Tag Archives: Mickey Schwerner

Review: Put A Lid On It, Part 2

NY1

“Meehan,” Woody said, “what the hell have you got to do with the president?”

“They want me to steal something for him,” Meehan said.   “He’s got an evidence problem, just like a normal person, like you or me, and he needs a robber, so they look in the federal can, they find me, make me the offer.  I get this evidence, turn it over, they make my case go away, they can do that.  Next week I’m supposed to go to juvenile court, plead guilty, sentenced to time served.”

Woody frowned at him.  Down inside there, he seemed to be thinking very hard, but not very fast.  Finally he said, “How long I known you?”

“Maybe seven, eight years.”

“Here’s the thing of it,” Woody said.  “What you just told me there is the rankest bullshit, I wouldn’t try that one on my four-year-old nephew, but it’s comin outa you, and while you contain as much bullshit as anybody it isn’t that kind of bullshit, not in all the years I known you.  It just doesn’t have the mark of your kind of invention, and why would you try such bullshit on me in the first place?  What’s in it for you?  You aren’t trying to entrap me, not with a story like that, you aren’t making me any offers, so what is this shit?”

“Well, it’s the truth,” Meehan said.

“Jesus Christ on a crutch,” Woody said.  “If it isn’t the truth, what the fuck is it?  You can buy me that beer now.”

“Wouldn’t you describe yourself as antisocial?”

“Anti?”  He was surprised, but not offended; she just didn’t understand yet.  “I’m not against society,” he said.  “I need it.  Just like you do, or anybody else.  I got no objection to society at all.  I do try to keep out of its way.”

“And what?” she asked him, “do you see as your position in society?”

He couldn’t resist.  Hoping to achieve a boyish grin and a shrug, he said, “Usually, on a fire escape.”

For its author, this book was about three things:

1)Creating a (somewhat) more grounded version of the type of character Westlake had written about for decades, under several different names.  An unaffiliated operator who steals for a living, and has a network of fellow independents he can call upon to pull jobs too big for one guy.  Less invincible than Parker, less improbably multi-talented than Grofield, less fatalistic than Dortmunder, and more inwardly reflective than any of them.

2)Satirizing American electoral politics, and suggesting that the people who run electoral campaigns are in a poor position to call anybody else dishonest, as are most of their candidates–so use them, as opposed to letting them use you.  Not a revolutionary so much as an evolutionary message–wise up, voters.  Just because you dance with somebody doesn’t mean you have to go to bed, or (even worse) fall in love with your partner.  But you’re going to need to dance with somebody.

3)Telling a story about a guy who had already figured out who he was, what he wanted to do with his life–but then decided to strike off in a new direction.  Not forgetting what he used to be, but rather finding something new to do with the same talents and proclivities he’s always had, something with more of a future to it, and that decision comes with a smart interesting woman into the bargain (a recurrent theme in Westlake’s work, because the boy can’t help it).

That last story is out of O. Henry, of course.  A Retrieved Reformation, where Jimmy Valentine, the master safecracker, meets the love of his life, goes straight for her, never telling anyone what he used to be, and then one day he’s going to give his tools to a fellow cracksman (his reformation doesn’t mean he thinks everybody else has to reform–his personal choice), and then suddenly has to use them to save a child from asphyxiating in a bank vault.

This cop who’s been tracking him has Jimmy dead to rights, and he gives himself up, believing his new life has come to an end, along with his freedom.  But the detective, who saw what Jimmy just did, addresses him by his new name, and tells him his buggy’s waiting. It’s a beautiful story.  And that’s all it is.  In the real world, that cop would have clapped on the bracelets in a heartbeat.  Cops never reform of being cops, just like politicians never reform of being politicians.  And both have their uses, but you need to know this about them if you want to stay in the free and clear.  You must understand the nature of the beast if you want to make it work for you.  And you must understand yourself as well.

And say what you will about Francis Xavier Meehan, he knows himself very well indeed, but he’s never had much occasion to know anything about politics or its practitioners up to now.  He’s getting what you might call a crash course.  Released from a Federal prison, where he was looking at life behind bars, he’s been told all charges will be dropped if he obtains a videotape that could derail the reelection hopes of the incumbent President, if it’s released just before the election.

It’s being kept at the home of a rich supporter of the other party’s nominee, and reluctant though he was to pull this job, he suddenly got interested when told this gentleman, one Clendon Burnstone IV, also has a very fine collection of antique firearms.  Meehan’s interest only increased when he found out the fence he typically uses is well-familiar with this collection, would be delighted to get his hands on it.

Pat Jeffords and Bruce Benjamin, the two campaign organizers he’s making this deal with, are scandalized by his insistence on performing this ancillary theft-for-profit.  Why, that’s larceny!  Meehan gently informs them that’s what they were already asking him to do, and their intentions are just as guilty as his.  They take a little while to process this.

The other side will be releasing the tape very soon now.  That gives Meehan very little time to work with, but quite a lot of leverage, and what he wants from that leverage is room to maneuver.  So in no time at all, he’s heading back to New York with Goldfarb, getting a room in a fleabag hotel near the Port Authority bus station, and pulling phone numbers of past accomplices out of his head (since one of his ten thousand rules is to never write anything down).

There’s a voicemail function on the hotel room phone, and a recurrent theme in the book is that he keeps coming back to the room, sees the red light blinking, and it’s never good news.  So he gets a message from Goldfarb, and he calls her back, and some man answers, tells him he should come over there now, and he’s pretty sure it’s not her boyfriend.  So he fakes his way past the doorman in Goldfarb’s upper west side apartment building by pretending to be installing a smoke alarm, and long story short, they had her handcuffed to the bathroom sink, she unscrewed the pipe, she got her gun, and she was going to shoot both of them, and they were presumably going to shoot back, and it would get very messy, and cops would show up to question the survivors.

With a flurry of desperate mime, he persuades her this is a bad idea (Meehan would rather steal guns than use them), and they sneak out of there, so he can let his handlers know what a brilliant job they’re doing with security.  Goldfarb gets a room at the same crappy hotel he’s in.  She is not happy about this, but it keeps her in the story, something Westlake had often found difficult to justify with The Girls in his Nephew books.  The Goldfarb, with her legal expertise and quirky rapport with Meehan, is somehow easier to keep in the mix, even though she wants to know noth-eeeeng about the robbery she understands is to be committed as the price of her client’s freedom.  “No details!” she keeps exclaiming, all through the story.

Goldfarb, who doesn’t impress easy, is gratified that Meehan came galloping over there to save her.  Though he does like her, his primary concern was to make sure this was nothing that could negatively impact his freedom, to which she is currently vital.  But on the other hand, it’s nice to have her look at him like he’s her hero, even though she was in the process of saving herself when he arrived.  So he never disillusions her.  If the relationship worked out, maybe he tells her on their Golden Anniversary, but I have my doubts.  Probably one of the ten thousand rules is “You don’t need to share everything.” One of the rules that gets you to that Golden Anniversary.  If Goldfarb didn’t agree, she wouldn’t keep saying no details.  Oh, and this is where she tells Meehan, “I find I prefer the Goldfarb without the Ms.”  So does Meehan.  Cute couple, huh?

So having rescued the maiden fair, or whatever, Meehan gets back to business, and manages to make contact with Woody, one of his erstwhile partners in crime, and having submitted to being searched for a wire, because Woody knows he was in federal custody, he persuades Woody he’s got a legit job to work, as you can see up top.  Woody’s a fun character.  Don’t get too attached.

Next he and Goldfarb meet with Jeffords, to find out what the hell happened that two not-very-nice guys, one with an Arab-sounding name and one with a Jewish-sounding name, are holed up Goldfarb’s apartment, apparently in hopes of having a serious conversation with Meehan about his current activities.  Jeffords has learned the answer to this question.  Remember how they used a campaign contributor’s private jet to transport Meehan to North Carolina?  The campaign contributor, named Arthur, found out about it.  And turns out he knows some other people he owes favors to besides the President.  Small world, huh?

When next he could speak, he said, “We now learn that Arthur, through various multinational business connections, has, what shall I say, divided loyalties.  Conflicts of interest.  There are other elements, offshore, about which he feels as strongly as he feels about the reelection of the President.  Perhaps more strongly.”  He looked uncomfortable, fiddled with his wineglass, said, “It seems there’s a combined Egyptian-Israeli task force in the country at the moment, attempting to influence the election.  Been here for months.  Spending money.”

Goldfarb said, “Foreign power brokers always try to horn in on our elections, guarantee themselves a piece of the pie.  It’s like lobbying.”

(I find myself wishing we’d nominated Goldfarb. Oh well.  She’s not dumb enough to accept, anyway.)

Goldfarb asks if they want to get their hands on the tape so they can release it, to which Jeffords says “They would merely like our President to be deeply in debt to them.  Let’s say, even more deeply in debt.”  Yeah.  Let’s say that.

So then it’s off to the races with Woody (just Meehan, since Goldfarb still doesn’t want any details).  More specifically, it’s off to rural Pennsylvania, which you might recall is was where the insane ex–POTUS of Ex Officio lived, fancy that.  They scope out the estate where the tape and the guns are, and they get a bit of luck–they can wander around the property more or less at will, because there’s a big campaign rally for the Presidential candidate Clendon Burstone IV is supporting.  Only it turns out not to be so lucky for Woody.

See, this guy ginning up the crowd with the usual conservative boilerplate (I told you there’s no way in hell Clendon Burnstone IV was supporting a Democrat) says something about how we must build more and better prisons.  Some heckler shouts from the crowd “What’s a better prison?”  And a horrified Meehan realizes the shout came from Woody.  Oh God.  He’s developing a social conscience.  At the worst possible juncture in time and space.  Isn’t anybody besides Meehan immune from this shit?

What follows is a spirited if perhaps simplistic debate, regarding the pros and cons (heh) of rehabilitation.  At one point the speaker, seeing a white person at a conservative rally, and still using the standard code words for non-white minorities, yells “Don’t waste sympathy on those animals!  We’ve got to be tough on them!”  To which Woody responds “Tough?  You think you’re tough?  The joints I’ve been in, you wouldn’t last five minutes!”

Yeah.  He’s gone.

Now I’m a liberal born and bred, so obviously I think Woody wins the debate.  So did Westlake, as you’d only need to read Help I Am Being Held Prisoner to know.  But when winning the debate means being led away in cuffs, I think you have to say the victory is of the Pyrrhic sort.  Woody has outstanding warrants on him, so he’s not going to be working for a while.  Meehan sort of rolls his eyes, finds an unlocked vehicle with the keys in it, and drives away.  Back to the old drawing board.

There’s a message from Goldfarb waiting for him at the hotel.  She’s back in her apartment now, but she found out her phone is bugged. Meehan calls Jeffords again.  He sighs, says he’ll work on it, but what can you do on a Sunday?  Meehan calls Goldfarb back, tells her the bugs may be there a little longer.  She says what the hell, her mom’s been kvetching about how she never calls.  Yehudi and Mostafa can listen to an hour of the Jewish Mother Channel.  “Revenge is sweet,” says Meehan.  They’re bonding.

(Sidebar: Perhaps you think Westlake is just being his usual far-fetched farcical self by positing an Israeli-Egyptian team of spies working somewhat against U.S. interests–as I must confess I did at first.  And, as is usually the case, he’s smarter than us.)

Meehan’s memorized list of phone numbers for guys who might want to pull a nice friendly little heist now and again is reaching its end.  Many of the numbers don’t work anymore, or somebody he doesn’t know picks up, or it turns out the guy is in prison, or dead, or worst of all, leading an  honest life.  (Westlake’s drawing on the short story You Put On Some Weight, aka Fresh Out of Prison, that he published in Guilty Detective Story Magazine in 1960, which later appeared in The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution.)

But he finally finds an active heister, name of Bernie, and meets him in Queens, at Atomic Lanes (a bowling alley that was built after the A-Bomb, but before Americans realized somebody might drop one on them too).  Bernie, whose physical description sounds fairly similar to Westlake’s (skinny, quick-moving, mostly bald with pepper-and-salt steel wool around the edges) is amenable to stealing some rich guy’s guns, why not?  Having arranged to drive back out to Pennsylvania with Bernie the next day, Meehan meets a woman named Mona at the bar there, and heads off for a one night stand.  Goldfarb is still just his lawyer.  I never said this was a storybook romance.

And this time they get really lucky.  At the structure outside the main house, which Meehan suspected was where the guns would be, they meet this old man, skinny, refined accent (almost but not-quite English), dressed mainly in white, with tan Docksiders.   I thought WASPs weren’t allowed to wear white after Labor Day, but I guess if you’re rich enough you can get a dispensation. He talks a lot.  He knows everything about old guns and the Revolutionary War, except maybe why it was actually fought.  Yep.  He’s Burnstone.  And he thinks they’re with the campaign.  You know, the other campaign.

So they learn everything they could possibly want to know, except the location of the tape, which Meehan figures is probably hidden there in the same room with the guns.  Bernie does a great job sounding like he’s interested in what the old man has to say, on history and politics, while inwardly seething at his patrician airs.  Here’s a random sampling of vintage Burnstone tone.  He’s explaining why he’d allow a rally for a candidate he’s only supporting to get a tax loophole passed to be held on his property.

“Mingling with the lower orders,” he said.  “What I normally do with the great unwashed is mostly leave them to themselves.  Unwashed they most certainly are, but what makes them great I will never understand.”

Perhaps reading Mencken a bit selectively, but doesn’t everyone?  By the time they bid Mr. Burnstone (oh damn, Westlake watched The Simpsons!) farewell, Bernie would almost be willing to rob him blind for free, if that wasn’t a contradiction in terms.  They meet two guys named Grassmore and Greedley (I couldn’t find those exact names on this database of authors I have access to, but I found Grassmuck and Greedy).  These are the actual two campaign guys Burnstone mistook Meehan and Bernie for.  Having been told the old man’s gone off on one of his rants about mouth-breathers they prudently decide to come back another time.  They mention in passing that nobody in his immediate family can stand to be around him either.

But as they drive back to New York, Meehan has an epiphany–see the problem with this job is that Burnstone is there all the time.  They need him to be gone in order to pull the job without bloodshed (sorely as Bernie is tempted).  How to achieve this?

He had confided to them his feelings of deep frustration that due to tawdry electoral concerns, he was not permitted to get up on a platform behind a podium and speak his mind, such as it is.

They go back, and tell him there’s this event they have planned, for a group called the Friends of the American Revolution (FAR)–a group formed for people who would have been on our side if they’d gotten here before the shooting was over.  Just good solid folks of northern European stock, none of that Ellis Island riff-raff you understand, and they’d love to hear you talk some good solid common sense Americanism to them, Mr. Burnstone.  EX-cellent!  Said event to occur on the day of the heist.  Problem solved, but now they need a limo to pick him up, and a chauffeur, complete with uniform and a cap to tip.

Then he returns once more to a message from Goldfarb, who needs to talk about his upcoming meet with Judge T. Joyce Foote, from Juvenile Court, who is supposed to remand him to Goldfarb’s custody, but could if she so chose make things difficult.  They need to meet and talk about protocol.  Plus she wants him to buy her dinner.  Meehan suggests this Caribbean place in the Village, that makes this great dish out of ‘goat elbow.’  That’s what he calls it.  It could very well be this Caribbean place in the Village.  Meehan the Foodie.  Who knew?  Well, his creator the foodie, obviously.

Goldfarb likes the goat elbow, but the restaurant is too noisy, so they chat as they walk down the winding side streets of  the Village.  This ends up feeling romantic, which confuses Meehan, because firstly he’s not the least bit romantic, and secondly this is Goldfarb, and she’s still his lawyer, but nonetheless he thinks to himself that if she wasn’t he’d probably be making a pass at her, though the glasses might get in the way.

She’s bent on lecturing him about how to behave around a judge so as not to get the usual reaction he gets out of judges.  Of course, this will be the first time (in his adult life, anyway) he’s ever been presented to a judge as a Person In Need of Supervision, legalese for a minor.  He wants to know why Judge Foote won’t just take one look at the 42 year old man in front of her and throw him the hell out of her courtroom.

“Chambers,” Goldfarb said.  “I wouldn’t parade you in juvenile court, believe me.  And no, she won’t boot it back, because she will see that everybody else, including people with more sway and import than her or anybody else in juvenile court has already signed off on it.  And that’s when I explain there are other humanitarian reasons for this special treatment, or perhaps you’re just a major turncoat about to testify against everybody in the world.  We’ll shade between superfink and a wasting disease without getting specific about anything, because we don’t have to get specific.  Are you following me?”

“No,” Meehan said.

“All right, fine,” she said.  “Your job, in front of Judge Foote, is to look hangdog but shifty, which I think you can do, and maybe toss in a little physical weakness as well.  Answer questions briefly.  Volunteer nothing.”

“I have volunteered nothing,” Meehan told her, “every day of my life.”

So they reach Seventh Avenue, and grab a cab back to their respective abodes, Meehan’s a little bummed the walk is over.  The Village can do that to a person, and apparently so can Goldfarb.

So back to the job–they need a third man, somebody to drive the limo that will convey both Clendon Burnston IV and his entire domestic staff away from the estate to a fictive political rally composed entirely of admiring Nordics.  Bernie’s got a guy.  Bob Clarence, who owns a chauffeur’s uniform, which he uses when he’s driving for a heist.  Cops just look at him idling there at the curb by a bank, and figure he’s supposed to be there.  Which as far as he’s concerned, he is.   Good driver, not jumpy, and best of all–he’s black.  Mr. Burnstone will be so pleased.  Bob won’t.

So Meehan has to go meet him, without Bernie (who doesn’t like to drive into The City, even though he lives in Queens), and there’s a bit of a sizing up process at this garage at 125th and Amsterdam, which it turns out Bob owns (useful way to hide his heisting profits).   He’s of an equivalent age set to Meehan, they share many similar life experiences, and they mainly get along fine, but Bob doesn’t like the idea of taking some old guy for a ride and just abandoning him.  Mean.  Meehan expresses his sincere conviction that after driving him for a few hours, Bob will be resisting the urge to run this particular old guy down with the limo.   “Anti-black, you mean?” Bob asks.  “Clendon Burnstone IV doesn’t fine-tune,” Meehan responds.  They have Chinese.  Bob’s a foodie too.

So then there’s yet another message from Goldfarb waiting for him at the hotel (I hope they don’t itemize those on the bill, but then Meehan isn’t paying, so who cares?).  Time to see the judge.  She picks him up in a limo provided by the campaign, and clearly this is the most fun she’s had in years, hard as she tries to conceal it.  The meeting in chambers goes as well as could be expected, with all kinds of judicial eye-raising (see the second of the two quotes up top, which is also about the most succinct expression of Westlake’s political philosophy as could be asked for), but the appropriate papers get stamped, and abbracadabra, Meehan is in Goldfarb’s custody, which suits him fine.

They go over to meet Jeffords at some restaurant out on Long Island, and Meehan wants to be reassured that Yehudi and Mostafa won’t be showing up at the Burnstone house while he’s working.  Jeffords says don’t worry about it, that’s been taken care of.  Suitable threats have been made.  The rich donor who was trying to get the video for his foreign friends has been informed that if there’s any further unpleasantness of that nature, he won’t be invited to the inaugural ball.  Meehan just looks at him.  “To crime,” says Jeffords, raising his glass.

And then, heading back into The City, Meehan and Goldfarb have The Talk.  Not that one, they both know where babies come from, but point is, where are they going?  Perhaps fishing a bit, Goldfarb sort of indicates that once she’s no longer his lawyer, they have no particular reason to see each other anymore.  I mean, he’s a crook.  She’s not.  The Gershwins wrote a song about this.  Tomaytoes, Tomahtoes, you know the one.

But in truth, they have much in common.  Both share a certain outlook on life, a curiosity about how things work, like language for example.  She says his being in her custody is just a technicality, and he says it’s the technicalities that clothesline you.  She’s not familiar with the term, wants to know how it originated.  She figures maybe if somebody like Meehan was doing a burglary, and the householder came home early, he might run neck-first into a clothesline trying to get away.  She’s fascinated.  “I love phrases from before technology,” she said, “that we still use.”

This is where he finally figures out she’s his soulmate, tells her he does not want to say goodbye.  She asks why.

“I dunno,” he said.  “I got used to talking with you.  Clothesline and all that.  You know, I think when I saw you that time in your apartment with the gun in your hand, stalking those guys, I decided I liked you.  You’re kinda goofy and fun.”

“Thanks a lot,” she said.

As professions of love go, it’s original, give it that, though it’s a few more paragraphs before she figures out he’s hitting on her.    And now she has to figure out how she feels about that.  And they agree he’ll come over to her apartment so they can work on that.  It’s a start.

Then it’s a wash, because god damn it, there’s another message blinking on his phone when he gets up to his room.    Why did people invent this answering service thing in the first place?  The message is from Jeffords, and he’s speaking in a terrified whisper, saying call him back, immediately.  Meehan calls his cellphone, and still with the terrified whisper, but he explains.  Yehudi.  Mostafa.  They grabbed him.  The threat of dis-inviting the donor to the inaugural was less effective than he’d hoped.  There has been talk of severed fingers.  Obviously these guys never read Butcher’s Moon, or else they read it as a sort of instruction manual.

So Meehan tells Goldfarb they have to put off the thing at her apartment in order to go rescue Jeffords, which she interprets as a fear of commitment on his part, thus proving she’s as feminine as the next gal, but considerably better armed.  Learning that Meehan is unarmed (as always), she says they’ll go to her apartment first, so she can get her heat, her rod, her gat (her exact words).  She’s warming to the endeavor.  It’s subtle, but you can tell.

They find Jeffords being held, as he informed Meehan in the aforementioned terrified whisper, in a ‘Reader’s’ (read ‘fortuneteller’) parlor, over by a Sloan’s supermarket on Broadway.  They have to look a bit to find the right Sloan’s, but fortunately it’s not that popular a chain.  I never liked their selection much, honestly.  They got gobbled up by Gristedes, which I don’t like that much either.  But never mind that now.

There follows a brief contretemps, in which the purportedly psychic proprietress expresses skepticism that Goldfarb would shoot anyone with that gun she’s carrying “She’s a lawyer, lady,” Meehan told her, “she’s capable of anything.”  In the end, only a very ugly painting gets perforated, and they escape in the limo with a very grateful Jeffords, who vows that Arthur’s access to the President is history, and he’s also going to see that a History of Steam museum in a certain congressional district is going to be defunded.  Don’t for one minute think this is not how American politics really works.

Meehan is fed up with these government people and their leaks.  Does anybody there know how to play this game?  Jeffords says everybody in Washington is terrified this whole situation is going to blow up, creating chaos across the board, worse than Watergate, Iran-Contra, that thing with the little blue dress that got jizzed on. Meehan says, “You people kind of specialize in farce down there in DC, don’t you?”  “Not on purpose,” an abashed Jeffords responds.  Meehan expresses a lack of understanding as to how all these people were not in the MCC with him.

Goldfarb and Meehan have yet another nice meal (paid for with our campaign donor dollars, I must remind you).  This time it’s a nice little French restaurant over near Times Square, kind of place my dad and I used to go when we had theater tickets.  Some of those joints have been around forever.  So has the talk they’re going to have now.  Same talk as before, only with more context.

“I’m the problem,” Meehan said.

“Truer words were never spoken.”  Looking at the wine in her glass, the glass on the red-and-white check cloth, she said “I’ve seen your dossier, you know.”

“Sure, you’re my lawyer.”

“There’s nothing much hopeful in there,” she told him.  “In fact, it’s all mostly hopeless.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’re a recidivist,” she said, “you’re an autodidact, no degrees, no marketable–”

“Wait a second,” he said.  “What was that one?  The second one.  I know recidivist, that’s what’s going on my tombstone, Francis Xavier Meehan, Recidivist.  But what was the other?”

She grinned at him.  “That’s funny,” she said.  “The one word every autodidact doesn’t know is autodidact.  It means self-taught.”

“Self-taught.”

“You dropped out of high school, but you’re a reader, and you’ve picked up a lot of stuff.  And given the amount of time you’ve spent behind bars,” she added drily, “you’ve had plenty of time for reading.”

“A little more than absolutely necessary,” he said.

“If your country hadn’t called you,” she said, “you’d have nothing but reading time for the rest of your life.”

“We call that a close call,” he said.

“No,” she told him, “we call it deus ex machina.”

That one he knows.  So they talk about his failed marriage, the kids he’s decided can come see him once they’re adults if they feel like it, her fiance from law school who just drifted away from her, because he was on the corporate law track, and she just wasn’t interested in any of that crap.  They’re both losers, but of vastly different types.  Both serenely independent and content before they  met.  And yet.  And yet.

Westlake loved writing love stories, but this one feels more real than all the others combined.  This is relationships he’s really had, conversations he’s really had, adult relationships, sadder but wiser relationships, the kind you have after the early ones go supernova and die.  Because until you know who you are, you can’t know who you’re supposed to be with.  And it takes us so damned long to find that out.  And the answers keeps changing as you go.

And the synopsis keeps turning out longer than I wanted it to, so let’s cut ahead a bit.  Meehan now knows what’s on the videotape he’s supposed to steal.  He insisted, and Jeffords & Benjamin reluctantly agreed.  Turns out the incumbent POTUS made a very serious error regarding Middle Eastern politics, that led to a bunch of people being killed, including some of ours.  And here you were thinking it was going to be a sex tape.  Shame on you.

As they told him, it’s not that their guy was corrupt, or malicious, but in trying to solve a problem, he exceeded his constitutional authority, as Presidents sometimes do, and created even worse problems, as is too often the case.  If it came out early in his second term, it would be a PR black eye, but not enough to topple his administration.  If it comes out now, the other guy probably wins.  Better the devil you know, right?  Well yeah, that is frequently right.  We know that now.  Well, I guess there are still some hold-outs.

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Meehan and Bernie pull the heist, which isn’t going on any top ten Westlake heist lists, but it was never really the point of the story.  They get the guns, they get the tape, they get the corroborating documents, and Bob gets an earful from Clendon Burnside IV, and good thing he didn’t bring a gun with him.  He wants to go back and burn that damn house down, with Burnstone inside it, but Meehan persuades him to put those bloody thoughts aside, and concentrate on profit.  Oh, and could Bob possibly hold onto something for him?  Stow it at the garage on 125th.

Jeffords actually participates at one point, filling in for Bob as driver (Burnside doesn’t know him by sight).  Would you believe he actually enjoys listening to the old bat?  Mainly he just likes the idea of driving Bob Clarence’s beautiful new Jaguar, which Bob lets him know he better not put so much as the tiniest scratch on.  But the joys of the Jag aside, he found Burnside fascinating.

“I admire the effect,” Jeffords said.  “If I could tap into the subtext of fears and prejudices and prides and misunderstood history the way he can, only with a little more self-awareness, bring it out a little smoother, a little blander, I wouldn’t be a groundling in the CC, I’d be running for President myself.”

(I somehow feel that additional commentary is unneeded here.)

So all that remains is to meet Jeffords at one last final restaurant (honest!)  A diner.  No Westlake heist is truly complete without the double-cross after it’s all over, and guess where it’s coming from this time?  Well, you don’t need to guess, it was in that review blurb from Marilyn Stasio that I posted up-top in Part 1. But she misattributed the money quote.   She thought it was Meehan who said it.  It was Jeffords.  He feels really bad about this, Meehan having saved his life and his fingers and everything.  But they’re going to have to send him back to prison, for like, ever.

See, here’s the problem.  Meehan knows too much.  They can’t have him running around free with all that dangerous intel, and even if they could trust him, there’s the press sniffing around, wondering why this 42 year old thief facing a life sentence for mail theft got remanded to his lawyer’s custody in Juvie court.  Meehan already had to dodge some reporters at the hotel, who have the wrong idea entirely about what’s going on, but they’ll keep digging.  The political ops just can’t take the risk.  And it’s just who they are.

Meehan saw.  That was the worst of it, sometimes, being able to see the other guy’s point of view.  “I didn’t think you’d do this to me, Jeffords.”

Jeffords sighed.  “Oh, they never do,” he said.  “It gets them all, though, sooner or later.  They’ve been warned, they know better, they know all the bitter histories, but they just can’t help themselves.  They want to believe.  Everybody, somewhere down the line, trusts a politician.”

That’s the end of Chapter 46.  Chapter 47 begins with Meehan saying “Not quite everybody.”  Remember how Meehan left the evidence with Bob Clarence?  He’s got a package with him, sure.  It’s got a videotape in it.  Know what video it is?

s-l300

I guess the PG stands for Politicians so Gullible?  See, they are just regular people, after all.

Jeffords is furious, and somehow manages to express a sense of betrayal, but Meehan has him, and he knows it.  It wasn’t that he wanted to send Meehan back inside, but as he puts it, the idea of anything or anybody being out of their control just bothers them.  Nature of the beast.  And now the beast is going to give Francis Xavier Meehan a hundred bucks walking around money, and pay the check.

There’s one more little dance with Yehudi and Mostafa, that vaguely echoes a scene from Flashfire (yet another duo of hitmen in a Westlake book, only they never get to hit anybody in this one).   He threatens to sic Goldfarb on them, and by this time they’re so confused and demoralized, they don’t even put up much of a fight.  Forget it, Mostafa, it’s Yankeetown.  Let’s go home.

He calls Goldfarb.  It’s time for that talk, some of which might be of the pillow variety (he could use the rest by this time).  She says she can’t ask him to reform, she’s not trying to change him.  He says he’s ready to change himself.   He’s got enough money now to tide him over a while (“No details!” she exclaims one last time.)  She’s got social service connections, she could maybe help him land a job counseling ex-cons, tell them how they can use the ten thousand rules in the straight world.

The ten thousand what?  That’s right, he’d almost mentioned them to her before, and just barely caught himself, because that’s not something he talks about to anyone–it’s one of the ten thousand rules, apparently, that you don’t talk about the ten thousand rules.  But now he can talk about them to her.  She’ll be all ears, I bet.  End of book.

I wouldn’t put this one in my Westlake top ten, or even my top twenty, but it holds a special place in my heart, because it’s the very last time he successfully reinvented himself as a writer.  Sure, it’s full of ideas he’d employed before, sometimes more successfully, sometimes much less.  But just as he’d looked back at his twenties from his thirties and forties, in his work from the 60’s and 70’s, he’s looking back at his forties from his very late sixties in the late 90’s here.  If that makes any sense.

It’s a solid well-balanced complete novel, that hits every bullseye it aims at, personal and political, and that’s really the point here–that you have to make both things work.  Not just one or the other.  Because either one can fuck the other one up but good.

Worldly wise though he be, Meehan has been playing Candide here.  I suppose Jeffords was Dr. Pangloss, though you could make a case for Burnstone (still forlornly waiting, I suppose, for his stage, his podium, his audience of worshipful WASPs).  What was the point of Voltaire’s story?  It is best to cultivate one’s garden.  And now Meehan gets to cultivate his Goldfarb, and she him–even better.

But that’s never enough, and Westlake couldn’t have believed it was.  So what’s the real point, since if it was identical to Voltaire’s (who never really believed it anyway, just look at his life), there’d be no point in making it.  What’s he really trying to say, and why did he begin this book by telling we, his loyal readers, that he knew one of the three young men who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, for the crime of giving a shit about what happens to other people?

I do not, can not, will not believe that Westlake was saying Mickey Schwerner threw his life away for nothing.  Meehan quotes Sherlock Holmes at one point, says that maybe one of the ten thousand rules is “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  It’s IMPOSSIBLE that Donald Westlake thought Mickey Schwerner was a fool.

But satire is never meant to be taken literally, you see.  Satire is a gun that fires in every direction at once.  Satire is how we learn to take things more seriously by way of laughing at them.  I think on one level, he was just levitating Mickey out of his premature grave, giving him a different name, letting him live a more carefree less conscientious existence, have a nice score, meet a nice girl (perhaps not entirely unlike the girl he made a widow of in pursuit of the greater good, though she was every bit as gung ho for that as he). And even so, in the end, he’s going to do what Mickey did, work with people, try to share what he knows with them, because that’s what a mensch does.  That’s what a mensch is.  Forest green.

I read up on him as much as I could, and in the midst of all the pious eulogies about his honorable death, I read something that sounded 100% real.  Sue Brown, a mere girl of seventeen when she met him, had this to say.

More than any white person I have ever known he could put a colored person at ease.  To a group of young Negroes he didn’t seem like a preacher, a do-gooder, or a social worker, or somebody who was out slumming, or a reporter who had come to learn about the Negroes.  He was the only white man I have ever known that you could associate with and forget he was white.  He didn’t talk down or up to you, he just talked to you.  He made you feel he was interested in you, not because you were a Negro, but because you were folks too.  He never pretended he knew what was best for you.

And that’s the kind of political activism a Donald E. Westlake could believe in, applaud, and even maybe think was worth dying for, but worth living for as well, surely.  And please note she said Schwerner was the only white person like that she’d ever known.  Not many people like that anywhere, any color.  How many more can we afford to lose?

Call it a mirror universe, if you will.  Instead of three martyrs, two Jewish, one black, we have three heisters, and Schwerner is Irish this time, but hey, the guy called himself Mickey, right?  And I’ve often felt the difference between Jewish and Irish is purely academic.   The differences between individualists of any ethnicity are pretty academic.  Because an individualist is him or herself first, and everything else second.  And it’s the individualist who represents hope for the future.  Not every man for himself.  But every man knowing himself.  Or woman.  Same thing, down inside.

The point of the book isn’t that all politicians are crooks (in fact, there’s no evidence any of the politicians represented here are particularly corrupt, certainly not on the level of Idi Amin, who Westlake had written about in Kahawa–what comes after Democracy fails is exponentially worse than anything that comes before).  It’s not that you should behave as if they’re all equally bad, because that’s a cop out.  Meehan is seen in full philosophic mode at the end, and this is what he thinks–

He had time to sit for a while, on the platform, looking out from the station at the wide slow river and all of America beyond it, and to think that, if he cared about it, he could probably decide the upcoming Presidential election right now, all by himself.  But that would mean looking at these people, those candidates, getting involved, studying their histories and their programs, making an informed decision; so screw it.  Let the Americans work it out for themselves.  How bad a choice could they make?

You don’t want to know, Francis.  You really really don’t.  But that’s a nice modest little proposal you made there.  We could just take responsibility, for our choices, for our lives, for ourselves.  That’s what Democracy is supposed to be, but we cop out.  We say “I’m for this guy, I trust him, he’ll make America great again, he’ll take our country back, he’ll make those bastards pay for what they’ve done to us, he’ll bring about the Revolution!”  (The last one was for the Bernie-istas, and can I ask–where are his tax returns?  Mock not, lest ye be mocked.)

And over on the other side, they’re saying the same things about us, and trusting somebody else.  Maybe somebody worse, but it’s all relative, right?  No, dammit, it’s not about trusting politicians (or deluding ourselves that somebody running for high office isn’t one, by definition, a denial that sounds more like satire than any satire I’ve ever read).  It’s about trusting our ability to govern ourselves, which means hiring good solid professionals to run the place, and keeping a sharp eye on them to make sure they’re not cooking the books.  Not just showing up to vote for the one with the best catchphrases every four years or so.

And all we’re doing to ourselves with these periodic bursts of enthusiasm, for politics but never for policy, is sabotaging the few genuine leaders we do elect, by handing the whole job over to them, expecting them to do it all themselves, and then we’ve got somebody to blame when things don’t work out as planned, as they never ever do.  Who was it who said “We are the ones we have been waiting for”?  Some politician, quoting a poet.  Only politician I’d have ever taken a bullet for.  But just as happy I didn’t have to.  And I honestly don’t think he would have asked me to.

In politics, naivete and cynicism go hand in hand, each supporting the other, and if that’s ever going to change, we need to know ourselves.  Who we are, what we want, where we’re going.  When will we ever do this?  Westlake didn’t know, and neither do I.  I do know I’m way over 7,000 words, so the review’s over.

And next up in our queue is a Parker novel, one that oddly echoes this book, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, those who try to find political satire in it will be shot.  However, before I get to that, I need to talk about the very last Donald Westlake novel ever published.  Not to review it.  That will come later.  Call this a first reaction.  Now nail that lid down tight, because I have done.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Put A Lid On It

The MCC was the Bastille writ small, the runt of the same litter, tall, dark, concrete, with rounded corners rather than sharp edges.  It had a closed-in look, like the kind of maniac that listens to voices in his teeth a lot.  When the French decided to give freedom a shot, they tore their Bastille down; when the Americans opted for freedom, they put up the MCC.  Go figure.

A big goof (stealing an unmarked mail van) landed Francis Xavier Meehan in a federal prison, and only a bigger goof (stealing an incriminating videotape for the president’s re-election committee) will get him out. Donald E. Westlake turns this ridiculous premise into sublime comedy in PUT A LID ON IT (Mysterious Press/Warner, $23.95), a crime caper that also gets some nice digs in as political satire. With his deep distrust of human nature, Meehan is no patsy for the Washington pols who point him at the patriotic bigot who is hiding the presidential tape within his antique weapons collection. Looking to hedge his bets, the wily crook comes up with a scheme for lifting the tape and keeping the gun collection for himself, but he is nearly undone by the stupidity, not to mention the cupidity, of his associates. People should know better than to make deals with guys in government, he lectures himself; but no, ”they just can’t help themselves. They want to believe. Everybody, somewhere down the line, trusts a politician.” Although Meehan isn’t quite as ingenious a thief as some of Westlake’s other criminal protagonists, he’s a born philosopher.

Marilyn Stasio, New York Times, April 21st, 2002

Let me put a lid on this one right off the bat (to marry mixed metaphors)–it’s the last good crime novel Donald Westlake published in his lifetime that doesn’t involve Parker or Dortmunder.  Stasio describes it quite well in that capsule review, and one of the reasons it’s so easy to sum up is that it’s only 247 pages in the first edition, which with Westlake tends to indicate he knew exactly what he wanted to say with it, so he didn’t feel the need to take a lot of detours.  Very focused and economical, this one.

But because it doesn’t involve a series character, it tends to fall between the cracks.  As does its protagonist, who Westlake doesn’t see as a potential franchise bearer.  Which was initially true of Parker and Dortmunder as well, but in this case he puts the lid down pretty firmly on any further books featuring the witty wily Francis Xavier Meehan.  If it had been a big seller, I’d guess the lid would have come back up quick enough, but that was never very likely, and he knew it, so he could do what he never could with his more famous thieves–have this one decide his thieving days are done.

Westlake knew people would always remember him as the guy who wrote about heistmen who don’t get caught (or at least stay caught), and don’t ever repent of their wicked wicked ways.  He also knew there’s only so much you can do with that.  Parker and Dortmunder always live to steal another day, because there has to be another book.  Their characters can’t develop past a certain point, because their stories aren’t meant to end.  They can’t be used up, as Mitch Tobin was, when his identity crisis was finally resolved.

A Parker novel is never just about Parker, never entirely from his perspective.  A Dortmunder novel is even less exclusively focused on Dortmunder, with the ever-growing supporting cast and lots of important characters unique to each book.  Both anchor the story, but the story isn’t just about them.

The Grofield novels, by contrast, are mainly from Grofield’s perspective (the only one that tried switching perspectives, ala Parker, was the weakest).  Grofield wasn’t so much used up as let go–Butcher’s Moon was the pink slip.  Westlake didn’t know how to go on with him, since it didn’t work to have him remain a thief or to stop being one.  There was no workable solution to Sam Holt’s professional and personal conundrums, either.  Sara Joslyn’s conflicts were all resolved by the end of her first book (which sold really well, so there was a second; see what I mean?)  This book, by contrast, is written in the third person, but the only narrative perspective here is Meehan’s.  His show, from start to finish.

Prior to this, Westlake had only once written about a criminal protagonist who goes straight after one book (unless you count Cops and Robbers, and somehow I don’t).  His very first comic caper was Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, featuring Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, black sheep of an upper crust family of WASPs.  Kelly was never really a crook at heart; he was just dabbling, looking for a quick score, a chance to prove he could beat the system, live life on his own terms, and having achieved that goal, while meeting a girl he really likes with similar life goals, he sails off into the sunset with her.  Westlake never really believes in the character, and thus neither do we, but I think there’s a fair bit of him in Meehan, all the same.  Meehan is Kelly Bram Nicholas Mark II.  Among other things.

There are echoes of many prior Westlake books and stories in this one (we can list them in the comments section, if you like), and he’s basically using this book to take another whack at ideas he’d used in the past.  Sometimes Westlake liked picking up a spare more than rolling a perfect strike.  And when he solved a problem, he tended to forget about it, move on to something else (this late in the game, there wasn’t much left to move on to).

The Problem: Write a book about a career criminal who gets recruited to do the government’s dirty work, and make it credible this could happen, more than just another Alexander Mundy.  Use him as an opportunity to craft sharp timely satire that doesn’t get all baroque and preachy, but does feature Westlake’s trademark morality play of Self-Styled Loners vs. Cogs In The Machine.

Put in a good romantic subplot, like in the Nephew books, but this time let The Girl be a bit different–not such a girl anymore–a less glamorous more grown-up version of Chloe Shapiro from The Fugitive Pigeon.  A determinedly unromantic romance, about two people who just unexpectedly click and don’t make a big deal about it.  You know, like the book we never got about Dortmunder meeting May.  But no hearts and flowers, or even tuna casseroles (they eat out).

The result may not be one of his all time classics, but it isn’t really trying to be–it’s trying to break the earlier genre molds Westlake worked from, even while recycling them, and it succeeds handily.  Its ambitions are modest, but solid, and it hits every target it aims for.  It’s also maybe the last of Westlake’s books to peek around corners, to warn us with his accustomed sardonicism of unpleasant surprises that might be coming in the near future.  (Foreigners intervening in our elections, blackmailing our Presidents?  Whoever dreamt of such a thing?)

But for the characters in this book, when exactly is the present?  Cellphones are severely limited in functionality, and not all that relevant to anything most of the time.  The internet exists, but is referred to exactly once, does not figure into the plot at all.  VCRs are still a thing, and nothing goes viral (you’ll need the mainstream media to dish the dirt for you).  The President is pretty clearly a Democrat, up for reelection (there’s no way the rich megalomaniac in this story is backing a liberal).  There’s a reference to a little blue dress having plagued a previous administration.

There’s also a reference to it being harder to rent vehicles than it used to be, which presumably relates to the first Trade Center bombing in ’93.  The story seems to take place in some historical nether-realm between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Which makes sense, since he’d probably started it before Bush was President, and of course before 9/11 (an event that shook many of his core certainties to their foundations, along with everyone else’s).

My best guess is he had the idea in the late 90’s, when he was still being pressured to do more books like The Ax.  Once it became clear he could only do that once, he got back into comic caper mode as Westlake, leaving the dark material to Stark.  Possible it started as an idea for Dortmunder, maybe even Parker, then turned into a one-shot character’s one shot.

What resulted was Westlake’s best standalone caper featuring an habitual thief, though the caper isn’t really the main point, as it was with Cops and Robbers (which I sometimes think is Westlake’s best caper of all, taken purely as a caper).  The caper here is an entry point to satirizing the world of politics, and unless you count Anarchaos (which is really about what happens after politics, and how that would be even worse), I think this is his strongest attempt in that vein.  And certainly his most direct.  Not something I can ever be accused of. Let’s cut to the chase, or rather, what typically happens afterwards.  Which is to say, prison.  But before that (::sigh::)……

There’s no getting around this.  The book kicks off with unquestionably the most surprising and moving and oddly belated dedication of the author’s career.

My old friend Mickey Schwerner, who was murdered with James Chaney and Andy Goodman on a berm in Mississippi the night of June 21, 1964, by a group of political cretins, once in conversation described the American two-party system to me in these words, with which I have never found reason to argue; “It’s the same old story,” he said.  “The moochers vs. the misers.”

This is for Mickey.  Forest green.

I looked and looked and looked, and I can’t find any other mention–anywhere–of Westlake’s friendship with the eldest of those three young men, two Jewish, one black, who famously gave their lives to help put an end to Jim Crow.  Symbols of integration, equality, courage, camaraderie, self-sacrifice, martyrdom.

But, you know, they were also people, with goals and dreams and loved ones, and none of them intended to die.  They were very carefully trained how not to die down there, and it just wasn’t enough.  When an entire way of life wants you dead, odds are it’s going to get its wish.  Even though that meant accelerating the very process the murderers were trying to delay.  As Mr. Westlake said–political cretins.  All societies have them.  Like cockroaches.  Only they step on you, given half a chance.

I’d assume they met in the very early 60’s, possibly while Schwerner was working for CORE on the Lower East Side, and Westlake was still living in the Village, just starting to make a name for himself.  Maybe they met through Bucklin Moon, Westlake’s editor on the Parker novels, who had a long history of anti-racist activism himself, but however it happened, it happened, and Westlake would have picked up a paper one day, seen that cheerful cocky face looking back at him over a headline, known he was gone.

It presumably wasn’t a central relationship in either man’s life, more of a friendly acquaintanceship, a few conversations, held in bars perhaps, or while negotiating the winding labyrinths of lower Manhattan, but how would I know?  There’s no biography for either man, and Westlake’s unfinished memoirs remain unpublished. Schwerner tends to get bundled in with his fellow martyrs in the few books out there–the only part of his short generous life people pay much attention to is that last few bloody minutes, which is so funny it makes me weep.

But for Westlake, the memory of a free spirit would have lingered–this was one of Life’s independents, as Westlake would have seen it, but he had perversely chosen the path of serving others, trying to expand the freedom he cherished, and that had killed him, and turned him into a symbol, as opposed to a complex living being.  No doubt there’s much of Mickey (which is in fact what his friends called him) in Up Your Banners–maybe the wound was too fresh then for Westlake to bring him up.

This isn’t a book about race prejudice, though it’s referenced in various oblique ways, as is what happened in Mississippi (the trio that pulls the heist is two whites, one black, a combo we’ll see repeated in our next book). It’s not a book about social justice, though ditto.  It’s not a book about political activists–though it is, you might say, a book that argues political activists are suckers.  Or does it?  We’ll have to talk about that.  Later.  But strange, so very strange, to begin a mere ‘comic caper’ on such a somber note.  Then again, this isn’t exactly a comedy, is it?  It’s a satire.

So then the story begins at the Manhattan Correctional Center, a Federal detention facility over in the courthouse district, right by Chinatown.  The Gitmo of New York, some have called it.  I remember it well.  No, not that way.  Geez, Part 1’s going to end up being all prologue at this rate.  I’m rolling my eyes more than any of you, I swear.

See, I was an activist myself for a while.  Among other things, I was on something called the Committee to Free Joe Doherty (pronounced ‘Dockerty’), Joe being a very decent guy from Belfast who joined the Provisional IRA for roughly the same reasons Mickey Schwerner joined CORE (though his situation was closer to Chaney’s).  The nonviolent methods had already failed in Northern Ireland by then.  Bloody Sunday and all.  At least in Mississippi, they had to wait until sunset to lynch you.

So he never bombed anything, but he and his mates and their machine gun got into a fight with an SAS commando unit that was going to ‘capture’ them  (with extreme prejudice), and one of the British soldiers was killed doing his duty, and Joe was caught, and then he escaped to America like many an rebel before him, and the FBI caught him, and he got clapped in the MCC to await extradition.  And he ended up living there for about eight years, with all the court challenges.  Then he got transferred to Lewisburg Federal prison in Pennsylvania.  Then he finally got extradited, and was put in the Maze prison (no, that’s what they call it, really).  And then came the peace process, and amnesty, and he’s out now, living his life, and working with disadvantaged youth.  Viva Democracy, on the rare occasions it works.

(We never met, though one of the Committee’s meetings was held in a church right next to the MCC.  I did send him some books once while he was there, him being a great reader.  A Frank O’Connor anthology, and An Beal Bocht by Flann O’Brien, in the original Irish, since he was reportedly fluent.  I got a nice thank-you note, in English, since I wasn’t.  In retrospect,  wish I’d sent him some Parker novels instead, but I hadn’t read any myself.  Sorry, Joe.)

So this is where Westlake chooses to open the book.  And this is where we meet Francis Xavier Meehan, 42 years old, who as far as he’s concerned, shouldn’t be there at all.  He’s just an honest thief, who helped hijack a private carrier truck he thought was full of computer chips, but turned out it was full of registered mail.  Federal offense.  Goddam privatization.  Though he’s none too fond of the public sector either, and least of all Federal prison guards.

Of course, the primary difference between the Manhattan Correctional Center, which was where bail-less federal prisoners in the borough of Manhattan, city and state of New York, waited before and during their trials, was the attitude of the guards.  The guards thought the prisoners were animals, of course, as usual, and treated them as such.  But in this place the guards thought they themselves were not animals; that was the difference.

You get into a state pen, any state pen in the country–well, any state Meehan had been a guest in, and he felt he could extrapolate–and there was a real sense of everybody being stinking fetid swine shoveled into this shithole together, inmates and staff alike.  There was something, Meehan realized, now that he was missing it, strangely comforting about that, about guards who, with every breath they took, with every ooze from their pores, said “You’re a piece of shit and so am I, so you got no reason to expect anything but the worst from me if you irritate my ass.”  These guards here, in the MCC, they buttoned all their shirt buttons.  What were they, fucking Mormons?

Meehan is, as Stasio correctly observes, a born philosopher.  He is not content merely to observe his environment and the denizens thereof; he wants to comprehend them.  He rarely writes any of his observations down, because one of the ten thousand rules he lives by is “Never write anything down.”  That’s a big part of his philosophy, the ten thousand rules, which we can assume he’s never actually bothered to count, since that would involve writing them down. Basically a collection of helpful aphorisms to keep him solvent, alive, and free.  Hey, no system is perfect.

So Meehan gets word his court-appointed lawyer is there to see him, but his court-appointed lawyer is a skinny Jewish lady named Goldfarb just around his age, and this ain’t her.  This is some guy named Pat Jeffords, and with an eye for detail that Sherlock Holmes would envy, Meehan tells Jeffords that not only is he not Meehan’s lawyer, he’s not any kind of lawyer at all.  So what’s he doing here, would be the operative question.

In response, Jeffords observes that they’ve clearly found the right man for the job they need done, points out that Meehan is quite inevitably heading for a very long stretch in Federal stir, and writes out a little mini-questionnaire (or ballot, if you prefer), which reads “If you might want to help me, I might want to help you.”  Meehan can check the box saying ‘Yes’ or the box saying ‘No.’  What’s he got to lose?  ‘Yes’ by a landslide.

The referendum having passed, Meehan finds himself sprung from the MCC, but not exactly.  He’s still technically a Federal prisoner–the MCC thinks he’s in Otisville Prison in the Shawangunks, and Otisville thinks he’s still at the MCC.  But in point of fact, Meehan is now in the custody of the Committee to Reelect the President.  Of the United States, even.  Not that he’s told this right away.  These people would prefer not to tell him anything at all.  They just want him to steal something for them (you already know approximately what), and then they’ll arrange for his permanent release (pending his inevitable commission of further felonies, naturally).

But Meehan is not impressed with these jokers; Jeffords and his boss, a guy named Bruce Benjamin.  They have all the hallmarks of schmucks.  They forgot to get the key to his shackles before leaving the MCC.  They flew him to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a private campaign contributor’s jet, leading to people who shouldn’t know about him knowing about him anyway.  They even forgot to give him dinner before they locked him in what looks like an exceptionally bland motel room.  They just want to drive him near where the stuff is, and wait for him to come back with it.  That’s how they think this is done.  Like he’s a Labrador Retriever, or something.

Their idea was to avoid the fix Mr. Nixon got himself into by employing a burglar who actually knows how to commit burglary (as opposed to a guy who thinks holding his hand over a lit candle makes him look cool).  Meehan will obtain this videotape and supporting documents the challenging candidate’s campaign intends to use as an October Surprise, currently at the home of a rich supporter of the other guy.  But the real surprise is Meehan wants to go back to the MCC.  It’s a sound bargaining position, since it’s already October, and they don’t have time to get anybody else.  They ask him what he wants.  He tells them.

First of all, they tell him what’s going on, about the October Surprise and such (though not what it is, that comes later).  Meehan notes a major difficulty with their idea–the moment they let him go, he’s going to scarper, because that’s what criminals do when you let them go, for some strange reason.  He suggests maybe he could be the consultant, instead of the contractor, instruct eager young campaign volunteers how to commit grand larceny in his place.

They don’t like the idea (they’re too familiar with how eager young campaign volunteers tend to fare in such situations, or really any situation), but they accept it’s the only solution, and then they happen to mention that the man whose house is to be burgled has this large valuable collection of old guns.  And that’s when the light bulb pops up over Meehan’s head.  Sure, he can do the job for them.  All he needs is a string–and for them to look the other way when he and said string pull what you might call a supplemental heist.  Once the profit motive is engaged, they can count on him.  But first he needs to talk to his lawyer.  His real lawyer.  Goldfarb.

Why Goldfarb?  Because she’s the only lawyer he knows isn’t working for them (or else they’d have had her tender their offer in the first place).  Also, one might quietly infer, because in spite of the burka-like clothing she and all female attorneys at the MCC tend to wear, he’s developed a certain interest, and he’d enjoy seeing her again, and here comes the B Plot.  Boy meets Girl.  I don’t think we can call this a Meet Cute, though.

So they arrange for him to meet Goldfarb–first name Elaine (Meehan struggles to remember her given name, never uses it in her presence, one of those last-name-only pairs, like Mulder and Scully, only they’re both skeptics.)   She is by far the most interesting love interest Westlake created in his last three decades, harking back to Chloe Shapiro, as I said, but instead of a bohemian hippie chick who happens to be Jewish and is figuring out who she wants to be in life, she’s a battle-hardened professional, fiercely strong-willed, whimsically argumentative in ways that go far beyond her legal training, and if you’ve lived any length of time in New York, you’ve met her.  And if you’re any kind of person at all, you enjoyed the hell out of meeting her, and hope to meet her again sometime.

She presented herself differently out here; not more attractive,  more aggressive.  Her skinny body was encased in fairly tight black slacks and clacking black leather boots and a gleaming black leather jacket, with an open zipper.  Her steel-wool hair was controlled by a golden barrette at the back in the shape of a narrow bouquet of roses, and large gold hoop earrings dangled to both sides of that sharp-nosed sharp-jawed face, making her black-framed eyeglasses look more than ever like spy holes in a fortress wall.

She is, needless to say, wondering what the fuck she’s doing at an airport in Norfolk Virginia, meeting a guy supposed to be locked up in Manhattan who she’s only talked to three times in her life.  But as he fills her in, she adapts to the situation with remarkable aplomb, and mainly is just delighted not to be at the MCC for a while, though she will not be delighted at all times in this story.  Meehan wonders at times what influential a-holes she offended to land that MCC job.  She does not bear fools gladly, this woman.  Fortunately, he’s not one.

Where’d Goldfarb come from?  Well, Westlake spent a whole lot of time in New York, and as I’ve remarked in past, most of his best friends were Jewish, so he met many a Goldfarb in his day.  But just between you, me, and the fence post–

USAschwerner2

Rita Schwerner.  Mickey’s wife.   No, I wouldn’t want to piss her off either.  The glasses were no doubt added for comedic purposes.

(When I read Goldfarb’s dialogue, the voice of a friend of mine I don’t see half-often enough comes through loud and clear.  Goldfarb in a different life; not a lawyer, a bit less combative, but then again, not really–I once saw her threaten to punch out the headlights of a car that didn’t respect the stop signal, down in the Village.  And if she ever reads this blog, as she keeps promising to do someday, she’ll know who she is.  Hello you.)

So the reason he needs Goldfarb is that he doesn’t trust these guys to live up to their part of the bargain–even if they intend to get him off, they could screw it up.  He needs her to advocate for him, and in exchange he makes sure she’s going to be properly compensated for her time, which tickles her no end.

There follows an exchange in which it is made very clear they have no idea how to get his charges dropped without creating too many questions, or else putting Meehan in a situation he has no intention of being in (like witness protection).  She suggests a Presidential pardon.  Okay, a gubernatorial pardon?   They’re still getting the vapors.  Meehan has a brilliant idea (he gets those sometimes).  Switch him over to juvie.

“I bet you could do it,” Meehan said.  “It’s all in the bureaucracy, right?  Switch me to juvenile court, closed session, I plead guilty, time served.”

Elaine Goldfarb said “Which is how long?”

“If we count today,” Meehan said, “twelve days.”

Jeffords said “Why would we count today?”

Meehan looked at him.  “What am I, free to go?”

Elaine Goldfarb said to Benjamin, “What have you done about the paperwork at this point, his whereabouts?”

“Pat knows that,” Benjamin said, and Jeffords said, “The MCC thinks he’s in Otisville, and Otisville thinks he’s in the MCC.”

“So he’s still serving time,” she said.  “And if you could transfer his case to juvenile court, to a judge who wouldn’t make difficulties, he could first release Meehan into my custody, I undertake to assure his presence at a hearing in chambers, probably early next week, he pleads guilty, he’s remanded into my custody again in lieu of parole, and we could very esaily make the paperwork look kosher.”  Smiling at Meehan, she said, “Good thinking.”

“Already,” Meehan said, “I feel like a kid again.”

This is more involved and pragmatic than the usual justification for this type of deal we see in fiction all the time (such as in the Grofield novel, The Blackbird).  This is actually the first time we’ve seen one of Westlake’s heisters have any kind of real attorney/client relationship, though we saw a lot of that kind of thing in the Sam Holt novels (where the Goldfarbs were both middle-aged men).  Goldfarb knows you can’t just make all that paperwork vanish, because it’s in too many places, and too many people would notice.  But Meehan knows something else, which is what I’m going to conclude Part 1 with, because I’m creeping up on 5,000 words, it’s been over a week since I posted, and I need to put a lid on this one, so I can start on Part 2.  This book was harder than I thought it would be.  Well, what else is news?

And what is this brilliant insight (out of ten thousand), from that intrepidly Jesuitical philospher, Francis Xavier Meehan?  (Don’t call him Frank, he hates that.)

That was one of the great things about the law; they couldn’t help but make it too complicated, so that in the nooks and crannies an actual person might live.

She was going on: “Once I make an appointment, I’ll give you a call.  Where do I reach you?”

“Well, I don’t know, he said.  “Where I was staying before was just temporary, and I been gone awhile, and the cops came there after my arrest to pick up my stuff, so I think maybe I don’t live there anymore.  I’ll have to find a place.”

She gave him a funny look.  “You mean the stuff in that little carry-on bag of yours is everything you own in the world?”

“Sure,” he said.  He didn’t see any point mentioning the little cash stashes he had salted away here and there, figuring everybody has such things so she’d take it for granted.  And come to think of it, a couple of those older stashes he ought to deal with, now that the goddam government was changing all the money.

Government, everywhere you turn.

She couldn’t get over the skimpiness of his worldly goods.  “Maybe you ought to rethink crime as a career path,” she said.

“I do, all the time,” he said, “but nothing else gives me the same job satisfaction.”

If you read between the lines, you know that’s not just Meehan talking.  And if you read between Donald Westlake’s lines a lot, you feel much the same way about it.  These books were never meant to be taken literally, you know.  The goal isn’t crime.  The goal is freedom.  How we get there from here.  Or if.  Anyway, Westlake got his guy out of that room.  Several rooms, in fact.  And now he’s got to figure a way to keep him out.  And I’ve got to scarper.  See you.  Yeah, not if you see me first, I know.

PS: I have never been more tempted to give the British first edition (from Robert Hale, Ltd., no less) pride of place over the American edition from Mysterious Press.  That’s a nice evocative bit of Trompe L’oeil there to the right, and what do we have on the left?  A red phone with the receiver off the hook.  No, I don’t get it either.  They’re going to nuke Meehan?  I ever actually buy a copy of this one, I’m going with the Brits.  I’m sure Joe Doherty would understand.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels