one achieved legendary cult status (though never a film adaptation, and at this point I doubt it ever will, unless Tarantino wants to do it).

Marlowe worked a lot with collaborators–two of whom were ex-military men, and those books mainly didn’t hold up that well.  Another was Al Nussbaum, formerly one of the most notorious bank robbers of all time–that collaboration worked out somewhat better, turned into a decidedly odd friendship that has inspired a lot of head scratching in various quarters.

Still, his best books were invariably written solo.  It seems a fairly safe bet to say that he didn’t have many good books in him, that his inspiration didn’t hold up over time, that his very late start negatively impacted his development as a writer.  But he enjoyed the authorial life, and wanted to go on producing crime/espionage paperbacks (mainly for Gold Medal) and getting paid for it.   The lifestyle agreed with him.  And who can argue with that?

Then he developed amnesia in the Mid-70’s–no, seriously, I didn’t crib this from a daytime drama!  He didn’t even remember writing his best book–he read it for the first time a second time, and didn’t remember a word of it.  Unless he was faking it.  Nobody knows for sure.  For all we know, he somehow got hold of an unpublished manuscript by Donald Westlake, about an actor with amnesia, and decided to see how that would work in real life.  I don’t believe that for one minute, of course.  But it’s just one of a slew of odd coincidences we’ll be looking at here.

In spite of being anything but a handsome man, he reportedly had many passionate affairs with a variety of women, but again, it’s hard to know where reality ends and fiction begins.  He also seems to have had a serious spanking fetish (giving, not receiving), that keeps turning up in his novels.  Hey, as long as it’s consensual…

He was politically conservative, as were most crime fiction authors of the time (Westlake was, in the main, an exception to that rule), but never predictably so. The small town he was living in when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated was somewhat shocked when he contributed an Op Ed to the local paper, in which he compared the late civil rights leader to Hitler, and said King, who he believed had started out fighting for a just cause, had brought his murder on himself by resorting to extremist methods and radical politics.  He meant this to be sympathetic, folks.   And let’s not get too superior about past racial attitudes, given who one of our Presidential nominees is now.

Honestly, the most interesting book connected to him may not be The Name of the Game is Death–it may well be Charles Kelly’s Gunshots In Another Room, a recently released unauthorized biography of Marlowe (there was nobody left to authorize it).  In spite of his relatively low status in the ranks of English letters, he’s a biographer’s wet dream.  His life is a better story than most of his stories.

As I see it, he wrote exactly four books worth reading (unless you’re one of those people who just have to read everything, and I can certainly respect that).

The Name of the Game is Death (1962)

Never Live Twice (1964)

Four For The Money (1966)

The Vengeance Man (1966)

And if you want to get pure about it, just the first. He basically said all he had to say with that one.  At his best, he had a weird sort of intensely detached immediacy that stands out from the crowd.   Most of his writing is derivative hackwork–written purely to the market.  But when he was fully engaged, he rose above the material he worked with.

Some would include Strongarm  on that list I just typed.  I found it mediocre.  Tastes vary.   One Endless Hour, the very belated sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, I don’t really consider to be a Marlowe novel.  According to Kelly, Al Nussbaum, the aforementioned bank robber, came up with most of the story ideas for that book, probably helped quite a bit in writing it, and although it’s a gripping suspenseful read–that feels like it should have been a film by Russ Meyer, or possibly John Waters, with maybe a pinch of Edward D. Wood Jr.–it comes nowhere near the level of the first book.  It’s mainly a Marlowe pastiche, even if Marlowe did all the actual writing.

Strange man.  Strange life.  And now I’m about to tell a strange story.  That may just be in my head.  It involves Donald Westlake.  And, not coincidentally, the next Westlake novel I have to review here.  So that’s why I’m doing this piece now, after putting it off for some time.  I still don’t really know what to make of it.  So I’ll put it out there, and you can decide for yourselves.

I don’t know if Westlake and Marlowe ever met, or even corresponded.  Al Nussbaum and Westlake corresponded briefly while Nussbaum was in prison (part of their exchange can be read in The Getaway Car).  He and Marlowe had other mutual acquaintances.  And they were most definitely aware of each other.

Marlowe’s first five books were about a supremely rugged and muscular hotel bell captain named Johnny Killain, who doubled as a two-fisted private investigator, working out of New York.  I’d call them more enjoyably terrible than terribly enjoying.  Every hardboiled trope you can think of, and a few you haven’t (because nobody dares use them anymore).  In spite of his modest station in life, Killain can beat any man in a fight, take any woman he wants to bed.  I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that (Marlowe had a genuine knack for fight scenes and sex scenes), but reading the last Killain, Shake A Crooked Town (1961), I found my eyes rolling with some frequency.

I also found myself wondering at an odd coincidence–1961 was the year Donald Westlake’s Killing Time came out.  That, you may remember, is about a private detective working in a small town in upstate New York, where Westlake grew up.  The protagonist is short, chunky–physically a lot less impressive than Johnny Killain, and is in fact rather reminiscent of Hammett’s Continental Op–an everyman type.

The book is basically a variation on Red Harvest.  It makes no pretense of being anything else.  But Westlake has his own take on the idea.  Very different from Hammett’s.  It’s not his best work (it’s only his second novel under his own name), but it’s a far better book than Shake A Crooked Town–which is also set in a small corrupt town.  In upstate New York.  Where Marlowe never lived.

And even though both books are about the hero getting caught in the middle between rival factions vying for control of a small town (with radically different outcomes), it’s hard to see how one could have influenced the other.  Marlowe’s novel was released very early that year,  Westlake’s just months later.  Westlake had far more direct experience with the setting than Marlowe (and boy does it show).  They were both clearly reacting to Red Harvest.  The stories aren’t really that similar, and the heroes aren’t similar at all.

(I rather suspect Marlowe got the idea for making his hero a bell captain from Jim Thompson, who had in 1956 published a short story entitled Bellhop, based on his colorful experiences working hotels in wild corrupt boom towns out west.  Two-fisted bell captains were not something Marlowe just dreamed up out of thin air, and I suppose he might have met a few, but he was definitely reading a lot of Thompson, and probably everybody else writing this kind of crime fiction.)

Okay, so that’s a big bag of nothing.  But then, of course, we move to 1962.  When another strange coincidence occurs.  Both men published paperback novels about an amoral armed robber going on a bloody campaign of vengeance against someone who heisted his heist and killed his comrades in crime.  Both books are vivid gripping reads.  The Hunter is unquestionably the superior book overall, more disciplined, better written, with a protagonist who has far more potential than Marlowe’s–but this was the one time in their overlapping careers that Marlowe could be said to have given Westlake a run for his money.   He put everything he had into that one.

Both protagonists had an oddly irregular sex drive.  Marlowe’s (who I won’t refer to as Earl Drake, because that name never appears in the first book, and I just don’t want to acknowledge the others as being about the same guy) can only seem to get it up right after he’s engaged in violence of some kind.  This problem just went away completely in the later books, with no explanation.

Westlake’s heister (or rather, Stark’s) has no interest in sex while he’s working, then a very intense interest after the job is done, which lasts a few months, then fades away entirely until after his next job. I’ve explained in an earlier piece where I think Westlake got the idea for that (see Genealogy of a Hunter).

Marlowe’s idea, according to Kelly, may have come from the fact that he had a problem with his foreskin that sometimes made intercourse very painful for him (you know, there are downsides to having a biographer, even one as capable and devoted as Mr. Kelly, but thankfully the dead don’t embarrass easily).

Really, the crucial difference is that Marlowe’s guy has a sort of resigned tolerance to what he regards as a problem he and the women in his life have to put up with.  While Parker doesn’t give a damn, has no problem at all with his cyclical drives.  Everybody else has a problem, not him.  It’s not a disability.  It’s how he is.  If you don’t feel like having sex, why should that bother you?  When his cycle changes, later in the series, we’re given believable explanations for that.  Marlowe wasn’t that good at developing his characters over a series of books.  Westlake was as good at writing series fiction as anyone ever has been, or ever will be.

But yet again–hard to see how either of these books could have influenced the other.  They came out too close together, and they were being written right around the same time.  So again.  Coincidence.  But starting to get weird.  And you know what Freud said.

And one thing I’d like to know–Westlake wrote The Hunter specifically for the Gold Medal imprint–where The Name of the Game is Death was published.  Gold Medal rejected Westlake’s novel.  Because it was too hardcore for them?   Much as I think The Hunter is a better book, Marlowe’s protagonist (who calls himself Chet Arnold for most of the book, though we’re quite sure that’s not his real name), makes even Parker seem gentlemanly by comparison.

Parker mutilates his dead wife’s corpse after she kills herself (at his urging), so she won’t be identified right away (this being the same wife that shot him earlier in the book, but who claims to still love him).  Marlowe’s Chet rapes a woman more or less to see that look on her face (no erectile dysfunction there), then later shoots her several times in a rage. He has his reasons, she’s not a good person, she did terrible things, but you see what I mean about a movie adaptation being a challenge.

No, in all probability, they rejected Westlake’s novel because they already had their sociopathic armed robber book for the year, and didn’t feel like the market needed another one.  There were never a whole lot of books in this vein, even at the peak of the era of lurid paperbacks–it was a very specialized sub-genre, and the bad guys almost always died in the end.  Westlake seems to have gone to Dell after that, and they also turned him down.  And then to Pocket Books, where Bucklin Moon told him to rewrite the ending so Parker got away with everything, and then write a bunch more books about him.

Gold Medal might have asked for more books about Marlowe’s robber (who didn’t get away with anything, but was still alive at the end, if not very happy)–except Marlowe’s book was apparently was too hardcore for even the Gold Medal readership.  Not a big seller for them.  The Hunter seems to have done much better for Pocket.  As it well deserved to, but that’s got nothing to do with book sales, as anyone who has perused the best seller lists knows full well.

Skipping ahead to 1969, Marlowe, who had hit a bit of a slump, had been persuaded by Nussbaum and others to do a sequel to The Name of the Game is Death, and as already mentioned, it’s at least as much Nussbaum’s book as Marlowe’s, and it’s not nearly as good (though it sure ain’t dull).   Reception to this one was apparently more enthusiastic, though–the first book had acquired a reputation by then, and the market was more permissive (thanks in part to the Parker novels).

So Gold Medal wanted a third book, stat–it was published the same year as the second, 1969.  But they wanted the protagonist, now calling himself Earl Drake (a name Nussbaum came up with) to stop robbing banks.  They asked Marlowe to change the genre–from hardboiled crime fiction to spy thriller.

According to Joseph Hoffmann’s well-known article on Marlowe,  Gold Medal made this request because they were now publishing the Parker novels, and once again, they felt like one ultra-violent armed robber was enough, and this time Marlowe was the odd man out.  Irony abounds in this story, as you see.

However, Marlowe never said anything about this (if he had, I would have at least one instance of him referring directly to Donald Westlake).  His story was that they wanted Drake to get dragooned into secret agent work because they were publishing John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee private eye series, which had started in 1964.

Charles Kelly found this very hard to swallow, and so do I.  Drake and McGee have nothing in common except a propensity for gunplay, and gunplay was the raison d’etre of every other book Gold Medal ever published.  Drake became more like McGee by turning secret agent, not less.   So why didn’t Marlowe just say they didn’t want another heister on the payroll?   What’s going on here?

The story is even more confusing when you consider that The Sour Lemon Score, the last Gold Medal Parker, came out that same year, 1969.  But negotiations probably took place the year before that.  Gold Medal was never on the best of terms with Westlake, though he gave them four great books.  If Marlowe had held out a little longer, maybe his criminal protagonist could have remained his old independent sociopathic self (not that he was ever what you’d call a goody-goody).

But my own feeling is that Marlowe didn’t have another book like Name of the Game in him by then, and it was probably easier for him to just crank out a bunch of formulaic espionage potboilers–not to mention more lucrative.  But again–coincidence?   And again–I don’t know.  Wherever one writer was, the other seemingly had to be somewhere else.   And if either of them ever said one word about this parallel track they were on for around a decade, I’m not aware of it.

I should also mention that One Endless Hour, the long-delayed sequel to The Name of the Game is Death (a book that Marlowe never originally intended to have a sequel) begins with the protagonist getting plastic surgery to change his appearance after he was badly burned in the previous book.  The Man With the Getaway Face, the brilliant and quickly penned sequel to The Hunter (a book that Westlake never originally intended to have a sequel) had, six years previously, begun with Parker getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, so that he could avoid the retribution of his enemies from the first book.  Though that’s not so much a coincidence as a necessary development stemming from the endings of the two earlier books, and of course David Goodis had beaten both of them to the punch there with Dark Passage.

When Gold Medal turned Chet Arnold into Earl Drake, and made him the improbable hero of a long-running spy series, they promoted him as “Drake–The Man With Nobody’s Face.”  Which probably isn’t coincidental (or terribly coherent), but I don’t think Marlowe came up with that ad copy, any more than he came up with the name Earl Drake.

Now let me go back a bit, to 1963, when Westlake published The Score, one of the best of the Parker novels (honestly, one of the best novels I’ve ever read–I try to avoid fanboy gushing here, but it’s an amazing little book).  The premise is that a disgraced police captain of a small western mining town, who was fired for corruption, has proposed to Parker and some of his associates that they plunder all of the town’s assets in one night.  He doesn’t share his motives with them.

The premise of Marlowe’s Shake A Crooked Town is that Carl Thompson, the disgraced police chief of a small upstate New York burg who was fired for corruption (by equally corrupt cronies) comes to Killain, knowing his reputation for toughness, asking Killain to help him get his job back and throw these other bums in that sewn-up town out (for a fee, naturally).  There’s no heist, Thompson is murdered before they ever get back to his hometown, no indication he wanted to burn the whole place to the ground–his wife and kid are there.

Oh, and I should mention Killain is clearly about to take Thompson’s attractive French widow to bed as the story ends.  He knew her as an attractive tomboy (I believe the French would say ‘gamine’) when they fought together in the French Resistance many years before.  This is after he repeatedly beds the luscious town librarian, having previously bedded his longtime steady girlfriend in Manhattan. Plus a cute redheaded sixteen year old at the boarding house he’s staying at throws herself at him, but he turns her down flat, telling her to come back and see him in two years.  You see what I mean about the rolling eyes thing.

And this is a minor minor thing, but the big fight scene in Marlowe’s book comes when Killain tangles with a hulking brute named Jigger Kratz (and pulverizes him, I shouldn’t need to mention).  I would hope no parent would ever willingly name a child Jigger–maybe it’s a nickname.   I’ve only come across the name Jigger in one other book–Who Stole Sasson Manoon?, by Donald E. Westlake.  And in that book it’s the name of a cute young redhead who wants to be an actress.  You may remember I wondered in my review of that book where the hell Westlake got that name from.

Okay, I don’t believe these similarities are coincidence.   I think Westlake read Marlowe’s book, saw a useful plot component in a very bad novel, lifted it, remodeled it, and vastly improved upon it.

And one more thing–Westlake’s book ends with Parker going to bed with a woman who was sleeping with the disgraced police chief who lied to him and tried to use him, and ended up dead.  It does add a nice little ring of masculine triumph to the ending, doesn’t it?   But it’s so damned well written, my eyes never rolled even once.

Moving on to 1966, Marlowe produced Four For The Money, a sort of anti-heist novel.  The narrator/protagonist is Slick, a young hustler, not the violent type, who has just been released from jail.  While there, he got roped into a scheme concocted by Blackie, a hardened repeat offender, who is in the heavy, as Alan Grofield might put it.  There’s two other members of the string Blackie recruited in prison.  They’re all due to be released, and since Slick gets out first, he’s got to go to Desert City Nevada, a fictional gambling town, midway between Vegas and Reno in size.

His job is to set things up so that the gang can blend in once everybody else arrives, and look around for an easy target to hit.  When they do that, it quickly becomes apparent there are no easy targets to hit.  But Blackie, who spends a lot of time cleaning his little Mauser handgun, is obsessed with this job, and makes it clear that if his increasingly cold-footed colleagues pull out on him, he’ll just pull jobs on his own.  They know he’ll get caught and lead the law right to them. They’re all ex-cons, and they roomed together in the joint.  If Blackie goes down, they all do.

Here’s the kicker–they don’t really want to pull the job anymore.  Slick managed to buy a motel in town, to serve as a front for their operation, and it turned out to be a very lucrative business.  He met a nice girl (really nice, a short stacked brunette, who sounds an awful lot like the girls Jim Thompson protagonists keep getting hung up on, only not crazy).

Slick wants to settle down with this girl.  They’re all enjoying the straight life now, him and the other two guys in the string–they never want to go back to prison, and they don’t need one last big score.   But they have to pull the job so Blackie will go away and leave them alone.  Then they pull the job, and turns out Blackie always intended to kill them and take it all for himself.   You want to know what happens then, read the book.  One of Marlowe’s best, as I said.

It’s a bit reminiscent of The Score–gang tries to plunder a town out in the desert–but not very.  I’ve no doubt Marlowe read Westlake’s book, but he’d have also read Lionel White’s The Big Caper, published in 1955.  That’s probably an influence on both of the later books, but much more on Marlowe’s than Westlake’s (White’s book has the same idea of a scary master criminal forcing people who want to go straight to pull a job with him, and there’s a romantic subplot, and etc).   I’ve read all three, and White’s is the weakest of the bunch. Having an idea first is not the same thing as doing it best.

So I would hope those of you who have read the next book in the queue, which is Drowned Hopes, already know what I’m getting at here.  There’s a character in that book named Tom Jimson.  People have assumed that’s an homage to Jim Thompson (as well as a certain noxious weed).  Westlake was adapting a Jim Thompson novel to the screen right around the same time he was working on that book, so no doubt it is a humorous anagrammatic tip of the hat.  But I also think it’s a cunning head fake.  He points in one direction while his eyes go another.  Tom Jimson was inspired in part by Blackie from Four For The Money.  

See, there’s no Jim Thompson novel that ends that way.   Thompson didn’t really write much about heisters–not his area.  Yeah, The Getaway, but it’s not very similar at all.  And honestly, Tom Jimson is a much better scarier funnier character than Marlowe’s Blackie, but he’s got that same dogged single-mindedness, the same touching devotion to guns,  the same general lack of regard for human life, that same nasty little one-track mind (and Westlake knew all about one-track minds, well before he ever read Marlowe’s book, so I’m not saying Tom is all Blackie–there’s lots more there, and we’ll talk about it).

Westlake once again seeing a good idea (this time in a pretty decent book) and making away with it.  I can’t know this, but I see what I see.  I just don’t know what it means.  I don’t know what any of this means.  I can just sort of fumble around in the dark, with insufficient information to go on, knowing there’s something there, but unable to make any kind of sense out of it.

Westlake and Marlowe had to be aware of each other, from the early 60’s onwards.  They undoubtedly kept up with each others’ work to some extent.  They knew their paths kept crossing and recrossing in the incestuous little branch of the mystery genre each was so well known for.  Many of the coincidences I’ve listed here are coincidences, nothing more–but they’re coincidences Westlake in particular would have noted with interest. Because Westlake didn’t believe in coincidences any more than Freud did.  “A realist is someone who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood.  It isn’t.”

So they borrowed ideas from each other, and from other writers, and they each did their own thing with them, and they co-existed, occupying the same space, without ever directly encountering each other, or perhaps understanding each other.  Such different men, writing such similar stories, in such variant ways.  If Westlake had started writing in his 40’s, and Marlowe in his 20’s, maybe their positions in the genre would be reversed.  Again–I don’t know.  I do know Marlowe died a few years before Westlake started work on Drowned Hopes.

Anyway, I thought it was worth mentioning.  What do you think?

I think I’m going to take a break for the holiday weekend, and then tackle one of Westlake’s longest novels–definitely his longest series novel.  The Dortmunder Epic par excellence.  Very long, and very densely packed with both story and trenchant social observation.  I swore I would not make this a four-parter.  And I won’t.  I’m a man of my word.  But you know me.  I’m sneaky.  I find loopholes.  I make mental reservations.

See, my feeling is that this book is actually four books in one volume.  So I’m going to write four separate book reviews.  That’s not at all the same thing as writing a four part review of one book.  Oh look, now you’re rolling your eyes.  Well, go ahead and roll ’em.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Genealogy of a Hunter, Part 2

As I said, in some subterranean way Parker had come out of or been formed by that experiment in unstated emotion in “361”, and his habit of doing rather than reacting has made him for me the ideal series character; since he won’t tell me what he really wants, he can never use himself up by becoming completely satisfied.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic when I suggest my own creation is in some ways still mysterious to me. I record his doings, and I know when what I put down is right, but I can’t always explain it, least of all to myself. Why does Parker wait in dark rooms? Why is he so totally loyal without ever showing comradeliness? What is the money for?

Going back to Buck Moon’s suggestion, I did hesitate for some time, unsure what might lay further down that road. I was very aware of the dangers inherent in sequels; any number of writers have returned to a well only to find it poisoned. (A sequel to The Desperado, that early Gold Medal Western, was written and was so bad it almost destroyed the original.) Nevertheless, finally, because of Parker, and also because of the money (a motivation Parker would understand), and also because of the implicit test of my skills (another nod from Parker), I told Buck Moon I’d give it a shot.

The change in The Hunter was so easy, so easy. It became at once evident that my earlier ending had been false, that Parker wouldn’t have permitted himself such a sleazy finish. When I let him have his way with those cops, he was even quicker and less emotional than usual; because I was watching, I suppose, and life was starting. The look he gave me over his shoulder as he went through the revolving door contained no gratitude, but on the other hand it didn’t contain scorn either. He isn’t a wiseguy.

A few years after his birth, I discussed Parker with a movie director for a (finally aborted) planned film from one of the books, and this director claimed that Parker was really French, since the difference between fictional French robbers and fictional American robbers is that the French steal because that’s what they do, while the Americans steal to get money for their crippled niece’s operation. English-language villains (other than Iago) have to be explained, while French-language villains are existential.

It was an interesting distinction he’d found there, but I thought it at the time too narrow, and I still do, since in every other respect Parker is as American as Dillinger. In fact, I think he may have appeared now and again in the past, in war stories and police stories and even Westerns, the silent, morally neutral fellow barely visible in a dark corner of the setting, who suddenly and inexplicably helps the hero out of a tight spot, than laconically fades into the shadows again, with no explanation asked or given. That was romantic bunkum, of course; it would take more than a hero in trouble to make him really take a hand. But the writers were aware of him back there, and wanted to use him somehow. So did I, but without embarrassing either of us.

Donald E. Westlake, from (again) the Introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Hunter

Jupiter commanded all the birds to appear before him, so that he might choose the most beautiful to be their king. The ugly jackdaw, collecting all the fine feathers which had fallen from the other birds, attached them to his own body and appeared at the examination, looking very gay.

The other birds, recognizing their own borrowed plumage, indignantly protested, and began to strip him.

“Hold!” said Jupiter; “this self-made bird has more sense than any of you. He shall be your king.”

Ambrose Bierce (plagiarizing Aesop)

What is originality?   What does it mean to be original?  The question itself is deeply derivative, but worth asking again in this context, I think.  When it comes to art, does it mean to do something first, or to do it so well, so memorably, so influentially, that all those who follow in your wake owe something to you?  Many later works trace their origins to what you did.    But didn’t that ‘original’ piece of work in fact find its own origin in many earlier ones, and they in turn to still earlier works, going all the way back before the dawn of history, to artists whose names no one will ever know?

Most people who care, Donald Westlake most definitely included, would say the most original writer in American crime fiction was Dashiell Hammett, but he did not, in fact, originate hardboiled detective fiction, cynical worldly-wise two-fisted private dicks navigating the seamy underside of industrial-era America, or really any of the now-familiar tropes of that genre.  What made him original?  His style.  His eye for character, for story, for the telling little detail.  Not what he did, nearly so much as the way he did it.

His authenticity as well–his firsthand knowledge of the terrain–but the problem with that was that his success as a writer took him further and further away from the life he’d drawn upon for that authenticity, and when he ran out of experiences to draw upon, he didn’t know where else he could draw from.  He stopped writing, and started drinking.  But he’d started something that could survive–and thrive–without him.  And still does, after a fashion.

Well, that’s mere genre, of course.  Nobody expects originality in Genre-ville (and yet it shows up there with perverse regularity, for all that).  When we talk about originality in literature–when we talk about Literature with the upper case ‘L’–don’t we really mean somebody like Vladimir Nabokov?  A writer Westlake oddly compared to Hammett once, said they both had a knack for writing characters who could show us their emotions indirectly, without speaking them out loud.  But Hammett was just cranking out entertaining nonsense for the pulps.  Nabokov was crafting revolutionary innovative stories nobody had ever told before.  Like Lolita.  A book without any direct antecedent. Except for a book with exactly the same title and premise published forty years earlier.

And this should serve as a lesson to all of us who say this or that writer was the first to do such and such.  How do we know?  How could we ever know?   So many novels and stories and plays and films and radio shows, and television shows and comic books and my head spins around in circles just thinking about it.

Even something as seemingly simple as divining what influences went into producing a hardboiled crime paperback in the early 60’s can turn into a maze of obscure references and cross-references.  The more we read, the more we know–and the more we know that we know nothing.  Because we realize how selective our memory of literature really is, how many innovative fascinating works have been stuffed into our pop cultural attic and forgotten by all but a handful of cognoscenti–I daresay even Patti Abbott doesn’t know how many.

All of which makes it even more remarkable when a book that by all rights should have been relegated to that attic, isn’tThe Hunter is by no means the most famous or well-regarded book published in 1962, or anywhere near it, but it’s the only hardboiled crime novel that appears on this list.  It’s also one of the very few mystery novels on it.  And perhaps more importantly, it’s currently at #42 on this list.  Critical respect is nice and all, but not as nice as being read from generation to generation.  Because, as Westlake liked to say, the difference between being in and out of print is the same as being alive or dead.  The Parker novels are very much alive, and look to stay that way.

And sure, that’s partly down to famous film adaptations, Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novels, a certain website I might name, and Levi Stahl’s one man crusade to get those novels back into bookstores (and assorted digital devices).  But all of that derives from the enduring fascination inspired by the books themselves, and all of them spring from this book, the start of a saga that spanned twenty-four novels written over the course of maybe forty-six years, depending on when Dirty Money was finished.

So if a book is that important, maybe we could devote a little time and thought to figuring out where the hell it came from.  Because books don’t just write themselves.  Not even paperbacks with deliciously lurid covers.  Worth a try, no?

Last time, I touched on some plot elements in The Hunter that seem to have been inspired by Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.  But the real key to the longterm success of the Parker novels is Parker himself.  Where did he come from?  From a lot of places.  There had never been a character like him before–but at the same time, Westlake suggested, he’d always been there,  though not usually as a protagonist.  Storytellers sensed the potential of a morally neutral character who is somehow still admirable, even heroic, in ways that are hard to explain.  But they were held back by the conventions of whatever form they were working in (and all forms have their conventions).

Westlake himself was going to kill Parker off, then an editor at a publisher said “If you bring him back for a few books a year, we’ll buy the first book.”  And as he said in the quote up top, he quickly realized the story worked better that way.   Not really believing in what he was doing, he’d written an arbitrary “Bad guys always get their just deserts in the end” finish to a story it just didn’t belong in, because its hero didn’t live in a world of good and bad, right and wrong. He was outside of all that.   He was something else.

And the fact that Gold Medal published The Name of the Game is Death that same year–with its unapologetic thief, murderer (and rapist) still alive, if somewhat worse for wear, vowing he’ll be back–shows that publishers in this declining niche were willing to experiment a bit.  That character’s moral ambiguity didn’t hold up long, though–because Dan J. Marlowe simply wasn’t as good and honest a writer as Donald E. Westlake (and maybe because that book actually wasn’t a big seller for Gold Medal).  He turned his bank robber into a government agent by the third book, an organization man–that ruined him.  The problems were already there in the second book, though.  Marlowe didn’t know what he had, didn’t know how to build on it.  Sequels are tough to write for characters like this.  Westlake knew that.

We’ll talk more about Mr. Marlowe in future, but leaving him aside, as I mentioned already, Patricia Highsmith had beaten both him and Westlake to the punch with Ripley, in 1955.  Except she had not known what to do with Ripley after letting him walk away from cold-blooded murder with a nice income left to him by his victim.  Unlike Parker, he would kill people who were not really guilty of anything except bad life choices.  Ripley wouldn’t return until 1970, and would only be in five books over the course of 36 years.  He personally murdered a total of ten people.   His only real goal was to be independently wealthy, and live in his nice villa with his rich beautiful French wife.  And to not be bored.

Highsmith liked writing about him, the books sold well, but there just wasn’t all that much she could do with him–he wasn’t a character you could write lots and lots of books about.  He got used up too easily, once you solved his problems.   The last book quite intentionally did just that, and she was done–a few years before her death in 1995.

Westlake, having taken a long break from Parker starting in the mid-70’s, came back to him in the 90’s, and was writing Parker books up until very shortly before his sudden death from heart failure.  The last book was published the year he died.  He self-evidently was laying the groundwork in that last book for more books he didn’t know if he’d get to write or not.  Parker couldn’t be used up, so he doesn’t have an ending.  Moral or otherwise.  But he had a beginning–many of them–false starts, I’d call them.  Three in particular.

W.R. Burnett‘s The Asphalt Jungle, probably the first modern heist novel (depends on how you define it), is not that much read today.  Burnett isn’t that much read today, you get right down to it.  His deep influence on crime fiction came about in an odd and lucrative way–by having Hollywood grab his books when the ink was scarcely dry, and make truly great movies out of them, that overshadowed the original works, made them almost irrelevant footnotes to themselves. (Would I have read the book at hand if it weren’t for John Huston’s movie?  Nope.).

He seems to have liked Hollywood, met his second wife Whitney there (an ambitious and very attractive studio secretary), and I don’t know exactly how he felt about the creative compromises he’d made.  But I do know that without him, we wouldn’t be talking about Parker novels, because there’d be none to talk about.  Here’s a picture of himself and the missus, from the back dust jacket of my personal copy of The Asphalt Jungle.

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I guess her horse is just out of frame.  It’s really hard to read that book, look at that photo, and not make certain connections to the story (if you’ve seen the film, you know the story), written a few years after he married the second Mrs. Burnett, who I rather suspect he left the first Mrs. Burnett for, but I don’t know offhand.  Looks expensive, doesn’t she?  But this book is dedicated to her, and I get the impression she was a driving force in his career, much more than just a trophy.  There was no third Mrs. Burnett.  Anyway, that’s not our main point of interest here.

The book opens with a quote from William James–“Man, biologically speaking…is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.”   Hmmmmmmm……..

I shouldn’t need to summarize the plot–Huston was maybe the best and most faithful adapter of crime novels in the history of film.  But never slavishly faithful.  The novel has a lot of extraneous details that Huston necessarily cut out, and makes a few significant changes (to the ending in particular), all of which improve the story.  The book reads at points almost like a treatment for a movie.  Burnett knew by this point who his real audience was–the studios.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have things of his own to say.  His prose is plodding but effective.  His characters maybe a bit two-dimensional at times–stock types, to be eventually played by stock players, but vivid and believable for all that.  His plotting is solid and sure.  And he’s got a vision, a theme, of outsiders struggling against the system, and against themselves.  He’s not a great writer, even by pulp standards (the pulp standard being Hammett), but he’s maybe half of the way there.  Sometimes more than half.

A tall rawboned, dark-faced man of indeterminate age was standing in the doorway, looking down at him with mild surprise.  Riemenschneider felt a sudden prickliness in his scalp and an unpleasant coldness in his hands as the tall man probed him with his dark eyes.  “A bad one,” said the little doctor to himself, as he looked up blankly.

Dix  Handley.  You hear that name and you see Sterling Hayden in your mind’s eye, and that really was Hollywood casting at its best–but that’s not quite the image that comes to you when you read the book.  Still, the movie captures everything essential to the character, his laconic toughness, his odd criminal sense of honor, his implacable need to mete out retribution to anyone who insults or crosses him.  But he’s not a thinker, a planner.  He’s all action, instinct, no brains. He’s only good in the moment.  But he’s damned good in the moment.

Then there’s Riemenschneider, the little German heist planner (one of a number of roles Sam Jaffe was born to play).  A genius at what he does, almost more in love with getting the money than spending it (mainly on women).  His weakness is that he can’t resist a pretty young face, even when he’s on the run–and of course he’s no good at violence, it rather disgusts him (though he’s not a man you want to cross either).

He’s increasingly impressed by Dix, sees some mysterious power in him he can only vaguely recognize and understand.  He begins to see Dix as almost a missing half that would complete him–Blaster to his Master, you might say (Fafhrd to his Gray Mouser?).  He suggests they become partners, escape to Mexico together, but Dix isn’t interested.  Westlake was interested, though.  Don’t even try to tell me he wasn’t.

Dix’s main weakness, aside from his lack of planning ability, is that he thinks that down inside he’s still the horse farmer he was raised to be down south, still a Jamieson, still remembering the life that was taken away from him, still dreaming of getting it back, buying the land they lost, raising horses.  It’s not who he is anymore, but he can’t bring himself to see that.  The old country boy in him is stronger than the beast of prey.  He’s best when he’s living in the present, but he’s usually mired in the past.  That’s his tragedy, and tragic characters always come equipped with tragic endings.

(Did I mention Dix has huge knobby-knuckled hands?   No?  Remiss of me.)

Anyway, this is the book that really started the specific sub-genre Parker lives in (there may be earlier examples, but between the book and the film, this would still be the real starting point).   The loot is in a tough spot to get at, but there’s a plan that could work.  You have to finance the job, which means dealing with suits.  You have to gather together a talented string of professionals, each of whom comes with a certain amount of unavoidable baggage–there are weak links, unanticipated wrinkles.  Nothing ever succeeds as planned. The robbers are caught and/or killed.   So that the honest people reading about them can enjoy the thrill of plotting and executing a heist without sharing in the guilt–so they can tell themselves “We’re still good people, after all.”

Well, maybe that last part isn’t 100% necessary?  Who do we like in this story?  The cops?  Not even a little bit.  They’re just the Hayes Office censors with badges and guns.  The only people you ever love in a Burnett crime novel are crooks.  You root for them, and then you grieve for them.  But sometimes, in Burnett, that veers over into cheap sentimentality.  That we could do without.  That’s maybe what stops him from getting all the way to being a great writer.  But he got close a few times.  And he got rich.  And he got the second Mrs. Burnett.  There were compensations.

(Obviously I’m not qualified to judge him as a writer on the basis of one book–those who have read more of him sometimes paint a more glowing portrait. But still have to concede his reputation today stems mainly from the movies.)

Anyway, compensations aside, there were imitators.  Lots of them.  That’s how genres begin.  The book was published in 1949, and the movie released in 1950 (meaning MGM had probably gone into pre-production before the book was even printed).  It was a critical success, but a box office dud.  A bit ahead of the curve.  As truly influential works often tend to be.  Other aspiring storytellers read that book, saw that movie, recognized the potential.  One of them was David Goodis.

The heist story was never his main thing.  ‘The Poet of the Losers’ was more about people who had hit rock bottom in life finding themselves in some kind of trouble, looking for an escape hatch, not always finding it.  He came at this story from a variety of angles, drawn mainly from crime fiction, but not invariably.

The way Black Friday came about was that Goodis had submitted a novel to Arnold Hano at Lion Books–The Blonde on the Street Corner.  It’s a book about a poor Philadelphia kid in the Depression who can’t get work, and he lives with his parents, hangs out with his loser friends, and they dream about making it big, and there’s this nice girl he loves but he can’t afford to marry her, so he decides to settle for easy sex with a married woman.   That’s how it ends.  That’s the entire story.  It’s not noir, it’s not crime fiction, there are no actual crimes committed other than adultery, and I believe there’s exactly one fist fight, because there has to be a fist fight in a Goodis novel.

Hano reluctantly published it–Goodis was a name, and Lion Books was the bottom of the barrel.   Goodis kind of enjoyed the bottom of the barrel (it’s a Goodis thing), and probably figured if he wanted to keep getting published there, he better write a book with some crime in it.  Black Friday was it.  Hano thought there could have been a bit more action, but overall, he was fairly satisfied.

Black Friday starts with a young man of limited funds and no shelter facing a Philadelphia winter without an overcoat.  So he steals one.  The cops are after him, and not just for the overcoat; there’s a backstory (always a backstory). Through an unlikely sequence of events (though not for a Goodis protagonist), he ends up joining a gang of burglars who specialize in robbing rich houses on the Main Line.  Because hey, why not?

The protagonist in this book, named Hart, is not our primary concern.   For my money, the most interesting character is the leader of the string, a thin silver-haired man whose name is Charley.  He doesn’t need a last name.  What he really needs is to be played by John Slattery if they ever make another movie of this book (though Robert Ryan, in the 1972 French version I haven’t seen yet, might be even better).

The man with silver hair was saying, “You’re too much trouble.”

Hart said, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be choked.”

“Do you think I like to shoot people?”

“No,” Hart said, “You’re a nice guy.  You’re a swell guy.  You wouldn’t shoot anybody.”

“Unless I had a reason.”

“And would it have to be a good reason?”

“Sure,” said the man with the silver hair.  “I don’t like to shoot people.  I don’t get any special kick out of it.”

Charley, unlike Dix, is the heist planner–the brains of the outfit.   Surrounded by temperamental idiots who complicate his work.  He’s constantly being forced to decide who lives or dies.  He’s also suffering from impotence, a problem he can only temporarily solve by getting really drunk every few months.  And he is suffering–he does not see this as a normal loss of interest that can be fixed by pulling a job.  But Charley’s not the type to whine about a bad break–what can’t be cured must be endured, as the saying goes.  (Pfizer begs to differ.)

His amply proportioned lady love (big lusty women are another Goodis leitmotif, and not just in his fiction) is having a hard time dealing with the abstinence thing, and even though she truly loves Charley, she turns to the young protagonist to solve her problem, and even though he’s falling for a girl his age who lives at the hideout (it won’t end well, because Goodis), he’s in no position to say no, because this older woman knows he’s not really a crook.  The big crime the law wants him for was not committed for money.   He’s an amateur.

Charley doesn’t like it, the two of them knocking boots, but he doesn’t kill over sex.  He kills over unprofessional behavior.  If he found out Hart wasn’t really on the bend, he’d whack him on general principle.  Nothing personal.   People should do their jobs.  His job is to steal.   He only trusts people who see that as their job too.  He’s got some pretty dangerous guys in this gang of his.   They’re all scared to death of him.  One of them has a beef with Hart.  Charley could care less about his beef.  They have a chat.

“Look Charley, I don’t like that guy.”

“And I don’t like you,” Charley said.  “But I put up with you because you know your work.  I like the way you work, but there’s got to be satisfaction on both sides.  Do you like the pay?”

“Look, Charley–”

“Do you like the pay?”

“I like the pay.”

“All right, then, you do as you’re told.   And don’t do things I don’t want you to do.”

There’s this weariness in his voice you can hear in every word he utters.  He knows he’s the only real professional in the bunch.  He knows they’re going to keep doing stupid things, and he’s going to have to clean up the mess.  But this is what he does, and these are the people he needs to do it with.

So he’s got these rules, this code he lives by, and you think you know what he’s going to do, but then he surprises you.  There’s a guy a bit like him in Goodis’ earlier book, Nightfall, but he’s much better developed here.   On the one hand, he’s got no conscience, no qualms about killing people who complicate his work in some way, professionals or civilians.  But on the other hand, there seems to be more to him than that.   He’s not so easy to sum up, Charley.  I won’t even try. Read the book.

Westlake read the book–he mentions Goodis specifically in that intro to the Gregg Press reprint of The Hunter I keep bringing up.  He was reading the Gold Medal crime novels incessantly, probably even before he was a professional writer.   This particular book isn’t a Gold Medal, but he would have been reading Lion Books originals as well, particularly if he already knew the author from Gold Medal.

I was the right age at the right time to be very heavily influenced by the arrival of Gold Medal books. These were in the fictional form known as the novel; but not really–or so it seemed at first. They were stripped down and lumpy and crude, like a beach buggy. Half the time they seemed little more than 50,000-word short stories; all that build-up, all those characters, all that preparation of setting and emotions and scenes and relationships, just to end in a shootout in a swamp. These yellow-spined paperbacks had compulsive strength, but without beauty, like acid rock: but they were interesting.

And either the books got better or my critical sense got worse. In any event, I began gradually to make sense among the by-lines in this new garden, and to realize that here too there were gradations from very good to very very very very bad. Once I’d separated the writers from the bricklayers, everything was fine.

Gold Medal introduced me to John D. MacDonald, Vin Packer, Chester Himes, David Goodis and, by far the most important, Peter Rabe. (Rabe’s Kill the Boss Goodbye [1956] is one of the best books, with one of the worst titles, I’ve ever read.) The understatement of violence, resulting from Rabe’s modesty of character rather than modesty of experience (which is why Hammett had it down pat and Chandler could never quite make it work), was refined in these books to a laconic hipness I could only admire from afar.

See what he does there?   He puts the emphasis on Rabe.  Yes, Rabe was a huge influence on Westlake, and Westlake went out of his way to see that he was rediscovered.  But I’ve read most of Rabe now, and I can’t point to a single moment in any of those books that seems like a specific influence on the book Westlake was introducing (in fact, I can’t think of a single moment in any Rabe book that reminds me that much of any moment in any Westlake novel).

And yet, he goes out of his way to mention writers who did very directly influence this book, or so I think.  Like I said in the comments section last time, he points one way, while his eyes go another.  He’s playing fair.  He’s giving us the clues, but we’ll have to work for it.

So maybe he got the idea of Parker’s bizarre sexual cycle from Charley–maybe not.  Maybe something of Charley’s obsessive monomaniacal professionalism went into Parker.  Maybe not.  And maybe a story Goodis wrote called Black Pudding was a second influence (along with A Gun For Sale) on the main revenge story of The Hunter.  Actually, I don’t think there’s any maybe about that.

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Black Pudding is about an armed robber named Kenneth whose partner has a thing for his gorgeous blonde wife, so while they’re on a job, he knocks Kenneth out with a pistol butt, and leaves him for the cops.  He’s doing five to twenty at San Quentin when he gets the divorce papers from his wife Hilda, who has left him for the partner.  He goes crazy for a while.  After nine years, he gets out, and does he seek revenge?  Nope, he decides to go back home to Philly, and put it all behind him.  But the partner is worried he’ll have second thoughts, so he sends some killers after him to make sure.  Kenneth’s running for his life in Philadelphia, and man that’s a tough town if you’re a Goodis character.

So hiding from the killers, he meets this horribly scarred young woman named Tillie (not just emotionally scarred, but that too).  She also had spousal problems.  So they start liking each other, but she convinces him he needs to get revenge–she felt better after the husband who cut her face and made her an opium addict killed himself.  Revenge is like black pudding, she says.  Kenneth needs to get a taste of it if they’re going to have a future together.  He can’t hide from his anger.  Anyway, if he doesn’t finish them, they’ll finish him.  She wants to help, but he wants her out of it.

So it all works out (unusually, for a Goodis story).  He gets his revenge without bloodying his hands (well, not too much), and he heads back to Tillie, with the emotional closure he needed to start over fresh.   And they all lived happily ever after (after Tillie gets plastic surgery, that is).

It’s a good yarn (Goodis, like Westlake, wrote a huge number of short stories for magazines, but didn’t typically excel at that form–this was a decided exception).   There are no really great bridges in Philadelphia for him to walk over (the memorable George Washington Bridge opening of The  Hunter really did come from Westlake’s own personal experience), but you see how the personal angle of Parker’s revenge–the sexual angle, a more personal type of professional betrayal than Greene wrote about in A Gun For Sale–could come from this.  The idea that you might need to even a score, balance out a sheet, before your mind could stabilize itself.  And the trip across country to get it done.  But Parker would never run away from himself, like Kenneth does.  Parker wouldn’t need a Tillie to tell him about black pudding.

So that leaves the third novel, that came out the year before Black Friday, from a writer who did specialize in heist stories (maybe the first to do so), who also had a bunch of his novels adapted into films.  He was quite popular at the time, but in my humble opinion, Lionel White was never much of a writer.

Well, so what?  Any writer can have good ideas, which then influence other writers.  White’s main attribute, what brought him fame for a short time, was that he’d worked the crime beat for a newspaper, and he had some actual knowledge of criminals, which gave his work an extra touch of verisimilitude. But I’ve read several books of his, and at his very best–he’s just a bit more than mediocre.  What the hell, he’s dead, the truth can’t hurt him now.

I’ve already talked about The Snatchers.  I had to, because Westlake cited it as an indirect inspiration for the third Dortmunder novel, Jimmy The Kid.  He was fascinated by the fact that some French hoodlums had used that book as a blueprint to do a real kidnapping.  I read it to see if Westlake had borrowed directly from it.  He hadn’t.  For that book.  But in reading it, probably long before he wrote Jimmy The Kid, he would have seen yet another character whose potential he might have felt was underutilized in the book.

Pearl thought, God, he isn’t really human.  He’s like a lean tawny cat, crouched and waiting.

His leather spare face was ascetic in its immobility, and the prematurely white hair, with its cowlick over one eye, lent him the contradictory look of a little boy who had suddenly grown too old.  He had charm, but it was a dangerous sort of charm.  The mediocrity of his lean average-sized body was belided by the dynamic quality of his astringent personality.

That’s a description of Cal Dent, and it does sound a lot like Charley, doesn’t it? Probably not a coincidence.  Goodis was not above the odd bit of honest theft himself, but Charley’s a much more compelling and complex character than any of White’s heisters (and a fair bet that White had lifted a few things from Goodis before now).  Still, White did touch on something there–the non-human quality. The comparison with a beast of prey that keeps coming up, over and over again–and yet never gets developed the way it needs to be.  Still, there are some interesting things about Dent.  Like his attitude towards sex.

Dent had known many such girls, but few as attractive as Pearl.  Cal Dent was that unusual sort of man–the sort that can be found fairly often among ex-cons–who could take his sex or leave it.  Pearl attracted him, it is true, but there was nothing exclusive or personal in the attraction.  To Dent, she was merely another woman, to be had or not to be had, according to the circumstances of the moment.

The man was able to put aside all thoughts of women, irrespective of their proximity, during those times when he was immersed in a job.  The fact that at this time he was in the middle of the biggest thing in his life precluded any possibility in his taking more than a purely academic interest in her.

So that’s what I’ve got so far–and what does it amount to?  Not much.  Have I proven anything?  Not really.  Westlake knew all these books, we can be sure.  He actually went to some pains to make sure we’d be sure.  But are any of these characters Parker?  Not even close.  Did he take anything from these books and stories that he couldn’t have gotten elsewhere?   Probably not.  Could I just be starting at shadows?   Quite possibly.   If I’d read ten times as much crime fiction as I currently have, I’d have read maybe a tenth as much as Westlake did.  I haven’t proven a damned thing.

But my point stands.   As does his.  Parker was always there, long before Westlake started typing the manuscript that became The Hunter.  He says he saw hints of the character in many places, many writers, never quite fully manifested, but waiting–waiting for somebody who could bring him to full fruition.  The statue imminent in the marble.   Waiting.  Waiting for Stark.

There’s one more thing, though.   I think there’ll always be one more thing, but this one really bugs me.  See if it bugs you too.  Westlake mentions, in that Gregg Press intro, a fairly obscure 1950 western novel, The Desperado, by Clifton Adams (who also wrote a few contemporary noir stories for Gold Medal and others).  They made a movie of that too (I get the impression it’s not a very faithful adaptation).   He speaks glowingly of it.  I knew I had to read it, and as luck would have it, it’s evailable.  Five bucks.  What could I lose?

Terrific little book.  Did it influence The Hunter?   Not even a little bit.  I suppose  a character the protagonist meets, an outlaw named Pappy Garrett, does somewhat resemble that character Westlake mentions, the morally neutral man who maybe helps the protagonist out for enigmatic reasons of his own.  So there’s that.  But anyway, it was a brilliant story of  how a young man from a decent background becomes an outlaw himself.

It reminded me a whole hell of a lot of Charles Willeford’s 1971 work The Hombre From Sonora, aka The Difference.  Probably because Willeford pretty directly copied Adams’ story, as he was sometimes known to do (if you have the time, compare his Wild Wives with the Robert Mitchum vehicle, Where Danger Lives, with a story by Leo Rosten).  Do I know of a more original writer than Willeford?  Not hardly.  Did that mean he was above taking a story he liked and doing his own thing with it?  I’m not sure any professional writer is above that. Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t above that.

Originality matters, but what is originality?   Having an idea first?   Any schmo can have an idea.  Being the first to bring out the full potential in that idea? That’s more like it.  And what Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, did with the ideas he’d gathered from many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, mingled with his own personal experiences and perceptions, was to make all the previous incarnations seem quaint and curious by comparison.  Parker is far more than the sum of his parts, and that’s why he’s come to overshadow all his influences, whatever they may be.

But why did I bring up The Desperado?   Why did Westlake?   Remember what I said about how he points one way, but his eyes go another?   He also mentions the sequel to that book–A Noose For The Desperado.  I read that one too.  It seemed prudent to do so.  He was on the money, as usual–it’s an inferior sequel, that tries to resolve the protagonist’s conflicts, and somehow diminishes him in the process.

Few and far between are the writers who can follow a book like The Hunter with The Man With the Getaway Face.  And another twenty-two brilliant books after that.  The protagonist of Adams’ book was all used up by the end of the first story, and there was no reason to bring him back.  But even so, there’s a passage very early in it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. Maybe it did the same for Westlake as well.  You tell me.

The hero, as I said, is a young man from a respectable background, son of a small Texas rancher, who was drawn into the life of a gunman by the oppression that followed the end of the Civil War (obviously he’s not much concerned with the oppression that came before the Civil War, but that’s the western genre for you).

As the second book begins, he’s killed a few too many men, he’s on the run from the law,  and he’s taken refuge in a small border town in Arizona.  A Mexican girl gives him a shave and a haircut, and he looks at himself in a mirror for the first time in a while.   Looks into his own eyes.

I studied those eyes carefully because they reminded me of some other eyes I had seen, but I couldn’t place them at first.

They had a quick look about them, even when they weren’t moving.  They didn’t seem to focus completely on anything.

Then I remembered one time when I was just a sprout in Texas.  I had been hunting and the dogs had jumped a wolf near the arroyo on our place, and after a long chase they had cornered him in the bend of a dry wash.  As I came up to where the dogs were barking I could see the wolf snarling and snapping at them, but all the time those eyes of his were casting around to find a way to get out of there.

And he did get out, finally.  He was a big gray lobo, as vicious as they come. He ripped the throat of one of my dogs and blasted his way out and disappeared down the arroyo.  But I heard later that another pack of dogs caught him and killed him.

Nobody runs forever.   But The Hunter will.

You want to see how far it’s run to date?   Check this out.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2

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When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back th way he had come.  He and Angie waited in the Dodge while Henley took the ROAD CLOSED–DETOUR sign out of the trunk and set it up blocking the numbered country road, with the arrow pointing toward the smaller blacktop road leading off into the woods to the right.

Kelp went over and set up the sign.  It was a three-by-four piece of thin metal that had once advertised 7-Up, and the shape of the bottle could still be seen vaguely through the yellow paint.  Kelp had also thought to bring a triangular arrangement of sticks to lean the sign against, a detail not  mentioned in Child Heist.  He put the sign in place, trotted back to the Caprice and said, “How’s that?”

Dortmunder looked at it.  It said ROAD CLOSED–DETURE.  He said “Jesus H. Goddam Christ.”

“What’s the matter?”  Kelp looked all around the intersection, worried.  “Did I put it in the wrong place?”

“Do you have that goddam book on you? ”

“Sure,” Kelp said.

“Take it out,” Dortmunder said, “and find the page where they set up the sign.”   Turning to May, he said, “I’m following a book he read, and he doesn’t even know how to read!”

Kelp said, “I got it.”

“Look at it.  Now look at the sign.”

Kelp looked at the book.  He looked at the sign.  He said, “Son of a gun.  Detour.  I thought sure you–”

“You can’t even read!”

Between the film adaptations, foreign editions, and reprints, I think this book got as many different covers as anything Westlake ever wrote–more than I feel like featuring here, but I am bemused by how many of the first edition foreign covers prominently featured that well-known rodentine leader of the club that’s made for you and me.  Do I have to spell it out?  The American covers mainly didn’t go there.  And I assume that’s because the Disney legal department has a lot less clout overseas, and couldn’t be bothered to chase down every last little trademark infringement.   Surprised Ballantine Books risked it for the paperback reprint, though it’s pretty clear that’s just a kid in a mask.  The Japanese cover makes it look like Mikki-san is actually in the book.  Nefarious.  And delightful.

But if you want true pop cultural sacrilege–

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Much as I agree Kelp and Dortmunder have a sort of hardboiled Stan & Ollie vibe going on a lot of the time, this is just wrong.  I mean, clearly Dortmunder is the Ollie in that relationship, but he’s the skinny one.  And somehow I just can’t imagine Kelp getting all weepy and squeaky-voiced when Dortmunder admonishes him.  And Stan & Ollie with guns?  Pointed at a child’s back?  It’s very very wrong.  I’m surprised at you, Denmark.  You’re supposed to be setting an example here.

So last time I mentioned Lionel White’s The Snatchers.  His second novel, published by Gold Medal in 1953.  I now have a copy in my possession (they’re thin on the ground these days), and the first thing I have to say is that it sucks as a novel.  As a rough blueprint for a kidnapping executed by two French criminals, it seems to have worked very well.  So the kidnappers in that book get away clean, right?  Of course not.  Every last one of the kidnappers are dead by the end of that book.  I’m not sure any of White’s criminal protagonists are ever alive and free at the end of his stories.  Nobody was doing that in the early 50’s.

Patricia Highsmith didn’t publish The Talented Mr. Ripley until 1955, and that was an extreme outlier in the genre until at least 1962, when The Hunter came out.   Writing in the early 60’s, Westlake originally had Parker cut down by police bullets at the end of The Hunter, and was persuaded to change that ending by Bucklin Moon.  Westlake later said he didn’t want to kill Parker, but that was just how you were supposed to end that kind of story, with that kind of protagonist.  He would have assumed the book wouldn’t sell otherwise.  Highsmith was much better established when she wrote the first Ripley book, having had Strangers On A Train adapted by Hitchcock.  And she still makes you feel at the end like Ripley’s going to get his someday.

I doubt any crime writer of that general period, even Highsmith, would have shown a gang of kidnappers grabbing a small child, getting their money, and walking off into the sunset.  That would be a hard sell today–certainly for anything published as popular entertainment.  Highsmith did write a book about a well-off couple’s little dog being kidnapped and murdered by a low-life sociopath, who pretends the dog is alive to get money out of the couple.  Virtue is rarely rewarded in her books, nor is evil always punished, but Highsmith loved animals (people not so much), and she made damn sure the bastard got what was coming to him.

The kidnapping in White’s book is planned by a cool calculating fellow named Cal Dent, looking to score big and retire.  His gang are a mixed bag of misfits and psychos, he being the only solid pro in the group (a pattern White returned to frequently)–and there’s one really hot blonde who’s along for the ride to provide sexual tension.  It’s told mainly from the POV of the kidnappers, the kidnap victim, and the victim’s lovely young red-headed nursemaid (Irish, of course), who got snatched as well, which leads to more sexual tension, of course.  The kid and the nursemaid both survive in the end, thanks partly to Dent having a change of heart, making a noble sacrifice.  Hey, I didn’t say it was Richard Stark.

Cal Dent is extremely reminiscent of Parker, though–a forerunner, you might say.  This is a Dortmunder review, so I can’t go into much detail about it, but the similarities are striking.  The blonde looks at him and thinks he’s not even human, he’s like a lean tawny cat.  She wants to hook up with him, even though her current boyfriend is another member of the gang, and Dent tells her maybe after the job–no sex while he’s working (but he breaks that rule).

He has a conscience, much as he doesn’t want to admit it–the redhead isn’t like any dame he’s known before, gets under his skin, makes him regret he’s such a bad seed, arouses his bestial lust, and you’ve seen this movie before.

The kidnap plan is clever enough, the people executing it not so much, and there’s some strokes of bad luck nobody could have foreseen.  So the Peugeot kidnappers would have thought “Okay, we’re not crazy like those people, and we were born lucky, so we’ll do it the way it was supposed to be done, get the money, give the kid back, and no blondes or redheads until afterwards.”  It worked fine until, as Westlake said, they ran out of book, and did the usual stupid things people tend to do when they suddenly have a lot of money.  Quite possibly involving blondes and redheads.  I wouldn’t know.

The Snatchers has got some good ideas in it, and a nicely atmospheric Long Island setting.  But that aside, it’s mainly tawdry ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama, which makes sense given White’s professional background as a crime reporter (he can’t resist showing off his insider knowledge a bit).

White unquestionably was an important pioneer of the heist novel (once described as ‘The Master of the Big Caper’ in the New York Times, which can be annoyingly inconsistent in its literary standards).  But as anybody knows who has read Carroll John Daly–then compared him to Dashiell Hammett–getting there first isn’t everything.

I could easily see Westlake reading this book and finding Dent’s mindset interesting.  The other members of the gang feel like shopworn stereotypes.  Westlake would look to writers like Hammett, Himes, and Rabe to show him how to craft a good crime story, how to make characters jump off the page at you, how to avoid getting mired in cheap cliches.  That being said, you can get ideas from anywhere.

Westlake later went to some pains to identify White as the indirect inspiration of Jimmy The Kid–if he did draw some inspiration from White’s work when creating Parker, he might have felt a certain sense of indebtedness–and caution, since White was still alive in 1978, when Westlake wrote that piece for Brian Garfield’s anthology in which he told the story of this book’s genesis.  He once said that he didn’t like talking about his influences until the copyrights had expired.  Never give another writer an opening for a lawsuit, particularly if he’s not a buddy of yours, and your career is going better than his.

If White’s work was one inspiration among many leading to the creation of Parker, that means it also led to the creation of Dortmunder, since the latter began as an attempt to write a funny Parker novel.  So in a way, it all ties together in this one book.

One thing I can say with certainty now is that the kidnapping in Jimmy The Kid owes nothing to the one in The Snatchers.  Entirely different plans, entirely different crews.  And as I remarked in Part 1, it doesn’t seem like anything at all goes wrong with the plan in Child Heist, the ‘Richard Stark’ novel Kelp has become obsessed with.   Everything unfolds with clockwork precision in those three chapters we get to read from that book-within-a-book.

Briefly, Parker and his string identify a rich kid being regularly chauffeured to and from the city, and make sure the limo has a phone in it.  They follow the car, scope out the route in advance.  The next time the limo is heading back, they put up a fake detour sign, and lay a rather involved trap involving multiple vehicles (this is the part of the book Murch likes). They wear Mickey Mouse masks so the kid won’t be scared (it’s impossible to imagine Stark ever letting his people look that ridiculous, or for Parker to give a damn whether the kid is scared or not, and I’d be terrified if I saw armed men in Mickey Mouse masks–why not clown masks?).  There are two women in the string to look after the kid, keep him from panicking (and provide a pretext for May and Murch’s mom to be in on the action this time).

They make contact with the father, tell him to get the money, put it in a suitcase, and get on a highway of their choosing, to await further instructions.  They expect the father to have contacted the Feds, and for the Feds to be keeping a close eye on the limo, but they call  the father en route (that’s why they needed the car to have a phone).   They tell him to stop at an designated overpass, heave the suitcase over the guard rail, and leave.  They’re parked down below.  By the time the Feds figure it out, the gang has absconded with the loot.  We never find out how they were going to return the kid, and maybe that’s where something went wrong, and Kelp papered it over in his mind, like the French guys did in real life.

That’s Child Heist, and I don’t think we need mourn the fact that three chapters is all we get.  Westlake wrote it for ironic counterpoint, and that’s all you get from it.  Still better than The Snatchers, though.

And as you may gather from the quote up top, every last little thing that works perfectly in Child Heist falls to pieces in Jimmy The Kid.  But not all for the same reasons.  Kelp misspelling ‘detour’ isn’t a major problem, but it’s a bad omen.  The fact is, life is never as simple and stripped-down as it is in a Parker novel–that’s one of the allures of those books.  Yes, Parker has a lot of bad luck, but he never has any bad luck that makes him look silly.  When you read a Richard Stark novel, you get to watch a perfectly executed plan, then you get to watch some unforeseen complication sour it, then you get to see Parker find some way to salvage something from the wreckage.

But in a Dortmunder, there are no perfect plans, the bad luck never stops coming, and yet there’s always these odd strokes of good luck to counterbalance it, and keep Dortmunder from going back to prison, so we can laugh at him again later on.

Part of the problem is that Dortmunder and his string, while seasoned pros, are still clay-footed bumblers at times, because we all are.  They’re maybe a bit too nice for the business they’re in, a bit too easily distracted, a bit too (for want of a better word) Runyonesque.  Not only could they never harm a kid, no kid in his right mind would ever take a good look at them and think they could.  Another part of the problem is that the kid himself, Jimmy Harrington, is much smarter than any of them, and has his own agenda that they never figure out until it’s too late.   Mainly, the problem is that the God of their universe is Donald E. Westlake.

Right after they grab Jimmy (who is rather insulted they think he’d like something as babyish as Mickey Mouse) the phone in the limo rings–and it turns out a local Sussex County radio station–the exact part of New Jersey Parker and Claire settled down in, and I seem to recall Westlake lived there a while as well–has picked this exact moment in time to call Jimmy, because he wrote  to them about one of those those phone quiz contests radio stations love to do for promotional reasons that have never made any sense to me.

And the gang, caught off guard, can’t think of an excuse for Jimmy to get off the line.  So he sits there inside the limo, which is halfway inside a truck, answering every question perfectly, while the gang of desperate kidnappers waits breathlessly to see if this filthy rich  kid wins 500 bucks worth of prizes.  The last question is in astrology, and Jimmy doesn’t know that subject, but Kelp gives him the correct answer (that he knows, but not how to spell ‘detour’).

Now you can’t call that realism–there’s no way that would ever happen in an actual kidnapping, and they’d just disconnect the call if it did.  But it illustrates the sheer perversity of existence that afflicts us all.   Maybe you’d never get a call like this when you were kidnapping somebody, but if you got a call like this, it would happen at the worst possible time, bet on that.

Parker’s setbacks are usually related to human weakness in some way–that he can’t understand our confused identities, his own being so sure and settled.  But Dortmunder’s problem is that the universe itself conspires to make him look ridiculous–to undermine his self-image, his identity as a tough competent heist planner.  His cohorts will never betray him, as Parker’s routinely do–they’re more of an extended family than a gang, really–but that just makes things harder in many ways.  For one thing, it means he can’t just do what Parker does when his colleagues thwart him in some way–shoot them.  That’s a nice perk, you must admit.

They’re supposed to finish driving the limo into a truck Murch obtained, but the limo doesn’t fit, and the planks they put out to drive it up on won’t hold it, and this is something we’ve seen in so many heist novels and movies, driving one vehicle into another to confuse the law, and it always works flawlessly in stories–Dortmunder says fuck it, it’s too complicated, they’ll just drive to the hideout in their own car–anyway, doesn’t the father have to have the limo with the phone in it in order to carry out the rest of the plan?  What was the point of taking the limo to start with?   (And yes, Dortmunder did plan a job that involved driving a car into a truck in The Hot Rock, but in that case the car was a lot smaller, and the style of the series is changing.)

It took Murch a long time to find an abandoned farmhouse, like the one Parker’s string uses in their book, because they’ve all been converted into country houses by city people with more money than brains, so they can be featured in those hoity-toity magazines you see at your doctor’s office and never bother to read.  He finally found one, with absolutely no amenities of any kind, other than a roof and walls.

It’s really well-hidden.  The cops will never find it.  We know this because Murch himself can’t find it for quite a long time.   They just keep driving up to one converted farmhouse after another, and then get driven off by a seemingly endless succession of Great Danes and German Shepherds, all well aware their job descriptions include keeping the riff raff off the property   You ever think maybe Westlake had mixed emotions about country life?

Jimmy isn’t scared at all, now that he’s had a good look at these clowns, but he is determined to get back to his life as soon as possible (he’s got a film career to pursue), and he quickly escapes the locked room he’s in, finds a handy toolbox in the attic,  and uses it to rig the nails fastening the boards over the window in his room, so he can leave anytime he wants–they won’t even be able to figure out how he did it.  Which seems a mite sadistic.  But I don’t think it’s meant that way.  He’s just acting out a different kind of story, and we all read those stories as kids, right?  “Daring boy adventurer outwits dimwitted criminals using ingenious methods.”   Those were cool.   Now if he was trying to scalp them in their sleep, that would be sadistic.

Now we get to meet Jimmy’s father, Herbert Harrington, and he may be the funniest character in the book.   He is genuinely (if distantly) fond of his son, who he had with his second (now-estranged) wife, relatively late in life, and Jimmy is turning out much better than his older brother, who we’re told is living on some hippie commune or whatever.  But Harrington Sr. is not one for big emotions, you might say.   He’s the rich guy in the book, and we’re well familiar with Westlake’s reaction to that class of human, but he’s not super-rich, and he earned his money doing something he genuinely enjoys (corporate lawyer), and Westlake is a dad himself, so Herbert gets off relatively unscathed.  Accent on relatively.

He’s just gotten off the phone with Murch’s Mom, and the whole thing was taped by the FBI, and they’re playing back the tape–he’s shocked that his voice sounds like that.  Is that really him?  The man has probably taped hundreds of memos for secretaries to type up, and he never listened to one.

He knew Jimmy had been kidnapped, because they let the chauffeur go back with the car.  He’s more confused than worried.  This is all so unexpected.  Anyway, Murch’s Mom tells him not to call the police, and he immediately tells her he already did (because they forgot to tell the chauffeur to tell him that, probably because the book didn’t mention it).   It’s a good thing he’s dealing with nice kidnappers here.

Murch’s Mom is confused as well, because she’s reading from a copy of Child Heist, and it doesn’t match up to the conversation that well, but she adapts the material as best she can.   They want Harrington to get one hundred fifty grand in cash.  He says that will take some time–would eighty-five thousand be okay?  No, it will not (Murch’s Mom is a bit shocked he’d even bring this up).   Afterwards one of the Feds asks him if he was actually haggling over his son’s ransom, like this was an ordinary business deal, and he realizes he was–conditioned reflex.   Man doesn’t know himself at all.

The head FBI man says this is a cunning gang of professionals, and there’s something oddly familiar about their MO, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.   Well, I doubt the Harringtons would have those kinds of books in their library, anyway.  Herbert says it’s interesting that Modus Operandi and Method of Operations have the same initials.   He’s taking all this rather well, you must admit.

That night, Jimmy escapes while the gang watches TV on a battery-operated set.  It’s easy.   Almost too easy.   But then he realizes that it’s cold, and it’s raining, and he can’t see even see the dirt road leading to the main road, and maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.   Whatever kinds of stories he’s been reading, it seems they have their drawbacks in terms of practical application as well.

So he walks back into the house–he was supposed to be sleeping upstairs–in a locked room.  Everyone is startled, and they start grabbing for their Mickey Mouse masks, because he’s not supposed to see their faces.  Dortmunder is more concerned with how he got out, but when he starts interrogating the kid, May immediately takes Jimmy’s side, starts fussing over him like a mother hen, and the mystery of his Houdini-like escape remains unsolved or the time being.

Their cover has been blown now–the masks were really uncomfortable anyway–but in exchange for getting to stay up and watch a movie, Jimmy promises he’ll never identify them to the police.   It’s The Bride of Frankenstein–when I was twelve, I’d have promised anything to stay up and watch that, though Channel 9 usually showed the Universal horror pics on Saturday mornings, anyway.   Jimmy starts telling them about James Whale’s innovative use of camera angles–I probably wouldn’t have done that at age twelve, but I did know who James Whale was, because I read a lot of monster movie books–it was very sad that he drowned in his pool–the books were a bit vague about that part.  I digress once more.

Kelp, still stuck in his book, keeps his mask on a lot longer than the rest, but finally relents.  This living out a fictional story in reality thing is not as easy as he thought.   But all that’s left is getting the money–that should be a cinch!

So they tell Mr. Harrington to get on the road, with the notion of course being that they’ll call him and have him drop the money the way it happens in the Parker book.   But there’s a small problem.  The limo phone is busy.   For a long time.  Well, he is missing a day at the office for this, you know–there’s a lot of important work he needs to get done, and he brought it with him, and he’s using the phone in the limo to make business calls.  A man is allowed to do that in his own car, surely.  By the time Mrs. Murch finally reaches him, he’s all the way to the Delaware Water Gap.  A scenic wonder, as is well known.  He’d never been there before.  Never had the time.  So it’s not a total waste.

There are other problems–they are using Interstate 80, and according to the book, they have to find an exit that has no people or buildings near it.  There is no such exit on I-80, and Dortmunder thinks darkly to himself that he bets there’s no such exit along the Northern State Parkway on Long Island, which is what’s used in Child Heist“The writer had just been making things easy for himself.”   

Maybe my favorite scene in the book occurs in this chapter–Murch’s Mom, being the one picked to make the ransom calls, is trying to reach Harrington from a pay phone by a Burger King.  She drove there in a Plymouth Roadrunner her son thoughtfully stole for her.  But these bikers are outside the restaurant (technically, that’s what Burger Kings are) eating lunch, revving their engines, and making so much noise she can’t possibly have a civil ransom-related discussion with anyone.   What on earth can this helpless old lady do, faced with such inconsiderate ruffians?

Murch’s Mom, leaving the phone off the hook, stepped out of the booth and went over to the Roadrunner.  She had seen tools on the back seat; yes, there was a nice big monkey wrench.  She picked it up, hefted it, and went over to stand in front of the motorcyclists, who were sitting on their throbbing machines, filling their faces with whoppers.  She didn’t say anything; not that it would have been possible in any event.  She stood looking at them.  She thumped the monkey wrench gently into the palm of her left hand.  She lifted it, thumped it gently again, lifted it, thumped it, lifted it, thumped it.

They became aware of her.  Their eyes followed the small movements of the monkey wrench.  They looked at one another, and they looked at Murch’s Mom’s face.  Methodically, without any appearance of undue haste but nevertheless efficiently, they stuffed their mouths with the rest of their whoppers, packed their pockets with french fries, tied their Cokes to their gas tanks with little leather straps, and drove away.

Nobody fucks with Murch’s Mom.  Not even Murch.  And now I better show a picture of her car, before she gets mad at me.

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(You can think what you like, but I think the Roadrunner is a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones).

So after every last possible thing that could have gone wrong has gone wrong (up to and including the Harrington limo being stopped for speeding by an overzealous state trooper who can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the chauffeur is an undercover FBI agent who likes to drive really fast), they get to the right overpass, and Harrington almost throws his briefcase full of business documents that he shouldn’t have had with him to begin with over the side, but it’s the suitcase of money that goes over–and right onto Dortmunder’s head, knocking him out cold.

But they have the loot!   It worked!   What can possibly go wrong now?   Well, for one thing, the book didn’t mention that the FBI has little tracking devices they can put into things like suitcases, and everyone, Herbert Harrington included, is amazed these people managed to find an actual abandoned farmhouse that has not been turned into a posh country home already, but that’s not important now–a small army of G-Men has surrounded the Dortmunder Gang’s criminal redoubt, and will move in shortly before sunrise, because Feds read books too, and that’s how these things are done.

(Perhaps now is the time to mention that the kidnappers in The Snatchers didn’t find an abandoned farmhouse on Long Island–they rented a summer cottage on the beach in the off-season.  I’ve gone through three Lionel White novels while researching this piece–no expense was spared–not an abandoned farmhouse in sight–it’s more of a David Goodis thing, wouldn’t you say?  Or, for that matter, a Richard Stark thing.  This isn’t a Lionel White parody.  Perhaps in part because there’s not enough of a style there to hang a parody on.  Oh, that was mean).

Jimmy escapes again–he’s grown somewhat fond of these strange people, but the weather has improved, and it’s time to go.  He did get to enjoy watching The Thing (1949, credited to Christian Nyby, probably directed by Howard Hawks) with them, so that’s something.

And as he leaves the house, better prepared for his escape, he hears the FBI men whispering to each other in the dark.  He thinks about it.  He goes back inside to warn the gang.  Dortmunder still wants to know how this damn kid gets out of a locked room so easy, and now he finds out, because that’s the escape route.  They sneak through the enemy lines, and camp out in the woods all night, cold and wet, watching Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz, Jimmy would you please give the screen credits a rest already?).

Jimmy is still lecturing them about camera angles as the sun rises.  It’s time for them to find a car and get back to the city, but Jimmy asks if they can’t please wait until the movie is over?  It’s very well done!  “I’m almost willing,” Dortmunder said.  “I’d like to see something well done.”   He really can be such a Debbie Downer, sometimes.

Kelp, as we know, must always steal the automobiles of doctors, because doctors, being so aware of their own mortality, make sure they have the most comfortable life-enhancing vehicles.  But in this remote area, all he can manage is a van from a local veterinary practice that smells of sick dog.   They’re all ready to throw up by the time they get back to New York.

They drop Jimmy off at Eighth Ave. and 42nd St (we are informed that nobody there pays any mind, because a twelve year old getting out of a veterinarian’s van at 8:30am on a Friday is the most normal thing that’s happened there in years). He can get to his psychiatrist’s office and call his dad from there, then have his appointment, and of course enjoy a good gloat at Dr. Schraubenzieher’s expense, since someone was watching him, ha-ha, Q.E.D.!  He waves goodbye, and tells them not to feel bad.

Uh-oh.

Yeah, he took the ransom money.   Got it out of the suitcase when they weren’t looking, and stuffed it into his cute little Air France bag.  Didn’t think of that angle, did you, Richard Stark?   And just to add insult to injury, as rich people come out of the womb knowing how to do like no one else, he leaves them a goddam tip–a thousand bucks–two hundred apiece.  And that’s how the caper crumbles.

And next chapter jumps ahead about a year.   Richard Stark (the one who lives in Dortmunder’s world) is contacting his attorney.  He wants to sue the makers of a film called Kid Stuff, which is clearly based on his novel Child Heist, and is furthermore an irreverent burlesque of it.   This Dortmunderverse version of Stark is no more indulgent of such frivolities than the one we know.   He demands retribution.

But he shall not get it, because as his lawyer informs him, the director and writer of this film was one James Harrington, thirteen year old Hollywood wunderkind, whose rich father financed his first film to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand smackers (give or take a thousand).  It’s all based on his own real-life kidnapping, and is therefore legally bulletproof.   Because you can’t copyright real-life events.   Remember?

See, when the elder Harrington finally spoke to his son over the phone, prior to his release, he felt a surge of some emotion I suppose one must refer to as love. He’s been very distant and distracted the whole time, but he finally realizes he really did want his son back more than anything, and when the FBI guy asks him if he wants to hear the tape of the conversation played back, he says no–he’s afraid he might start weeping, and he doesn’t want that.

But once his admirably resourceful youngest son and heir presented him with the ransom money–then no doubt innocently raised the notion of making a movie about the whole thing–well, what proud father could say no?  And a father Herbert Harrington is, in his own constipated way.  And Jimmy Harrington achieves his career goal at roughly the same time he achieves puberty (convenient!).  Another identity puzzle solved–kind of.  Some people are born to win.   And others–well…….

The book ends with Dortmunder and Kelp–it’s been a year since they’ve spoken, for obvious reasons–and this time Dortmunder accidentally screws up a heist Kelp is pulling.  And he feels really bad about it.   Maybe he’s been too harsh on Kelp.  Nobody’s perfect, after all.   Perhaps those words will come back to haunt him in the near future, but in the meantime he and Kelp decide to go see a new movie together.   They don’t know anything much about it, but it’s supposed to be really funny.  Care to make a guess?

(I can make a little guess of my own–Westlake was probably writing the original screenplay for a movie called Hot Stuff right around the same time he was working on Jimmy The Kid, and that movie actually got made a few years later, and I’ll be reviewing it next, just to link in with this book.  I got the DVD, so I might as well.  My expectations are suitably low.   They did not shoot the script Westlake sent them.  Well, he wasn’t financing the film, was he?)

We are a race of storytellers, all of us–the only animal on this planet that is obsessed with the unreal (“The Dream Animal,” Loren Eiseley called us, and he got that right).  We don’t all make a living at it, but we all do it.   We tell stories based (often rather loosely) on things that really happened.   Then we start basing things we do in real life on the stories we made up–an endless feedback loop.  And when we run out of things that happened to us, we base new stories on stories somebody else made up, which are based on stories somebody else made up, and we try to add bits and pieces of ourselves to these stories to make them our own, and the result is that our identities are constantly trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, original and copy.

Professional criminals exist in real life–then people write stories, make movies, based on what they’ve heard about these criminals and their exciting lifestyle.   Then the criminals read/see these stories, and think “Hey, that’s pretty neat!” and start adjusting their real-life behavior and appearance to be more like the fiction.  And then you start losing track of where the story ends and the reality begins.

And some people make obscene amounts of money feeding this hunger we have for stories.   And others use stories to tell us subtle truths about ourselves–and maybe even make us laugh at ourselves now and then.  Because we are one mixed up bunch of monkeys, and we might as well get a few laughs out of it, no?

And that’s all I have to say about Jimmy The Kid.  Except that earlier in the book, when May feeds Dortmunder all his favorite dishes to make him do this kidnapping job, one of the items she prepares is Boysenberry Jell-o.  And it does not seem any such Jell-o flavor ever existed.  

Just my little contribution to distinguishing reality from fantasy.  Feel free to make your own in the comments section.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels

Review: Jimmy The Kid

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Holding the mask out from his mouth with his free hand, Kelp said “Let’s not scare the kid.  Nobody’s gonna get hurt.”  It was a line word for word from Child Heist, which Kelp had been rehearsing for two weeks now.

According to the book, the chauffeur was supposed to ask Kelp what he wanted.  Instead of which, Van Gelden pointed at the pistol and said, “Scare the kid?”  Then he gestured a thumb over his shoulder and said, “Scare that kid?  Hah!”

This book enjoys a rather unique distinction among the Westlake canon.  In 1978, Westlake’s good friend Brian Garfield (who I talked about in two recent articles here)  published an anthology of pieces in which crime fiction writers described personal encounters with actual crimes.  Westlake’s contribution was an imaginary account of him at a fashionable cocktail party, where the only food available is fancy potato chips, regaling bewildered onlookers with the story of how he came to write Jimmy The Kid.  It’s funny, clever, and more than a touch convoluted, as the origins of popular fictions so often are.   I strongly suggest you obtain, have you not already, a copy of The Getaway Car, and read this fascinating piece.  Save me a lot of trouble, for one thing.

But perhaps you expect me to save you some trouble?  Okay, the upshot is that the story of this book was inspired by the story of an actual kidnapping which was inspired by yet another book.  Namely The Snatchers, aka Rapt, by Lionel White, a native New Yorker, who wrote a lot of taut suspenseful crime books, often published in paperback by outfits like Gold Medal, many of which became movies, and the movies were rarely very faithful to the books.  Sounds familiar, huh?

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(Westlake and several other sources refer to the book as The Snatch, but I can’t find any edition with that title.)

Like many another Lionel White outing, this one much later got turned into an exceptionally unfaithful film adaptation (with Marlon Brando, no less).   But it is probably better remembered today for the fact that a pair of rather impressionable French criminals decided to use the Serie Noire translation of it as the blueprint for (successfully) kidnapping a toddler who happened to be the grandson of the head of Peugeot.

You know, Peugeot?  Cars, bicycles, etc.  The cars were never that common here, but Lt. Columbo drove one on TV.  First car I can remember is my dad’s little dark blue Peugeot (don’t ask me which model, I was about the same age as the kidnap victim at the time).  My mom later said it was his rebellion against adult responsibility, or suburban conformity, or something.   You know how mothers are.

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Not only was the boy not harmed (because the book specifically said not to do that), he actually seems to have had a rather interesting time–the elder Peugeots, having received some very threatening missives about what would happen to little Eric if they didn’t pay up, were not so amused.

And the kidnappers, not having had the foresight to get a book telling them how to behave after scoring big on a kidnap caper, threw their ill-gotten gains around like water, made snide allusions in bars regarding their daring enterprise, and they both went to prison in short order.   Life may imitate art up to a point, but then comes Murphy’s Law.   Or, if you prefer, The Dortmunder Effect.

The idea of adapting a crime adapted from a novel was not originally Westlake’s (in fact, it wasn’t even originally the French kidnappers’ idea; see The League of Gentlemen).  He was approached by some film producers who wanted to do a story along similar lines.  Not the Peugeot kidnapping, but something like it.  Westlake gave it some thought, and wrote a treatment which tried to change the crime to counterfeiting, which didn’t work.  So he changed it back to kidnapping, which reportedly worked better, but the studio head, a grandfather himself, didn’t see humor in the concept for some odd reason.

The movie was scrapped.  But as had happened twice already in the past, Westlake had retained the book rights, and eventually decided (with encouragement from his then-girlfriend, Abby Adams) to try and turn the story of a kidnapping adapted from a novel back into a novel. Art imitating Life imitating Art.

(Anyway, as is mentioned in this very book, you can’t copyright real-life events.  Anybody could do a story about the Peugeot kidnapping, or a story inspired by it.  Even though it was itself directly inspired by a book that is, far as I know, still under copyright.   Plagiarism laws only apply to fictional events and persons, not real events committed by real persons, inspired by fiction. Westlake thought this was very funny).

He’d been down this same exact road already, with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   That comic kidnapping caper was a creative failure, in spite of some good writing, mainly because the characters had poorly defined voices, perhaps because they’d been written as film characters who had to be played by popular film stars, and something was lost in translation between mediums.  Here, he’d remake the story basically from scratch, and instead of using the characters from the two treatments he’d written for the movie that never got made, he’d use characters with very strong voices that he’d already featured in two previous novels–eighteen if you count Parker.

Yeah, this is the Dortmunder novel where Parker has a cameo as a fictional character in Dortmunder’s world, and Stark has a epistolary cameo as his pissed-off creator.   That, I think, is how most people tend to remember it today, and that’s why a good first edition can run you a bit more than other Dortmunders from this general time period.  Overlapping fanbases.  But if you’re a Stark reader who ran out of novels and is hoping to find a new Parker heist contained in the pages of this book, you’re in for a disappointment.  Because this isn’t really Parker, it’s only three chapters, and it’s not very good–the Parker chapters, I mean.

It only makes sense.  If Westlake had come up with a really great idea for a Parker novel, he’d use it to write another Parker novel.  Possible this is a rejected idea he pulled out of his Parker slushpile, but I don’t think so.  We know where he got the kidnapping angle from. And we know something else–Parker–the real Parker–would never get involved in a job like this.  Kidnapping isn’t his line.  And kidnapping a child?  Stark wouldn’t have it.  But Stark’s not pulling the strings here.  Stark’s taken a long coffee break (black, of course), leaving Westlake not really knowing how to write in that voice anymore.

I think there is some attempt to contrast the Westlake style with Stark’s here, but it’s not that effective, because as I explained a few weeks back, in the course of writing the hybridized Westlake/Stark epic that is Butcher’s Moon, he’d somehow slipped out of the groove, as far as Stark was concerned.  It would be quite a while before he got back in that groove, and he’s faking it to beat the band here.

And that’s perfectly fine, because this isn’t a Parker novel–it’s a Dortmunder, and one of the better ones, I think.  Not everyone agrees–it’s certainly not a classic of the series, since kidnapping isn’t Dortmunder’s line either, and for obvious reasons he’s not planning the job this time (much to his disgust)–but I was shaking with laughter at my local, as I finished it over tacos and beer.  And I picked up on some things I missed the first time through.  It’s a funny, insightful, and deceptively simple little book, with a lot of layers to it.  And a fine addition to a rather odd little sub-genre–the comic kidnapping story.

I mean, kidnapping shouldn’t be funny, should it?  It happens all the time in real life, and the kidnap victims and their families are rarely laughing about it.  And yet something about it excites us–even the word ‘kidnap’ itself, which originally meant exactly what it sounds like–child theft.  We all have some kidnappers in our family trees–just as so many of our great national epics are about armed robberies of some kind or another, as I explained in my review of The Score, you can just as easily go back through ancient mythology and find one long series of colorful (and often sexual) abductions.

Hell, that’s how Rome was reputedly founded, with those Sabine women, only they didn’t call that kidnapping at the time.  But why is that story so unexpectedly funny, and later the source of a Hollywood musical comedy with great choreography?  Because the women want to be abducted.  Because they end up having a good time, and wanting to stay with their abductors.  So that’s the secret to making it humorous, as opposed to suspenseful, or tragic.  Turn the tables.  Dramatic reversal.

The funniest kidnapping story of all time debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1907, and Westlake knew damn well he was never topping that one.  The inner dust jacket for the first edition up top says otherwise, but it lies.  Westlake came up with a splendid variation on a theme, make no mistake–but some things in this world can’t be improved upon.

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How long since you last read it?   It had been quite a long while for me, and I savored every paragraph, every last impeccably chosen word.  As close to perfection as any mortal can get, but the message is very simple, isn’t it?  “Boys are a lot more trouble than you think.”

Reading it as a child, you think “This kid is great!”   Reading it as an adult, you realize your loyalties have somehow inexorably shifted, and you marvel at the stoic saintly patience of the kidnappers.  You look at some banal Hollywood re-rendering of it, like those Home Alone movies, and you yearn for something heavy to fall on Macauley Culkin and put an end to his tow-headed malevolence (mercifully, adolescence eventually achieved the same result without the need to resort to bloodshed).

But from either generational perspective, it’s funny, because much against their will, the abductors have become the abductees.  Because they could never really harm the kid, they are subject to being seriously harmed by him.  And he has no intention of ever letting them go.   They’re just too much fun.  I think The Joker said that to Batman once.

Westlake said in that piece he wrote for Garfield that he didn’t want to use a child the age of Eric Peugeot at the time he was grabbed because an infant kidnapping is ‘inimical to comedy’–the Coen brothers kind of proved him wrong with Raising Arizona, but of course that was abduction for love, not money.  And it had the aesthetic sensibility of a Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoon.  But it’s still the same basic idea–you create comedy in a story about a kidnapping by creating sympathy for the kidnappers.  They did not know what they were getting into.

And in fact, Eric Peugeot said later he was fascinated by his kidnappers, entranced by them–he’d never been around two grown men so much before, let alone men of this class, and he watched them avidly.   He was certainly scared at points–not traumatized in the least.  But he was no real trouble to them, being past the terrible two’s, yet still too young to ask a lot of silly questions, or get up to any serious mischief (okay, I hear parents of three year olds objecting now, but he wouldn’t be trying to scalp them, would he?).

The only problem the kidnappers had was their own stupidity once the kidnapping was concluded.  The kid was just quietly curious about them.  Okay, that’s not funny, or at least not the right kind of funny.   Need an older victim.  Perhaps older than his years?   Can’t make him too much like O. Henry’s kid.

P.G. Wodehouse did several stories about child kidnappings, but those were early works, before he’d arrived at the brilliance of Jeeves, Mulliner, Uncle Fred, or Blandings.  His gift for comic language was developing rapidly, but his grasp of characterization and plotting was still in embryonic form.   So those books have dated rapidly, and the kidnappings are treated rather offhandedly, lost in the shuffle of too many implausible story threads, and too much forced banter (like Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, only worse).  Even Plum had to start somewhere.

If you’re going to tell a story like this, to make it funny you have to build on the logic of it, not just throw it in for a lark.  So O. Henry, that most consummate of craftsmen, would be Westlake’s model here, not Wodehouse.   Have to match the tool to the task.  And now my tool had best be the plot synopsis.

Having repeatedly failed as a heister, Dortmunder is trying life as a mere burglar, going down a fire escape (there’s going to be a lot of those fire escapes) to break into a furrier’s shop, and then he hears a voice calling him from above–is it the Lord?   No, it’s just Andy Kelp.  (Interesting though, that Dortmunder, as opposed to Parker, seems to have some sort of half-hearted religious notions in his head, no doubt put there by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, who raised him as an orphaned youth).

Turns out Dortmunder was on the wrong floor of the building (he’s never going to be much of a burglar–made for bigger things), and to have Kelp point out his mistake adds insult to injury.  Kelp opens the door of the shop for him, and he won’t even look at the furs on the racks–Kelp has ruined yet another job for him.  He’s just doing to get into his stolen VW Microbus and leave.  But their squabbling has roused the whole neighborhood, and they have to get out of there, and he accidentally bloodied Kelp’s nose in his wrath, so he lets Kelp ride with him.  And this is a mistake of course.  Because Kelp has an idea.   Kelp always has some damn fool idea.  But this one is weird, even for him.

With the hand that wasn’t holding his nose, Kelp reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a paperback book.  “It’s this,” he said.

Dortmunder was approaching an intersection with a green light.  He made his turn, drove a block, and stopped at a red light.  Then he looked at the book Kellp was waving.  He said, “What’s that?”

“It’s a book.”

“I know it’s a book.  What is it?”

“It’s for you to read,” Kelp said.  “Here, take it.”  He was still staring at the roof and holding his hose, and he was merely waving the book in Dortmunder’s direction.

So Dortmunder took the book.  The title was Child Heist, and the author was somebody named Richard Stark.  “Sounds like crap,” Dortmunder said.

Dortmunder takes the book, figuring what the hell.  Kelp’s next errand is to go find Stan Murch and give him a copy of the same book–he tells Murch (whose reading is mainly confined to newspapers and car magazines)  the guy in it will remind him of Dortmunder.  And Murch also takes the book, also figuring what the hell.  Kelp says to make sure Murch’s Mom reads it as well.  What the hell?

Then Kelp shows up at Dortmunder and May’s apartment, along with Murch, to make the pitch.  Kelp’s idea is simple–and not original to him, but how’s he to know about the French guys?  See, he got pulled in by some cops out in the sticks a few days, a bum rap, they didn’t have anything on him, which isn’t to say he was innocent, but cops should know better than to put a crimp in a man’s schedule over a bad arrest.  It’s unprofessional.

Anyway, the jail had a bunch of books donated by a local ladies club (heh) and a lot of them were these books about this armed robber named Parker, written by this Richard Stark person.  You may have heard of them.  Having nothing better to do, Kelp read the books, and was immediately captivated by the idea of a hardened criminal who pulls daring complex heists and never gets caught.

I already used the money quote from this chapter for my review of The Score (check it out, or just read the book), but basically Kelp is saying they should just do the plan from this book he particularly liked named Child Heist–which is about a kidnapping.  Just follow the same plan Parker and his associates employ, right down to the letter, and it’ll succeed, like it does in the book.  Why wouldn’t it?

He wants May and Murch’s Mom (she has a name, but it’s hardly ever used) to babysit the kid, which Murch’s Mom says is very sexist, while simultaneously conceding that Kelp and the other guys in the string would have no idea how to take care of a child.

May, who has no problem at all with crime as a modus vivendi, thinks it would be mean to frighten a little kid by taking him from his home and family.  Murch’s interest is predictably limited to the wide variety of motorized vehicles needed to pull this job.   Dortmunder says very little, brooding to himself, and then he suddenly says he never wants to see Kelp again.  He’s furious.  Because he’s the planner, and Kelp is bringing in this Stark guy, who probably never so much as knocked over a candy store in his life, as a ringer, to do his job!   He’s been outsourced!   And that’s not even a thing yet!

But as they all admitted earlier in the meeting, the problem here is that big cash scores are getting hard to find in this increasingly cash-free modern world (same problem Parker has been having in the dimension next-door).  Dortmunder has no better options at present, and he hates living off May and her meager supermarket salary (that she steals most of their food from her employer is neither here nor there).  He’s only really happy when he’s planning a big heist, and May knows that.  She likewise knows that because of his past offenses, if he gets caught stealing so much as a pack of Luckies for her he’s going back to prison for life, so he might as well pull something big.

May is also concerned that Kelp is so obsessed with pulling this job that he’ll do it without Dortmunder, and something will go horribly wrong, and the kid will get hurt, even though nobody wants that.  Somehow, hearing about this proposed federal crime has roused her maternal instincts.  So she fixes Dortmunder all his favorite dishes for dinner, and works on him, like only she can.  She explains to him that he’s still needed to make the plan in the book work in the real world.

Kelp brings a plan to me.”

“To make it work,” she said.  “Don’t you see?  There’s  a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you’ve got and the places you’ll be and all the rest of it.  You’d be the aw-tour.”

He cocked his head and studied her.  “I’d be the what?”

“I read an article in a magazine,” she said.  “It was about a theory about movies.”

“A theory about movies.”

“It’s called the aw-tour theory. That’s French, it means writer.”

He spread his hands.  “What the hell have I got to do with the movies?”

“Don’t shout at me, John, I’m trying to tell you.  The idea is–”

“I’m not shouting,” he said.  He was getting grumpy.

“All right, you’re not shouting.  Anyway, the idea is, in movies the writer isn’t really the writer. The real writer is the director, because he takes what the writer did and he puts it together with the actors and the places where they make the movie and all the things like that.”

“The writer isn’t the writer,”  Dortmunder said.

“That’s the theory.”

“Some theory.”

(Godard liked it well enough.  You’re still mad at him, aren’t you, Mr. Westlake?  Him and that Boorman guy who said he liked to exploit writers, steal their ideas, and then discard them.   In public he said this, while adapting your book into a movie.  A movie you kind of liked, but a movie that bombed.  ‘The writer isn’t the writer.’   Sheesh.  These new filmmakers got no couth.   No wonder you’re so grumpy.  As to what Dortmunder has to do with the movies, probably better not to ask, but for those who must know, read my piece Dortmunder At The Movies. On this very blog. And don’t say you weren’t warned.  Back to the synopsis.)

So the gang all meet up at the O.J. Bar and Grill (this time the chatty barflies are two telephone repairmen about to get into a fight over the derivation of the word ‘spic’ to refer to Puerto Ricans), and Dortmunder grudgingly admits that the book could serve as a jumping off point, but it needs to be adapted.  See, talking like an aw-tour already!  And then we get a whole chapter of Child Heist, showing us Parker and some guy named Krauss scoping out potential kidnap victims.   Here’s how the Parker chapter begins:

When Parker walked into the apartment, Krauss was at the window with the binoculars.  He was sitting on a metal folding chair, and his notebook and pen were on another chair next to him.  There was no other furniture in the room, which had gray plaster walls from which patterned wallpaper had recently been stripped.  Curls of wallpaper lay against the molding in all the corners.  On the floor beside Krauss’ chair lay three apple cores.

And here’s how the Dortmunder chapter begins:

When Dortmunder walked into the apartment, Kelp was asleep at the window with the binoculars in his lap.  “For Christ’s sake,” Dortmunder said.

And this is a recurring theme of the book–that in Parker’s world, every job goes smoothly, everyone’s a consummate pro, nothing ever goes wrong–and in Dortmunder’s world, it’s the exact opposite.  Westlake knew this was a rank oversimplfication–Parker, if anything, has worse luck than Dortmunder with his strings (only once would any of Dortmunder’s associates ever try to kill him), and he never once pulled a heist without something going seriously wrong, but here’s the thing–how can Westlake get that across to that very large section of the Dortmunder readership that has not read the Parker books?  Who may in fact assume they’re something Westlake dreamed up specifically for this story.

It ruins the sly meta-textual joke he’s making here if he brings in all those inconvenient nitpicky details.  So he doesn’t.  But for those of us who have read the Parkers, this can be irritating.   It’s still fun to read, mind you.  But we know it’s wrong.  It’s one of the less effectively executed gags, but still fascinating to read, for those who follow both series.   I don’t think it’s really meant as a commentary on the Stark books.  That’s not really what this book is about, contrasting Stark and Westlake, but it’s there, and it doesn’t quite come off, because Westlake can’t really write like Stark in this context.   Fortunately, he doesn’t have to.  There’s plenty else going on here.  Layer after layer, joke within joke.

So going by the book, they have to scope out limos from a handy lookout spot.  They need one with a built-in phone that routinely carries some rich kid to and from an appointment in Manhattan.   In Child Heist, ‘Parker’ and his buddies find a Lincoln that fits the bill nicely–Dortmunder & Co. find a Cadillac.  This leads to some confusion later, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And the deceptively diminutive backseat occupant of said Cadillac is one Jimmy Harrington, twelve years of age, youngest son of a rich corporate lawyer, and boy genius.  So much so that he’s going to a psychiatrist in the city, to work out some of the personal issues that tend to arise when you’re smarter than all the kids in your class, and probably most of the adults you know as well.  Would it sound arrogant if I said I can relate?  Yeah, it probably would.  Never mind.  But something tells me Westlake related a whole lot.  In this specific regard, at least.  It’s not a rich kid’s fault that he’s rich.  It is, on the other hand, very much a psychiatrist’s fault that he is a psychiatrist.

Jimmy Harrington, lying on the black naugahyde couch in Dr. Schraubenzieher’s office, looking over at the pumpkin-colored drapes half-closed over the air-shaft window, said, “You know, for the past few weeks, every time I come into the city I keep having this feeling, somebody is watching me.”

“Mm hm?”

“A very specific kind of watching,” Jimmy said.  “I have this feeling, I’m somebody’s target. Like a sniper’s target.  Like the man in the tower in Austin, Texas.”

“Mm hm?”

“That’s obviously paranoid, of course,” Jimmy said.  “And yet it doesn’t truly have a paranoid feel about it.  I think I understand paranoid manifestations, and this seems somehow to be something else.  Do you have any ideas, Doctor?”

Though he responds with more than “Mm hm?” this time, the Doctor seems more concerned with scoring a rare intellectual point over his precocious patient than in getting to the bottom of Jimmy’s actually quite well-founded anxieties.  But you get the gist of the character here–Jimmy has a first-rate brain and tremendous intellectual curiosity, bolstered by extensive reading, and no doubt the best private schools and tutors money can buy.  He seems to have no friends his own age, and this doesn’t seem to bother him much, but the boy could use some seasoning.   Like a Captains Courageous kind of deal.   Only tougher on the captains than on the kid, as matters shall arrange themselves.

Jimmy seems to me like a much younger and far less irritable reworking of Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the main protagonist of  Who Stole Sassi Manoon?   But Westlake had a hard time identifying with the spoiled wealthy Kelly, even though Kelly’s physical appearance and interests seemed to be somewhat modeled after Westlake himself.  Jimmy, being younger–I’d assume some of Westlake’s own boys were around Jimmy’s age, or had been recently, or would be soon–comes off much better than Kelly.  Westlake often did wonder, I think, what life might have been like for him if he’d had all the advantages growing up.   Better in some ways, worse in others.   There’s always a trade-off.

Oh, and one more thing–Jimmy knows what he wants to do for a living.  At age twelve.  Okay, in this I can not even slightly relate.  But wait until you hear it–he wants to direct.  As in movies.   Wants to be an aw-tour.  And somewhere, the God of Dortmunder’s Universe chuckles wickedly, and the net begins to close.  And I say see you next week, kids.  I’ll be watching you–well, those of you that post comments, anyway.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark