Tag Archives: Patricia Highsmith

Addendum: The Reading List


Okay.  Here’s the deal.

I have had a project in my mind for some time now.  Supplemental, though not subsidiary, to the one I’ve just completed.

When I started reading and then reviewing Westlake, I got interested in writers Westlake referred to, directly or indirectly.  One of the books that came my way was the Library Of America anthology entitled American Noir of the 1950’s.  One novel apiece, by Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes.

The best anthology of its type ever compiled (I have a few quibbles about the way it’s organized, but I’m a born quibbler), and the most puzzling–some of these writers had just gotten started in the 50’s. Willeford wasn’t even a blip on the radar screen by then, nobody had heard of him.  But retrospectively, right on the money.   Five powerful voices, five unique individuals, five novels that had been published, more or less, as trashy entertainment–then turned out to be a whole lot more than met the eye.  Because their authors were precisely that.

One way or another, Westlake made his appreciation of them known–and in some cases, his debt to them.  As I’ve said, if you wrote anything in the mystery field, and you really could write, he noticed you.  He marked you down as the competition–but also as allies.  To the extent prose authors can be allies.  And I think they can.

Because, you see, in any publishing niche, there’s a push towards uniformity, towards dumbing it down, not confusing the readers with unneeded complexity and (in the case of these five) downright perversity.  Towards formula.  They all worked within formulas, within molds–and they all shattered the molds they worked within.  Too large to be contained by them.  And yet, somehow, needing them as a starting point.  An incubator.

Of the five, only two could be said to have started out as genre authors–Goodis and Highsmith (Goodis in the pulps, Highsmith in classy hardcover mysteries, though she would go slumming now and again).

Thompson and Himes began as ‘serious’ novelists–Willeford started out as a sort of beat poet, though no bohemian he.  They washed out in that tonier arena, deservedly or not–many called, few chosen.  And they needed to write.  They needed people to read what they’d written.  So they found a second home in mystery, in crime, in ‘noir’–and somehow they found in the conventions of that genre the distancing mechanism that had eluded them in their more mainstream efforts.  And thus they made high art out of low.

If the price of great art is suffering, they can all be said to have paid their dues with compound interest.  I hope to never say of any friend of mine that his or her life is a biographer’s wet dream, but that could be said for all of these people.

Thompson was a child of the dust bowl, marked by the poverty and ignorance of his youth that he’d painfully risen above, that never stopped trying to pull him back down again.  An alcoholic okie; mystery’s answer to Philip K. Dick, some have called him.  I just call him a mystery, period, full-stop.  One that may not have a solution.

Himes bore the wounds of racism–and prison–and most of all, of being smarter, more perceptive, than everyone around him.  Loving his people, seeing their beauty and their flaws, knowing that White America never would give them an honest break, even while he yearned for some kind of rapprochement between the races, living in self-imposed exile in Europe.  One would like to say he was over-pessimistic about his native land, but evidence of that is thin on the ground at present.

Highsmith was rejected by her mother in a way that left her with permanent emotional scars, and although her sexual orientation was towards other women, she always preferred being around men.  Which didn’t make her any less of a misanthrope, and at times, a bigot.  People found her difficult to like–presumably because she never much liked herself.  She was at least an honest hater, and there is value in that.

Goodis, son of Philadelphia, had a comfortable enough lower middle class Jewish upbringing, made a decent living as a writer, left a substantial fortune when he died, but was a mass of neuroses, hopelessly divided between the life he wanted and the life that was expected of him.  The lyrics for I Can’t Get Started might as well have been written by him instead of Ira Gershwin, and well he knew it.  The Poet of the Losers, he would be called, but what better subject exists for poetry?

Willeford spent his adolescence as a Depression-era hobo, then had a long career as an NCO in the small peacetime army of the 30’s, leading to highly distinguished service in WWII–that he only dealt with in his poetry, because what really happened in that war was too painful for him to approach by any other route.  (It seems safe to say that Charles Willeford was one of the few great mystery authors who was a killer in other than the fictional sense, and many times over at that).  More than any of the others, he surprises, because even when he’s writing pure formula fiction, he can’t help doing the precise opposite of what you’d expect.  He wanted success on his own terms, or not at all.  And only achieved that success when he had just a few years left to enjoy it.  And he tried his best to sabotage it.  A real Willeford twist, that was.

Five edgy iconoclastic irritating underappreciated American geniuses–underappreciated to this day–and the thing about genius is, it’s always sui generis.  No two exactly alike, yet each will have points in common with the others.  To talk about who is the greatest genius is missing the point of genius.

(The other thing about literary geniuses is they don’t tend to play well with others.  Several of these five knew each other, at least in passing.  None were friends.)

Still, underappreciated though they be, rather less so than Westlake.  There are multiple scholarly biographies for Thompson, Himes, and Highsmith.  Goodis and Willeford have both had more idiosyncratic tomes devoted to them, and Westlake has yet to appear in any LOA collection.  They at least have attained the beginnings of critical respect.  I rather suspect part of the problem for Westlake, aside from the lack of a colorful biography (or, to date, any) is that he wrote too damn much.

To say Westlake was more prolific than any of them is understating the point–he was roughly as prolific as all of them combined.  That, in itself, proves nothing.  You judge writers by their best work.  The work in which they come closest to telling us who they really were.  And by that yardstick, I would say that if he ever had somehow spent an evening with the five of them, that would have been an assembly of equals.  An encounter that never happened, alas.

Or did it?

I could maybe arrange for that to happen here.

Thing is, who’s going to read it?  My reviews have been geared to people who read Westlake.  How many people out there have substantially read all these five?

And even though I have spent quality time with all of them, know the better part of their work (pretty much all of Willeford), does that qualify me to write about them?  I need more context.  Which means I’m going to have to read some of those biographies, and other things–flesh out my mental maps of each.  I figure I’ll be ready late next year.  Which is going to work out for me in terms of the pop cultural metaphor I’ve come up with to group these five together.

So in the meantime–if you’re interested–if you’ve got the time–here’s the beer.

David Goodis:

A lot of Goodis is e-vailable now, but not nearly enough.  Even reprints of some of his rarer novels can be pricey.  You can’t go wrong with the five-book Library of America collection, which covers the bases pretty well–one of his signature pieces, Down There, is in the 1950’s anthology I mentioned further back.  There’s an ebook for Cassidy’s Girl, one of his biggest sellers, and a pivot for him–the beginning of his mature style–also something of a confessional piece, with regards to his personal life.  For most of the rest, it’s up to you how many raggedy old paperbacks you want to spend too much money on.

His short stories are a very mixed bag, and I doubt anybody’s ever read them all. The collection Black Friday and Selected Stories is well worth obtaining. There’s a new e-collection, Caravan to Tarim, and I loved the title piece.  As for the rest, well if you dig WWII fables where the gutsy American fighter pilot says things like “Die, you Nazi rat!” you’re in for a treat.

Jim Thompson:

People can get into fights over which Thompsons are the best.  Or the worst.  I tend to prefer his western yarns to his eastern idylls, though Savage Night certainly is one of his classics.  His novels are never long, they’re always readable (if at times nigh-incoherent), and you’re pretty much on your own figuring out which to get.  Most are e-vailable (and not cheap, he’s got a serious following now, pity it didn’t come along sooner).

The Killer Inside Me, of course.  That’s the one the LOA put in that 50’s collection, and you’re never quite the same again after reading it.  Not for the squeamish.   The first real Thompson machine gun.

Other than the two I’ve mentioned, I’d focus in (a bit predictably, perhaps) on A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, The Grifters, and Pop. 1280.  But if you’d like to look past all the savage nights, sweeten the mix just a bit, glimpse the man behind the mayhem–can I strongly recommend South of Heaven?  Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, and he’s worth knowing.  Only a good man needs to know how much evil there is inside him.

Chester Himes:

One of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is reading his ‘serious’ novels, as well as his autobiographical work.  I look forward to both.  Now let’s get really serious.  If you love American crime fiction, and you haven’t read the Harlem Detective novels, you are missing out on the ride of your life, in a little beat-up black Plymouth sedan that moves faster than you’d imagine possible, takes corners like nobody’s business.

There is nothing in all of world fiction (please note the lack of qualifiers) that can surpass the investigations of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, and the many-hued denizens of Himes’ Harlem Of The Mind that he conjured up in France.  Yeah, I said it.  So read it.

I haven’t read the last one.  The one he didn’t publish.  I guess I’ll have to now.  I will never accept the ending I’ve read about.  I want to believe he didn’t either. But maybe it’ll look different when I get there.

Patricia Highsmith:

She’s not likable.  That doesn’t mean you can’t love her.  My significant other, a gentle soul, goes nuts over everything she writes.  I see the value in all of it, but at times it does seem a chore, slogging your way through her densely worded over-analytic prose, her needlessly repetitive plotting, to the nigh-inevitable downfall. And the evil mothers. Oy, so many evil mothers. Being a misogynistic lesbian must have been very painful. But of such dichotomies is great literature often born.

As a devotee of the Parker novels, I’m more into the Ripliad, her most optimistic work (probably not the best adjective), and the major point of connection between her and that side of Westlake that was Richard Stark.  That will be my primary focus.  I will, however, devote some time to some non-series novels and to her short stories, a form I suspect she was better at than any of the others on this list.

The thing about Highsmith is–she’s best in small doses, particularly at first.  Like a poison you build up a gradual resistance to.  Perhaps no other writer better exemplified what A.E. Housman wrote about in that section of A Shropshire Lad that begins “Terence this is stupid stuff.”  Though to be sure, she didn’t die that old.  Just a bit younger than Westlake.

As with Thompson, you might want something to leaven the dough.  In her case, that would be The Price of Salt–and perhaps also The Tremor of Forgery. There’s a dog in it.  She’s always a bit gentler with animals.  Which does, in fact, make me love her.

Charles Willeford:

It would take very little time, really, to read his entire body of work.  He didn’t produce that much.  It’s all extremely readable.  The trick is to obtain it.  The Hoke Moseley books are easy to get–maybe too easy.  I admire them, but don’t agree with Westlake that they constitute his best work (if that is in fact what Westlake thought they were).  They’re his most commercial work.  Once you have read them, you’ll recognize what a bizarre thing that is to say.

Cockfighter is e-vailable.  You have to read that, but it can make The Killer Inside Me seem humane.  He is not gentler with animals.  He’s not gentle with anybody.  His favorite among his books, and I’ll tell you why someday.

The Burnt Orange Heresy has no ebook, but isn’t hard to find.  Many think it’s his best–I would neither agree nor argue.  It’s the most perfectly balanced thing he wrote, which isn’t quite the same.   The ideal gift for the art-lover in your life. Tell him/her I recommended it.

His two volume memoirs are e-vailable, and unforgettable, and let’s just call them extra credit.  His metier was fiction.  It was good of him to leave some clues as to what inspired it.

If you can get his short western novel, The Difference (aka The Hombre From Sonora), then do.  The Black Mass of Brother Springer is essential Willeford, and that’s e-vailable (and I yearn to know what my friends who happen to be black would think about it, but I have so few friends of any color–don’t want to scare any of them away).

The Woman Chaser has maybe the worst title of any of his novels (a large statement), but it’s one of his best.  Pick-Up is in the LOA 50’s collection.  That is a problematic book to talk about.  On many levels.  But by all means, pick it up. An early gem, that shows the influence of Goodis, I think.  Willeford also noticed anybody who could write.  And often improved upon them.  Knowing, of course, that nobody would notice he’d done so.

His story collection The Machine In Ward Eleven is a collectible.  I collected it. You don’t have to.  I’m just now reading a collection of stories, articles and poems by him, entitled The Second Half of the Double Feature.  I would rank him higher than Westlake with regards to the short form–not by much.  He also needed more room to run.  But when he got a piece of that ball, he’d knock the stuffings out of it.  The more you read him, the better you know him, but that’s true of anybody worth reading.

With Willeford, all I can really say is, if you’re one of the people I’m hoping to reach with these articles I’m hoping to write, once you start reading him–you’ll keep going.  All the way to his meandering misbegotten monstrosity, The Shark-Infested Custard.  Which gets more socially relevant–and less socially acceptable–with every passing moment.

So maybe a year from now, we can talk.  Or, if you’ve read some of this already, we could talk here.  Or maybe I’m just kidding myself.  Anyway.  I’ve got a present for you guys.  I’m just starting to write it.  It won’t be ready for Christmas, but I’ll try to get it to you by New Year’s.  Many happy returns.


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Review: The Hook, Part 2

Bryce couldn’t seem to get out of his temporal confusion.  He usually took the train up to Connecticut sometime on Friday, spent the weekend, left Monday.  This week, the New York apartment had just become too oppressive by Thursday, so he’d taken the train up shortly after Wayne had told him about the message from Detective Johnson, and now it was Friday morning, and he was already here, and he just couldn’t keep the day straight in his mind.

He phoned several weekend friends, wondering what if anything might be doing, this early in December, not yet massively Christmas, but of course none of them were here.  Today is Friday, he had to keep reminding himself, and they are in New York.  They work in New York.  This is their weekend place.

And me?  Where do I work?  Do I work?  Where do I live?  Where do I call to find me?

Having made extraordinarily little progress with the synopsis last time, I can’t let myself get bogged down in prologue this time.  All the more because I can’t find any other covers for this book, which clearly sold a whole lot fewer copies than The Ax (the book its title fairly begs comparison with), at home and abroad.  Four covers in all, three foreign–I found fourteen separate editions of The Ax.  If I did a Part 3 for this one, I’d have to use the audiobook cover, which is just too drearily literal for words.


And yet, this book still got a film adaptation, in 2004 (a year before The Ax!). With a title that would tend to indicate a certain lack of fidelity to the source, but what else is news?


Here’s what Time Out had to say about it–and they took so little time to do so, I’m just going to save you the trouble of clicking a link.

Vincent’s adaptation of Donald E Westlake’s ‘The Contract’ is a suitably nasty psychological thriller in the French-Hitchcockian mould. With echoes of Patricia Highsmith, a failed writer with a book and no publisher (Cluzet) strikes a bargain during a train journey with a successful colleague (Giraudeau) with a publisher but writer’s block. The former will kill the latter’s ex-wife in return for half the latter’s advance. Initially, the satisfying plot and motivational twists, fine performances, alongside the clever light and shade effects of cinematographer Dominique Bouilleret build to intriguing effect but unfortunately that gives way as the film dives too deep, too implausibly, into the murky terrain of sado-masochistic psychopathy.

Echoes of Highsmith so prevalent, it seems, that they decided to have the leads meet on a  train, which never happened in the novel, because a library makes more sense here, and possibly the late Ms. Highsmith’s estate could have raised an eyebrow or two.  I suppose meeting in a library then adjourning to a bar wasn’t noir enough, somehow.  Let the auteurs do their own thing (you know they will anyway), and we’ll get back to talking about the authors.

Famous best-selling author Bryce Proctorr and once modestly successful but lately unpublishable Wayne Prentice have a deal–kinda.  Wayne kills Bryce’s estranged wife Lucie, and Bryce will retool Wayne’s unpublished novel nobody will buy into a best-seller appearing under his own name, and give Wayne half the million-plus advance that would otherwise go to Lucie. Wayne figures Bryce is kidding at first.  Bryce figures Wayne won’t really do it anyway, but he’s just in love with the sheer cleverness of his own idea, as writers so often are.

Both men have serious qualms about all this–the first-degree murder thing, sure, but even more the ghostwriting thing, a crime their profession could far less easily forgive (the dreaded name Kosiński is mentioned).  They both have professional standards to uphold, after all–but see, to have professional standards, you need an actual profession to go with them, and both men are halfway out the door of theirs, desperate to find some means of remaining.

Wayne goes home to his loving wife Susan, a quietly atractive woman who works for a non-profit organization that oversees the fund allocations of still other non-profit organizations.  They have an apartment in the Village that many present-day New Yorkers would quite literally kill for.  A classic six, rent-controlled.  With a dining room, even.  No kids, because Susan can’t have any, and they’re both good with that.  She’s a fine cook, but mainly brings home pre-prepared multi-course gourmet meals they both enjoy (not Asian takeout or pizza, because that would be somehow unworthy of their dining room).

The sex is good, compatibility is high, Susan makes more than enough money to support them both, Wayne can always find some kind of writing work, and he’s no killer.  Obviously this murder scheme isn’t going anywhere.

Wayne considers Susan his rock, the designated pragmatist in the marriage, and trusts her judgment absolutely.  He tells her about his conversation with Bryce, confident she’ll veto any such risky and morally repellent scheme, and she does no such thing.  Because, as she explains, if Wayne doesn’t find some way to continue his writing career, the marriage is over.  Not because she doesn’t love him, not because she has any problem with supporting both of them, but because, pragmatist that she is, she knows Wayne can’t live with that arrangement.

Wayne needs a real job–he’ll fall apart without one.  The only job he’s qualified for that offers a (relatively) non-laughable salary and social position is teaching creative writing at a college.  The only colleges likely to hire him are nowhere near the city his wife’s job is in.  She isn’t willing to give up  her career and be some non-tenured professor’s wife out in the sticks, a life that would make both of them miserable.  They have the life they want, that many a cosmopolitan couple can only dream of.  But they can only keep it if Wayne finds some way back into his profession.  Bryce Proctorr’s bizarre offer is that way.

It’s pretty clear Susan likes being the wife of a published novelist, however little-known.  Wayne’s professional identity is part of her own as well, a splash of color in her otherwise mundane prosaic life.  Without making any explicit demands, she tells him she would prefer he do whatever is necessary so that Wayne&Susan remain Wayne&Susan.  Of course she disapproves of murdering some woman she’s never met in the abstract, but one has to face up to facts.  It’s them or her.

Susan may be the weakest link in this book, and that may be an inherent problem to retooling Highsmith’s original story.  There’s no time to properly develop her, so she’s a bit of a cypher, and we’re never inside her head.  But the same is true of the much more idealized love interest from Strangers on a Train, a sophisticated blonde socialite, who clearly suspects her architect fiance of having committed murder at the behest of a man she loathes at first sight–and she responds by marrying her fiance anyhow, going into full denial mode, and inviting that corrupting influence on her husband over for social occasions.

Susan is, in essence, the 90’s middle class version of that character–who works as a textile designer, but doesn’t really need to work at all–without the golden tresses or inherited wealth to hide behind.  Susan’s already married to Wayne when we meet her, and he shares everything with her upfront.  The equivalent Highsmith character remains willfully in the dark until sometime after the story ends.

Susan’s marriage and career are all she values, and she’s very strongly motivated to grasp at any straw that will keep her from having to choose between them.  Highsmith’s lovely heiress is only implicated in her lover’s crime by inference–Westlake obviously decided that in the more emancipated times he was writing in, her involvement should be explicit.

And she does, in fact, remind one a lot of Claire in the Parker novels–not wanting Wayne to tell her about the murder, which is fine and dandy by him–and then, gradually, wanting him to tell her all about it, and finding him all the sexier after he’s done the deed, which freaks Wayne out no end.  Y’know, Lady MacBeth is a problematic character as well.  First ice cold and remorseless, then driven mad with guilt.  But like Bryce, and unlike Lady M., Susan never saw the body.

Okay, there’s still one possible out–Wayne told Bryce he had to meet Lucie first.  Find out if she really is as horrible as Bryce insists, and therefore deserving of an untimely end (he muses to himself at one point that “There’s good and bad in everyone,” a phrase that Valerie Sayers, in her Times review, found impossibly trite for a professional writer to think to himself, as if professional writers are somehow incapable of even thinking anything banal or clichéd .  (FYI, Ms. Sayers herself, in her 1996 novel Brain Fever, had a New York based female character of hers say to the southern male protagonist  “Come on, you big lug.”  Seriously.)

Bryce arranges for them to meet at a preview of an Off-Broadway play written by a friend of his, but directed by a friend of Lucie’s.  He goes there, sits through the play, wangles an introduction to Lucie, a thin elegant blonde in her 40’s who treats all of life and everyone in it as if she were an Edward Albee character.  And not the one Sandy Dennis would play.  Uh-oh.

If I do a full synopsis of this book,  full of labyrinthine plot twists, involved character descriptions and general navel-gazing (because Highsmith), I’ll end up with my first-ever five-parter, and I’d so much rather not.  Let’s cut to the chase.  Wayne gets Lucie’s number.  They go on a date.  He’s torn between hoping she’ll be nice so he can’t kill her, and hoping she’ll be awful so he can. But he’s quite sure he won’t kill her that night. This is just reconnaissance.

Lucie alternates between applauding Wayne’s cleverness (he points out the one thing in her furnished apartment that actually belongs to her), and suggesting he’s a failure as a man and a writer–he’s told her he is also in mid-divorce, and she checked him out on Amazon before the date, musing out loud about how long it’s been since a Wayne Prentice book came out, and he doesn’t feel like explaining the pseudonym thing to her, since that would be just one more point of vulnerability for her to exploit.

She also snarks that he’s too cheap to pay for a cab, just because he took her to a good restaurant she really wanted to try, just a few blocks from where she lives (never occurs to her that Wayne doesn’t want any cab drivers placing him at her building).  Not what you’d call a fun date, unless endless mean-spirited verbal sparring is your idea of fun, but Wayne can see why Bryce was attracted to her.  ‘Fascinating but repellent’ was how he described her to Susan after their first meeting.  (Actually, that’s not a half-bad description of Patricia Highsmith, at her best and worst, but I don’t think we’re supposed to get that meta about it.)

Then, back at her place, as Wayne looks for a convenient moment to leave and start plotting The Perfect Murder, she off-handedly asks if Susan is any good in bed.  Because why not?  To her, this is how the game is played.  An endless struggle for supremacy.  Now Wayne is supposed to return her serve, and he does.  Much to his surprise.  More to hers.

How many people have you met in life who you’d at least consider murdering if somebody offered you half a million dollars to do it, and there was relatively little chance of you ever getting caught, and that person refused to stop being an infernal pain in the ass?  Some people literally do not  know when to shut up.  Mostly they get away with it because society says you don’t kill people for being obnoxious.  But now and again, one of them blithely trips over a human landmine, and you read about it in the tabloids afterward.

I don’t want to type out a quote from the murder scene.  Westlake had written a lot of murders in his career, some bloodier than others, a very small percentage involving men murdering women, sometimes by design, sometimes (as in The Ax) because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d never before had a protagonist with absolutely no previous history of violence beat a woman to death in front of our eyes.

Acting on impulse, driven by greed, self-preservation, personal irritation, and blind rage at the insult to his wife (that Lucie probably meant as light after-dinner flirtation), Wayne realizes with horror that having struck the first blow, he has to follow through to the end or go to jail–his impractical fantasies of buying an unregistered gun out of state and shooting her from some dark alley on a deserted street are permanently shelved.

If she hadn’t offered any resistance, maybe he would have lost his nerve, run away (she knows his real name and former publishers), begged her to not call the cops, but that’s not Lucie.  She responds in kind, returning his volley with verve, only this isn’t her game.  Wayne is horrified to feel a brief moment of sexual excitement, once it’s nearly over and she’s laid out beneath him, but that ends as soon as her bowels release (he is simultaneously nauseated and relieved).  He finishes her off by tying a plastic bag over her head until she stops breathing (again, reminiscent of The Ax).  You see why I’m not typing out any quotes here, right?

He does a pretty good job eliminating any physical evidence that would link back to him (Westlake never stopped sneering at the CSI school of detection), and leaves.  The doorman at street level never paid any attention to Wayne (Wayne, in a clever bit of authorly improvisation, told him his name was Wayland when he called up, knowing the man’s accent would make it sound like Wayne over the phone, but not to the cops afterward) and the sketches produced from the doorman and restaurant staff descriptions predictably turn out to be worthless.  Lucie never talked to any of her friends about going on a date with this writer acquaintance of her soon-to-be-ex, probably because she wasn’t sure if he was going to be worth talking about.

In many ways, more disturbing than any murder scene in The Ax–definitely far more so than the equivalent murder in Strangers on a Train, where Charles Bruno quite unashamedly enjoys the experience of strangling another man’s nuisance of a wife, which is precisely why he did it, much as he pretended he was doing the guy (named Guy) a favor.  Even Charles Willeford might find it a bit off-putting, and he once had a protagonist beat a woman he actually liked to death because–well, that would be telling.

And the worst thing about it, from a mystery reader’s POV, is that it’s not enjoyable to read about. Because Wayne doesn’t enjoy it, is sickened by it, and didn’t even plan it–it simply happened, and he had to start improvising. He’s not a master assassin, or even a talented amateur. He just got lucky.  If blundering your way into being a successful killer can be called luck.

We love reading about murders, or we wouldn’t be reading books full of them all the time.  We want to know what it’s like–to kill or be killed.  The crime genre couldn’t exist without that curiosity, or the ‘true crime’ genre either.  What Westlake does here is take all the fun out of fictional murder, that vicarious sense of empowerment it gives us.  The shock is not that there’s a killer inside us all (we knew that already), but rather how horribly unglamorous killing another human being really is.  Damn him anyway.

But for Westlake, the murder is not the point.  The point is how his two writer-protagonists react to it.  And they will, of course, react to it as writers.  Because that’s what this book is about.  Not psycho-sexual pathology, or suppressed male rage against womankind, which is most assuredly a real thing (and not so suppressed lately, going by the election results).  But the way writers habitually turn fact into fiction, because that’s their stock in trade.

Bryce never believed Wayne would actually do this.  It was a story idea he came up with.  Wayne never really believed he’d do it either–but having written about murders, he could not help but be curious what it would be like to commit one.  He got enmeshed in Bryce’s plot.

The parallel fictions that are their lives have converged onto a single dead-end track, and now, just like Highsmith’s two doomed strangers, they can never escape each other, will become more and more entangled, each feeling a strange connection to the other, neither really understanding the other, each capable of destroying the other.  Two people caught up in a destructive relationship based on a dark secret–Highsmith’s speciality.  Westlake’s, not as much (well, he was a lot less specialized).

Hitchcock’s film of Highsmith’s novel is a pleasant lie, rooted in Hitch’s recurrent fascination with innocent men implicated in crimes they never committed.  In Highsmith’s world, there are no innocent men, or women.  Westlake lies in-between, not seeing humanity through as dark a lens as Highsmith, but still recognizing how easily corrupted our sense of self can be, how even the parts of ourselves we most prize, such as the skills he’d amassed as a writer, can turn like a snake in our hands and bite us.

See, the whole point of somebody doing a murder for a stranger, or near-stranger, is that you just go your separate ways afterwards, so no connection can ever be drawn between you.  However, the arrangement Wayne and Bryce have made necessitates them working together, becoming more and more involved in each other’s lives.  Bryce has to rewrite Wayne’s novel, which he retitles Two Faces in the Mirror.  He likes the book very much as Wayne wrote it, and immediately sees many things about it he can improve upon, as would any writer (as Westlake did, when he read Strangers on a Train).

But a well-written book is not a structure so much as a living breathing organism, and changing it around comes with certain inherent perils.  In making Wayne’s book his own, Bryce creates story problems that his highly capable editor, Joe Katz (the most admirable person in this book) says need to be fixed.

Bryce, unable to explain that he had no role in writing this book at all until just now, and unable to see any way to fix the problems himself, has no choice in the end but to ‘confess’ to Joe that he’d collaborated with another writer on this one.  He suggests bringing in Wayne to help with the tinkering.  Joe isn’t that shocked at Bryce’s confession (he knows his star player has been in a slump lately) and immediately recognizes Wayne as a talent worth cultivating, as Wayne senses a valuable professional connection in Joe.  They become fast friends in the coming weeks.

Bryce observes all this going on with a growing sense of disquiet–Wayne is moving in on his turf.  But there’s nothing he can do.  Including write any new books of his own.  He’s still blocked.  Lucie’s death, the end of the divorce proceedings, the temporary solution of his financial problems–none of this addressed his underlying problem, which is that he’s lost his creative focus–as a Eugene O’Neill character once said in a different context, he hasn’t even got the makings, he’s only got the habit.  Endless potential plot ideas drift in and out of his mind, like seeds born on the wind, and not a one ever settles into fertile soil and germinates.

His very pleasant relationship with a sultry Spanish-American divorcee sputters to an end, partly because she suspects him of murdering his wife, but mainly because he can’t focus on her any more than his work.  He abandons the apartment he once shared with Lucie, and retreats to his luxurious country home in Connecticut, where he meets a stay-at-home wife who recognizes him, wants to have an innocent little fling while her husband is at work.

Following her back to her place, he realizes with horror that all he can think about is beating her to death, so that he can experience the act of murder, as Wayne did.  He drives away from his confused would-be hook-up, just before it’s too late.

He can imagine it, and does, constantly–but does he really know what it’s like?  Before Lucie’s murder, in spite of his vastly greater wealth and status, he and Wayne were still somehow on equal footing professionally, like all storytellers who write about things they themselves have never experienced–did Shakespeare ever kill anyone in a fight?  Unlikely.  Did Homer ever even see a fight? Writers can’t only write what they know without unbearably constraining their options.  But now Wayne symbolically inhabits some higher plane of noir vérité Bryce can only guess at.

At one point, he confides in Wayne, who strangely seems much less bothered by Lucie’s murder, thinks about it less and less, and Wayne has an author’s insight to share.

“Oh Jesus, Bryce, I understand what it is.” Wayne shook his head.  He almost patted Bryce’s arm, but thought better of it.  He said, “I’ll tell you what it is.  I was there, Bryce, and it was horrible, and you can’t imagine it, but I don’t have to imagine it.  I was there.  So what I have is a memory, and memories fade.  All memories fade, Bryce, that’s what they do.  But you don’t have the memory, all you have is imagination.  And imagination never fades.

It’s dangerous for a storyteller to get too obsessed with reality (‘realism’ is just another artistic pose).  To question his or her ability to inwardly see that which he or she has never seen in the flesh–to lose faith in storytelling as a pathway to the truth.  Wayne has been promoted in Bryce’s eyes to some superior being, who has actually lived out one of those dark fantasies Bryce made himself a rich man by imagining, but now that all seems empty and fake to him.

He never wanted to kill anyone before, and he doesn’t really want to now, but how else can he get his mojo back?  He resists the imp of the perverse, uses every possible means of distracting himself from its siren call, but it keeps tugging at him, relentless as a riptide, inexorable as gravity.

By comparison, the man who actually beat Lucie Proctorr to death is doing great.  He never dreams about the murder. (Have any of you ever, in your lives, had a guilt-driven nightmare about something bad you did that you wish you’d never done?  By and large, the unconscious doesn’t work like that, outside of fiction.)

Essentially, following Highsmith’s logic (perhaps more The Talented Mr. Ripley  than Strangers on a Train, but all those early crime novels of hers are closely linked), he shows us a Wayne Prentice who is, not so gradually, becoming Bryce Proctorr.  But only in a very limited sense–he can’t, at this stage in the game, become an established brandname in publishing.  Joe Katz recognizes that he’s as talented as Bryce, maybe more so (and certainly a better writer than Bryce is now), but editors don’t decide who gets published anymore, to the limited extent they ever did.

Joe tells Wayne that his new novel, The Shadowed Other, won’t sell unless he can find some gimmick to sell it with.  It’s not high concept enough for the existing marketplace–just a good book.  It needs a more obvious–what’s the word I’m looking for here?–oh right, hook.  You know, something you can explain in one short sentence, like “A failed suspense writer agrees to murder a famous suspense writer’s wife in exchange for getting his own book published under the famous writer’s name.”  Bet there might even be a movie in that one.  Well, in France, anyway.

Wayne actually tries to turn his book into a screenplay, entitled Double Impact (already been used, but so what?), which goes not well, because he’s not visual enough.  He thought he was, but he’s not–at least not in the right way.  His strengths as a writer are shown to best advantage on the printed page, not on a screen.  (I detect a grudging admission here, and from an Oscar-nominated screenwriter at that, but that was for adapting somebody else’s work.)

He belatedly learns he can make a decent if unremarkable living doing nonfiction articles for magazines.  Which if he’d thought of it before, could have been the answer to how he could salvage his writing career, without becoming a murderer or (even worse!) a college professor. Still, he knows he’ll never love it the way he loved telling stories that never really happened.

Susan, once his compass (if not necessarily a moral one), is quietly becoming off-kilter.  She wants to go see the apartment Bryce and Lucie shared, that Bryce has now abandoned, leaving furniture Lucie mostly picked out for the new tenants, if they want to buy it. Just curious to see where the woman her husband killed with his hands used to live.  Nothing weird about that, right?  Truthfully, Wayne wants to see it too (this isn’t the transitional divorcee pad he murdered Lucie in), so he doesn’t talk her out of it.

Posing as a genuinely interested couple, they check out the ridiculously expansive expensive digs with a grand terrace view of the cityscape (over 6k a month, which would be a real bargain now), and all of a sudden Susan just talks the realtor into lowering the rent a bit and giving them the furniture outright to dispose of as they will.  The pose was reality, and the reality was the pose.  Wayne just gapes at her and says nothing.  He doesn’t know how to explain it to Bryce (or himself), so he doesn’t. But again, Susan has simply made manifest what he secretly yearned to do.  See how the other half lives.

Their rent-controlled classic six apartment in the Village that was always too big for them goes to Joe Katz and his growing family, along with basically the entire lifestyle Wayne committed first-degree murder to defend, and who the hell are these people now?  Untethered.  Rootless.  And living at the razor’s edge of their means, in spite of having two respectable middle class incomes and a nice bank balance (not to mention Bryce’s personal accountant minding their money).  You know, like normal upwardly mobile people.  No turning back now.

So how are the police not connecting all these dots?  Wayne was already questioned by the investigating officer on the case, Detective Johnson of the NYPD, smart, professional, African American, and you know where this is going already, right?  Because you’ve read The Ax.  You’ve read all the other Westlake novels involving police detectives.  Valerie Sayers had not, so she was irritated that the subplot went nowhere.  Westlake was irritated by something else.

Other than the two linked protagonists, the most central character in Strangers on a Train is a private detective named Arthur Gerard, who did odd jobs for Charles Bruno’s father (the father Bruno wanted Guy Haines to murder for him). He’s the deus ex machina in the story–out of both professional integrity and loyalty to his dead employer, he will relentlessly investigate the elder Bruno’s death if there’s even the slightest whiff of foul play about it, and he seems to have almost unlimited spare time and resources with which to do so.  (And it somehow never occurs to Bruno to just kill him first.)

He’s the primary reason Bruno can’t do the job himself, since he’s been basically waiting for Bruno to try something.  And before the story is over, after following a few false trails, he’s figured out exactly what happened, who did what to whom and and why, linked two seemingly unconnected murders in New York and Texas–he might as well have read an advance copy of the novel, so perfect is his understanding of each man’s character and motivation.  He might as well have written the book himself.   And at the end, when Guy finally unburdens his conscience with a confession (to somebody who couldn’t care less), Gerard is standing outside the door, taking notes.

Yeah.  You can see why Hitchcock wrote him out of the movie (though in a sense, he later had a version of him written into Psycho, played by Simon Oakland, who would have made a perfect Gerard, which is weird, but let’s not get too sidetracked here).

Westlake isn’t about the detectives; not in that sense of the word.  Neither is Highsmith, really–she was feeling her way into the genre with this one–she learned fast which clichés to discard.  If Gerard ever showed up in one of the later Ripley novels, he’d probably be leaving it feet first. But here he makes Holmes look like Lestrade.  And just to get it out there, he’s clearly drawn from Javert in Les Miserables, and the producers of The Fugitive later named their relentlessly pursuing Hugo-esque detective Gerard, and never once mentioned Highsmith as an influence.  Maybe she and David Goodis should have filed a class action suit together.  Well no, they wouldn’t have gotten along.  Not without a lot of alcohol in the mix, anyway. What were we talking about?

Westlake ended The Ax with a perfectly good professional detective making a perfectly understandable mistake.  Johnson isn’t even that important–he’s a McGuffin, is all.  Last we see of him, he’s telling Bryce they’re going to ‘open’ the case on his wife’s murder–which in cop-speak means they’re closing it, and will never look at it again, unless something new comes up.

He may suspect Bryce a little, he doesn’t suspect Wayne at all, he knows something funny is going on here, but he’s not magic, he didn’t read a story outline in advance, he has to work on other cases, and professionalism aside, he doesn’t really care who murdered Lucie Proctorr.  In short, he’s a real detective, not a fictional one.  Though he’s tried his hand at writing detective fiction, just as a sideline.  It’s never worked out for him.  Takes a certain kind of mind.   Not necessarily a compliment.

So there’s no point waiting for the detectives to show up, and Westlake isn’t quite sure there was any point to it in the original version of this story.  That’s not what the story is about, nor is it really about guilt driving the two men mad. Neither is really all that guilty. It’s about how they’ve so badly blurred the line between reality and fiction that they don’t know which is which anymore.

Bryce turned Wayne into a character in one of his novels.  But Wayne is a writer too, and he had to improvise his own story within the general outline.  He’s taken over part of Bryce’s life (while losing his own, since he still can’t get published under his own name), and Bryce feels like his life has become a fiction, and he still can’t write a thing worth reading.

Joe Katz is increasingly aware of Bryce’s professional paralysis.  There’s another deadline looming, and it just happens to be for the last novel in Bryce’s contract with the publisher.  He’s already taken a lot of advance money he has not provided the goods for.   He informs a horrified Bryce that they might have to demand he give that money back (and of course he’s spent most of it already).

What made Joe so convinced Bryce Proctorr is no longer ‘Bryce Proctorr’?  More than anything else, it was an interview he did for the New York Review of Books. Conducted, if you’d believe it, by Wayne Prentice.  Complete coincidence, NYRB didn’t even know the two men were acquainted, but Wayne had done some writing for them already.  They would normally ignore someone like Bryce (as they mainly ignored Westlake), but he’s become so famous, he’s a sort of cultural icon, in spite of the fact that most serious literary critics wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.  They want to get his perspective on writing.  They promise not to poke fun.

So Wayne drives out to Connecticut, and conducts the interview.  He goes back to New York, reviews the tapes, and ultimately opts to write both the questions and answers himself and submit the piece, which is very well-received).  But Joe got hold of the original transcript through Wayne.  And here’s why I’ve had so few quotes in this review.  I wanted to make space for this passage.

For the record, Wayne’s question is “Were you influenced by Borges?” Relating to The Garden of Forking Paths.  Here is Bryce’s response, verbatim.  There is no indication in the book that Bryce ever smoked a doobie in his life.

“Duality…is, of course, naturally it’s in all of us, opposites and the movements of selfs under the skin, and the feeling that this can’t be happening to me, but then what is?  What is happening, if not what is?  From that point of view, every decision has to be inevitable, no way to get away from what was decided, because history then flows, you see, flows, history flows from each decision, and when we stand up here, you see, you see?  when you stand up here on this hilltop this is where you are and you could not have been here if you hadn’t decided the way you did way back there.  Of course, naturally, of course, if you made  a different decision then, that would be the right, the correct one, the only one, the only possible, the only way you could have gone, if only you’d thought, if only you’d thought it through, and now today, you see, you do see, don’t you?  today you’d be on some other hilltop looking back and you would see that you were right and that was the only possible hilltop, that was the only possible hilltop, if only you’d been patient, and you can’t even see that hilltop from there, where you are instead, you can’t get to it, you can’t ever get to it, but you certainly know, you know now, you should have known then, you should have known, you were thinking like a madman, worse, you were thinking like a storyteller, telling a story, with a hook, and you didn’t see there were other, other, there were other, oh, let’s call them scenarios, and the multiplicity of the scenarios, yes, forking paths, that’s good, I don’t know about a garden, but this multiplicity opens and then closes like stones, like giant stones closing, and all the variables, the variations, what shall we say, diversity, the multiformity narrows, constricts, strangles, until there’s only the one, and that it’s the only one is not the excuse, that it’s the inevitable is not the excuse, that it’s the only thing that could have happened only because it’s the only thing that did happen is not the excuse, and we’re left with a duality that is in the spirit, a remorse, a wish undone, a desire for a forking path, a garden, yes, a desire for a flower that does not grow, which is where I’ve always, my hand has always reached out, but the image and the reality are wrong, to bring us back to your question, the desire for another reality is what makes the writer of fiction, the teller of tales, to bring us back to your question, the liar, the one who forces his reality onto the world but the graft, to bring us back to your question, the graft can never survive on this new root, on this hilltop, this one, here.  Which I suppose is what I was writing about, if I’d ever cared to pay attention.  However, I’ve never read Borges.”

Me neither, and I’ve always meant to.

Even Valerie Sayers was a little impressed by that passage.  She probably had read Borges, but almost certainly not Adios, Scheherazade, or she’d have known Westlake was on familiar ground here, charting the chaos of a writer’s mind when he no longer knows what he wants to write, questions every choice he ever made, because to be a writer of fiction is to be, in a certain limited sense, God–and what mortal being can believe he or she is qualified for that job, if he or she ever makes the fatal error of seriously thinking about it?

But the difference here is that Bryce Proctorr is not some anonymous scribbler of obscure smutty paperbacks who can just fade away into a nirvana of self-realization–he’s a prisoner of his own name, his own fame, and he can’t get away from that, ever.

He can’t even confess what he did to the police and take his punishment–he confesses to his first wife, the one he left for Lucie, so she won’t be caught unprepared when he turns himself in.  She rages at him; how selfish can you be, how immoral, don’t you realize this will destroy your children’s lives, you’re a celebrity!  And she’s right.  But she’s also being very selfish and immoral herself, of course.  It’s pretty much the default human response to life.  And here we are on a hilltop (or maybe the top of a certain tower in Manhattan), wondering how we got here, and how the hell we get back down again.  Jump?

Wayne is still a writer, so he can still distract himself with fiction, but he sees a real danger to himself in Bryce’s mental confusion, their destinies being so interlinked.  He also sees a real opportunity–Bryce needs another novel, and he’s got one.  The Shadowed Other.  He’s going to make Bryce’s real name his pen name. Joe will look the other way, pretend it isn’t happening, so the brandname can survive. Wayne Prentice will become Bryce Proctorr for real. Why not?  How is that any different than writing as Tim Fleet?  If you gotta ask…..

He and Susan move into the house in Connecticut, so as to keep Bryce on as even a keel as possible, see that he doesn’t make any impromptu confessions, keep alive the fiction that Bryce Proctorr had anything to do with writing the book Wayne already wrote.  Wayne will just convince Bryce by degrees that it’s a collaboration, and at the same time, he’ll amass a trail of evidence that Bryce is mentally unstable–so that if he ever does crack and make a clean breast of things, his testimony won’t be admissable in court.  And seriously, who’d even believe such a thing?  Murder somebody’s wife for a book deal?  It’s just another of Bryce’s rejected story ideas, that he came to think was real.  Just another hook.

But Bryce isn’t going to confess.  He’s past that point now.  All he can think about is the murder.  Lucie’s murder.  If only he’d been there.  He should have been there.  He needs to know what it was like.  There must be a way.  Wayne has gone out.  It’s the housekeeper’s day off.  He walks into Susan’s room–she and Bryce never liked each other–he calls her Lucie.  “My name is Susan,” she says.  “Not anymore,” he responds.  End story.  Joe won’t be editing this one.  Johnson, maybe.  Hey, maybe he can write a book about it!

I could go into many more details about the shadowed other to this book that is Strangers on a Train; where the tracks divide and where they converge again, but here’s my advice.  Read the book.  It’s better than this one, as I said to start with, just as it’s better than the Hitchcock film most people remember it for–but not in every respect.  The multifarious Mr. Westlake had some very different things to say than the talented (but often tunnel-visioned) Ms. Highsmith.  They surely differed on many a subject.  But there were times when they gazed steely-eyed upon the same world, those two.  And unfortunately, the world they saw at those times was more than a fiction.  And less.

I liked it better the second time through, probably because I had more context to work with this time.  I don’t rank it among Westlake’s best work, but I do consider it one of his more interesting ‘problem books.’  It was certainly problematic to review, but next up is another Parker novel, and those are always simple, right?

Here’s my problem–this is the first thing by Donald Westlake I ever read in my life.  I consider it the weakest novel he ever wrote as Richard Stark.  It was used as the basis for one of the very worst film adaptations Westlake ever got (hopefully not the last one, but the box office was awful).  And it’s set mainly in Florida.  The most boring part of Florida (and the richest).

But here it is in the queue.  Can’t go around it.  And I’d take the worst thing Stark ever wrote over the best thing Clancy or Cussler (or Kosiński) ever pretended to write.  I couldn’t possibly say about Borges.

Belated post-script:  I had read in the past, but completely forgot until just now, that the British edition of this book had a completely different title. So there is one cover image I missed, but I’m not at all sorry not to have featured it up top.


I have no idea why this happened.  Some kind of copyright issue?  Titles aren’t copyrighted.  Corkscrews play no role in the story at all (as a murder weapon or anything else).  The word corkscrew doesn’t even appear in the book.  Perversity, thy name is Brit.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Hook

Wayne said, “Let me tell you the world we live in now.  It’s the world of the computer.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“People don’t make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions.” Wayne leaned closer.  “Let me tell you what’s happening to writers.”

“Wayne,” Bryce said gently, “I am a writer.”

“You’ve made it,” Wayne told him.  “You’re above the tide, this shit doesn’t affect you.  It affects the mid-list guys, like me.  The big chain bookstores, they’ve each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don’t order more than thirty-five hundred.  So there’s thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand.”

Bryce said, “There’s only one way for that to go.”

As has been made evident many times in the past here, I enjoy trying to guess which past works of fiction might have helped inspire whatever Westlake opus I am reviewing at a given moment.  You may not necessarily agree with my guesses, but we certainly agree that’s what they are, and no doubt I’ve been wrong sometimes.  The exercise is, nonetheless, highly pleasurable to me.  Sometimes Mr. Westlake deprives me of that speculative pleasure by making his debt to another writer so blatant and unequivocal that it scarcely seems worth the mentioning.

As is the case with this book, but since Valerie Sayers (at that time the author of  five novels and a professor of English, at Notre Dame no less) completely failed to mention that debt in her well-written and somewhat condescending review for the New York Times, I might as well get it out there, just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not a Hitchcock buff, Prof. Sayers?  I won’t even inquire about Highsmith.  Why does the Times so frequently choose non-mystery authors to review mystery books?  A mystery in itself.  Perhaps they confused her with Dorothy?  An idle whimsy, never mind.

Now in all fairness, maybe Sayers (a South Carolinian of Irish Catholic descent, out of the Flannery O’Connor school, and that’s all fine by me) thought the similarity was too obvious to mention as well, or she figured all genre lit is derivative. (Southern Gothic isn’t a genre, you see–it’s a subgenre.  Entirely different.)  Or maybe she didn’t want to sound like she was crying plagiarism when all she really wanted was to deride Westlake’s shallow characterization and over-conceptualized plotting. But I strongly suspect she never made the Highsmith connection at all.  Maybe if there’d been a tennis match or a carousel in Westlake’s book?  Oh, that was mean.

It is not plagiarism, in and of itself, for one writer to react to another.  There is no writer worth talking about who does not do this habitually.  With her own book, Highsmith was clearly reacting to Dreiser, not to mention Dostoevsky (and they were all reacting to Poe). Westlake might have been a bit less careful here than he would have been had Highsmith been alive, and had he not been under the gun a bit (we’ll talk about that), but it’s really no different than his various creative reworkings of Red Harvest.  Less enthusiastic, perhaps–more self-conscious–an older man’s book.

A summary online search reveals that pretty much everybody other than Sayers made mention that Mr. Westlake was fishing with a borrowed hook here.  He wasn’t trying to hide it, and it wasn’t something you really could hide, from anyone who knew the genre at all.  You’re supposed to see the influence, think about it, what it means, compare and contrast.

Strange that Sayers would say in her review that the story Westlake tells here isn’t about character, when it’s riffing on the work of a writer who virtually drowns you in character, after first hitting you with an oar, and throwing you over the side.  Highsmith’s morbid missives take place more or less entirely in the heads of one or several people, expressing to us what seems to be their every waking thought (without going full stream of consciousness, like Mr. Joyce and his many imitators), which makes her work, in equal measure, fascinating and frustrating.  She writes good stories, but she’s primarily interested in aberrant dysfunctional personalities, and she was to all accounts a ranking authority on the subject.

(I’m being territorial here, I’m quite aware, about the Times review, another weakness of mine.  Valerie Sayers is a very fine writer, and has a sharp eye for detail–many trustworthy people have said so, and looking at a sampling of her work, I saw no reason to doubt them.  She got another novel out in 2013. A university press this time; her relationship with Doubleday must have ended by the time she wrote her review of The Hook, for reasons that The Hook might indeed help illumine–she grudgingly concedes Westlake knows his onions when it comes to the world of publishing.

Let me say in passing that a quick glance at her resumé and a general working knowledge of human nature gives me the distinct impression that she would have needed to be a living saint to not have had a hostile reaction to this book, hardly Westlake’s best work, but there’s no indication in her review that she’s ever read anything of his before, even The Ax.  She almost certainly hadn’t read Highsmith, and makes a passel of assumptions no dedicated mystery reader ever would.  If her review is a touch on the jaundiced side, I blame the Times for assigning it to her in the first place.

Westlake was known to write critically of other people’s books as well, often for the Times. I think he was a more perceptive critic than Sayers, but I would, wouldn’t  I?  Scratch a writer, find a backbiter, one of his themes here.  Maybe that entire practice of the literary circular firing squad should be reconsidered.

He could well have gotten a crack at one of hers at some point, except she didn’t publish any books at all between 1996 and 2013–you see my point about how this one might have rubbed her the wrong way.  Her 1996 book doesn’t seem to have gotten a Times review.   Publisher’s Weekly sort of gently panned it.  Her very well-reviewed 2013 offering seems to be a metatextual ode to baseball, certainly an under-covered subject in highbrow lit, and maybe I better get back to Westlake before I drown us all in sarcasm.)

Westlake, to be sure, liked to get at character both more obliquely and concisely than Highsmith did in her novels–he was the master of the thumbnail portrait, particularly when writing as Richard Stark (the part of himself that most resembled Highsmith), and he liked to let the actions of the characters tell us who they were as much as possible, while still reserving the omniscient narrator’s right to sum them up.

But he, like Highsmith, was all about identity, how it changes in response to external stimuli, exigencies beyond the individual’s control, and most of all our relationships with others.  His protagonists usually coped better with the dire situations he put them in than hers did.  Not always, though.

So yes, he took a stripped down plot device from a famous mystery novel (less famous for the book than the movie, the latter of which I’d summarize as a more efficiently told story about far less interesting people, probably true of most Hitchcock adaptations), and I’ll just say it now–he did not improve on the original, any more than The Master of Suspense did.  Did he expect to?  I don’t know.  But he clearly thought there were things he could do with the basic premise that Highsmith did not, otherwise he wouldn’t have tried.

Really, the author he was most obviously copying from here was himself. In my review of The Ax, I referred to an essay Westlake wrote but never published, now featured in The Getaway Car, in which he expressed his frustration that he was having ‘second novel problems’ after publishing scores of novels.  His editors, publishers, agents, spouse, etc, all told him that whatever book came out after The Ax under his own name had to be special, couldn’t be humorous, couldn’t be Dortmunder, couldn’t be some sexy tropical romp. It had to be bloody, hard-edged, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.  In other words, they wanted him to prove The Ax wasn’t a fluke.  (I might personally observe that masterpieces are all flukes, by definition, but I wasn’t involved in that conversation.)

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “This was your greatest commercial and critical success ever; now go do it again.”  Easy for them to say.  So anyway, he had a bunch of ideas, many from past books of his (Cops and Robbers, A Likely Story, others), but he clearly did read (probably reread) Highsmith’s book around this time, and saw so much more clearly than most ever would, what Highsmith was getting at with it–and where she’d gone wrong, because as powerfully unsettling a first novel as it is, it’s also crammed with journeyman blunders that would have made his typing fingers itch, and of course he and Highsmith would not be of a like mind about everything (a serious understatement).  And anyway, a good story is always worth revisiting, updating.

She might have been in his mind then because of her recent death, in 1995.  Since she and Westlake shared a publisher at one point–reportedly not a happy time for Otto Penzler–there’s no way she wasn’t aware of Westlake as a writer, but I don’t know which of her contemporaries she read, or whether she liked any writers other than her patron Graham Greene (I think they mainly just corresponded, probably an aid to friendly relations).  Liking people was never really her thing.  But this novel we’re looking at strongly suggests that writers having issues with other writers is not just a Highsmith thing.  Cats on a hot tin printing press.

I’m not clear on when he was first approached to write a screenplay adaptation of Ripley Under Ground–the film was produced in 2003, but as was frequently the case, they didn’t use much if any of Westlake’s treatment, and went to another writer after him, which would have drawn things out.  So a very good chance this book bears some connection to that project, and the reading he’d have done for it, to get her voice right.

I understand the finished film was terrible, not that I’d know, since it’s damned difficult to find.  I’ve read the novel, which I’m inclined to call the best thing of Highsmith’s I’ve read thus far–not quite as good as The Ax, but it’s close–her career batting average was better than his, but she showed up to play a lot less often.  Anyway, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, and to rank them is a waste of time.

I’ve just finished Strangers on a Train (I do my research), and I get the feeling she spent much of her subsequent career reworking that story, trying to fix it, with varying levels of success. Like Westlake, there were other directions she might have gone in as a writer (see Carol, originally known as The Price of Salt, which got published right away, unlike Westlake’s Memory), but she found a comfortable commercial niche in crime–comfortable for her in ways beyond the commercial. As many had learned before her, and since, you can get away with things in that genre that would raise too many eyebrows in a ‘serious book.’  And make a nice living doing it–she left a substantial estate behind when she died, though no heirs to enjoy it.

I’ve still read relatively little of her, but I’m in the process of emending that deficiency now, and for all her failings as a person, as a writer I consider her one of our very best, a lone sentinel on the ramparts of social alienation, with some troubling insights to share.  A true American original.  Who never much liked Americans either, but it would take too long to list all the subsets of humanity Patricia Highsmith disliked–easier to just say she didn’t like humans.  Least of all herself.  We can all relate, sometimes.

It’ll take me a while to get through her.  She isn’t someone you necessarily want to binge-read.  That could be deleterious to your mental outlook.  Unlike Westlake, whose range of interests and voices and moods could seem unlimited, she was very intently focused on a small handful of themes in her novels, and really just one dark prevailing tone–both a weakness and a strength.  As was Westlake’s need to keep changing up.  Which he was not, as mentioned, permitted to do right after The Ax.  And hence The Hook.  Not as startlingly original as the book that inspired it, or as searingly relevant as the book it was supposed to serve as the informal follow-up to, but a book has to be evaluated on its own merits (if any), so let’s do that now.

Bryce Proctorr, best-selling author, is doing research for a novel at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library (not the grand stone ediface with the lions, but the much less distinguished-looking glass & steel structure across 5th Ave. from it).   It seems he’s not doing research for a book he’s working on, so much as harvesting background material on various exotic locales he might set a book in, if he ever got an idea worth pursuing.

His publishing niche seems to be mainly books about foreign intrigue and adventure, espionage, that sort of thing.  Along the lines of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and similarly lucrative.  That most contradictory of creatures, a celebrity scribbler.  One of his many readers recognizes him there, asks for his autograph, and he’s outwardly polite, inwardly bored, happens to him all the time.  Then he recognizes someone.

Wayne Prentice.  Also a novelist, also doing research.  He and Bryce used to know each other, back when both were struggling to make it.  They lost touch, haven’t seen each other in twenty years.  (Valerie Sayers was struck by their last names–‘Proctor and Apprentice?’ she mused.  She somehow didn’t twig to the fact that their first names combine into Bryce Wayne.  Because they will become each other’s alter egos, secret identities.  I mean, seriously, how hard a reference is that to spot, if you’re actually looking for hidden meanings?  I’m sorry to keep bringing this up, it’s just irritating to me.  It was probably more amusing for Westlake.  He got used to the critics underestimating him.  Beneath the radar once more.)

Bryce hesitates before approaching–the perils of wealth and fame–suppose Wayne hits him up for money?–but he’s curious, and they were friends, and he knows he’s not really getting anything professional done at the library–this will be a welcome distraction.  Wayne is likewise both delighted and embarrassed to see Bryce.  They decide to adjourn to a nearby bar, and catch up.  (They aren’t on a train in the late 40’s, when rich people still took trains, so there’s no private drawing room they can chat in.)

As they sip a pair of Bloody Marys (okay, Sayers couldn’t have missed that, no need to belabor the obvious), Wayne opens up about his professional woes.  He’s not researching a novel.  He’s looking up colleges out in the boonies that might hire him to teach; writing, English, whatever.  His career as a novelist has itself become an exercise in fiction.  Nobody will publish him, and a writer who can’t get published isn’t a writer anymore, in his view of things–just a hobbyist.

He explains to Bryce about the bookstore chains, the computers keeping tabs on your sales, the ever-declining sales, leading to less and less assistance and promotion from the publisher, which leads in turn to still further declines in sales.  He was successful enough at first, but the new publishing landscape is merciless to writers who are established enough to command a decent advance, but not famous enough to deliver the big numbers. He got around this for a while through a subterfuge that nobody understood better than Donald E. Westlake.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Wayne said.  “All over this town, people are writing their first novel again.”

It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned, and said “A pen name.”

“A protected pen name.  It’s no good if the publisher knows.  Only the agent knows it’s me.”  Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head.  “It’s a complicated life,” he said.  “Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I’m an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I’m an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent.  If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it’s all done by E-mail.”

“As though it’s E-mail from Milan.”

“Nothing could be easier.”

Bryce laughed.  “They think they’re E-mailing you all the way to Italy and you’re…”

“Down in  Greenwich Village.”

So Wayne Prentice became Tim Fleet, and for a while, Tim Fleet was a successful writer, getting bigger advances than Wayne had recently, because the computer didn’t know him. It wasn’t perfect–no way to do book tours, promotion was problematic, but they were evaluating each book in its own right, not on the basis of past track record.  And eventually the computers caught up, and the same thing happened all over again.  Wayne doesn’t think he can pull the same trick twice.  So he’s worked up a resumé for the colleges, and he’s depressed as all hell about it.

If the goal of fiction is indeed to ‘write what you know,’ Westlake could not be on more solid footing here.  Professionally, he was roughly equi-distant between Bryce and Wayne–never a best-selling author, but well-established enough under his various names that the bookstore computers could only hurt him so much.  He did, in fact, think about taking a teaching job at one point, but more because revenue from script-writing had flagged.  He never (that we know of) had a fully protected pseudonym that even the publisher didn’t know was him, but after the Samuel Holt fiasco, he certainly must have regretted not giving that a try.

Think for a moment, before we proceed, how incredibly difficult it is to make your living as a novelist in the modern age, not that it ever was easy.  Think about how many people are lining up for their share of an ever-shrinking market–because there is still probably nothing anyone dreams of more than saying at some social gathering “My new novel is in stores now.”  It’s the damn 19th century romantic movement.  Used to be nobody of any substance wanted to admit to writing fiction.  Or to being an actor.  Those were the days.

Rich famous people like Bill O’Reilly, who have absolutely no reason to write a novel (and 99.999% of the time, no ability) do so anyway, because it’s just such a neat thing to be able to say.  Admit it–you’ve fantasized about having a book in stores, standing by the book rack, holding a copy with the photograph of you on the back dust jacket exposed, waiting to be recognized.  I certainly have. Everybody who has ever read a novel has thought about writing one. Thankfully, that’s all most of us ever do, but imagine what it’s like for those who choose it as their daily profession, and don’t want to do anything else for the rest of their lives.

A handful will, to be sure, gain such a reputation for this or that book that they can more or less live off of that forever (looking at you, J.D. Salinger, and maybe you too, Miss Harper Lee, which isn’t fair, since neither of you are living at all now), but what kind of life is that?  If you make furniture for a living, if that’s what you love to do, would you be happy knowing that you’re so famous for this one table you produced that you don’t ever need to make another one, and if you ever did, people would just compare it unfavorably to the earlier one?

Let’s say you had this amazing sexual encounter with a stranger once, and you were on fire that night, performed beyond your wildest expectations, and when it was all over, your partner said, with hushed reverence, “Not to insult you, or demean what you and I just shared, but I feel I must leave two hundred dollars on the nightstand.”  And you take the money, not feeling at all dirtied, but rather ennobled, and you treasure that achievement always, as well you should, and maybe it even happens a few times more, though the stack of bills by the bedside keeps shrinking.

Even so–would you then, when asked at a party what you do for a living, declare with pride, “I’m a hooker!”?  Of course not!  Because to do something once, or even several times, is not the same thing as making it your job.  Your job is what you do, day in, day out, until you can’t do it anymore, at which point it is no longer your job, no longer who and what you are.  You are only a novelist for as long as you keep writing novels, with at least a decent chance of getting them published, and the publisher pays you, not the other way around.(Okay, maybe self-publishing on the internet is blurring the lines of this definition a bit–but not much.  Making it easier to kid yourself.  Blogs can work too.)

So Westlake is telling us how he feels about writing–it’s more than just a job to him, it’s an addiction, a craving, a hunger he can only satisfy by getting another book on the shelves of increasingly mercenary booksellers and their cold-hearted computers.   And the difference, as he put it once, between being in or out of print, is being alive or dead.  And what wouldn’t you do to keep that?   To keep your very sense of selfhood alive a while longer?

And even though Bryce Proctorr is a famous wealthy novelist, who hit it big soon enough that he never even heard about any of this computer crap until Wayne told him, he’s got his own identity crisis going on.  He’s in the middle of a bitter divorce battle with his second wife, Lucie, who is quite determined to get half of everything he’s got.  Including half of any books he produces between now and the official end of their marriage.  And the stress of all this has made it impossible for him to produce anything, for a year and a half now.  He’s well behind deadline, and his editor is making politely impatient noises, that will soon become louder and more insistent.

And honestly, for all the money he’s made–Wayne tries not to gasp when Bryce lets it slip his advance is over a million–there really isn’t that much left.  One ex-wife already, three kids to put through college, and he’s gotten used to the finer things in life (the more you make, the more you spend; the more you spend, the more you need to make in order to maintain your spending; the joys of the upwardly mobile lifestyle in a nutshell).

Sure, he wouldn’t be penniless if he hung it all up, but he wouldn’t be Bryce Proctorr either.  He’d be some has-been hack, with no reason to go on, washed up in his mid-40’s.  Never taken seriously by the critical establishment, forgotten by everyone else.  Just another name you see on some tattered mass-market paperback at a garage sale.  (Whatever did happen to Mario Puzo, by the way?)

And he’s just now getting a brilliant and rather evil idea (and really, aren’t all brilliant ideas just a little bit evil?), as well as providing this book with its title. What’s great about talking to Wayne is that they’re both professional storytellers, they both think in the same basic terms, speak the same language.  To them, fiction is not a metaphor for life, so much as life is a metaphor for fiction.

“Wayne, listen,” Bryce said.  “You know how you–You know, you’re working along in a book, you’re trying to figure out the story, but where’s the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can’t get it and you can’t get it and you can’t get it, and then all of a sudden there it is!  You know?

“Sure,” Wayne said.  “It has to come, or where are you?”

“And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for.”

“Those are the best,” Wayne said.

“I just found my hook,” Bryce told him.

Wayne has a book he can’t get published–written by Tim Fleet, who almost nobody knows is Wayne Prentice.  Bryce says that can be his next book–he’ll just rewrite it enough so the few people who read the manuscript when it was making the rounds won’t recognize it.  Proctorr-ize it.  He’s read some of Wayne’s stuff under the Fleet name, liked it–he knows Wayne is good enough to impress his publisher, once he’s decked out in the Emperor’s old clothes.  He’ll split his advance with Wayne, 50/50–over half a million bucks.

Wayne can’t believe Bryce is even suggesting this, though in fact it’s a very poorly kept secret that both Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler have done this multiple times (Drowned Hopes contains a reference to a writer named Justin Scott, a crafter of nautical adventures, who is also known to have produced novels of the same general type that were accredited to the Clive Cussler brandname–probably most of Cussler’s readers never noticed the difference, except maybe to say “Hey, Clive’s stepped up his game with this one!”), and they were both probably a lot less generous in terms of the split.  Um–now that we’re on the subject– why so generous, Bryce?

Because there’s a catch.  A hook, if you will.  The book needs to be submitted soon.  The divorce may drag on for years.  Lucie will get half the advance if the book is completed before the divorce is final.  Bryce needs his half, in order to go on living in the manner to which he has become accustomed.  For Wayne to get Lucie’s half, Lucie’s gotta go.  He wants Wayne to kill her.  They may not be complete strangers, or on a train, but it’s close enough.  In return, Bryce will sacrifice his own sense of professional pride on the bloody altar of necessity by using a ghostwriter, which for a novelist is probably the more serious crime of the two.  So still trading murders.

Now.  Here’s my question.  Did Westlake start out writing another book along the lines of A Likely Story, that masterful and murder-free satire of the publishing biz that hardly anybody read?  Only to then be informed by various persons in authority that satire is well and good, but if he wants this book to sell, he needs to recognize that people will expect some kind of criminal activity from him, such as murder, and all the more after The Ax and the return of Richard Stark (his Tim Fleet) reestablished him as something more than just that guy who writes comic capers about baffled burglars.

And at the same time, he was in the early stages of adapting a novel by the late Ms. Highsmith into a movie, and he was not just reading that specific book by her, and he saw how her narrative hook in her first and still best-known novel–and the ideas behind it, the sense of compromised identity, a dark relationship between secret sharers (forgot to mention Conrad on Highsmith’s list of influences) that corrupts and destroys both protagonists–could fit into what he was doing here.  Or maybe he intended all this from the first.  I’m just curious. Because in a certain weird way, this book is a collaboration between him and a writer he may never have even met.

But suffice it to say Valerie Sayers was far more correct than she knew when she said this was a sort of meta-textual commentary on the writing of genre books–it’s a meta-textual commentary on the career of its author, and many another as well (I still think Sayers felt more of a sense of self-recognition there than she was comfortable with).  But she sort of sniffed a bit when she said it, dismissing the effort as somehow trivial, and was she right to do so?

Is this an unsatisfactory compromise of a book, stuck between two modes of storytelling?  Pretending to be a nice diverting suspense novel about murderous writers, while really playing around with another writer’s much earlier idea, turning it into a way to comment on the relationship between fiction and life?

(Though I might mention on the side, because I apparently can’t help myself, that I noted Sayers doing something quite similar in one of her books I was leafing through last week, that was published a few years before The Hook came out.  This character of hers, an aspiring writer, is right in the middle of a dramatic situation with a woman he’s involved with, and even as he deals with that sticky situation, he’s thinking to himself how he’s going to have to rewrite the book he’s composing in his head about their relationship to accommodate his altered perception of her.  Writers probably can’t stop themselves from doing that, fictionalizing daily existence, while cannibalizing daily existence for the building blocks of their fiction–but honestly, can anybody stop doing that these days?  David Copperfield was doing it back in 1849, and it’s only gotten worse since then.)

So I’m only a few pages into the book here, but we bloggers have our own self-imposed deadlines to deal with, internalized editors nagging us, and I’m sure I’ll have many more snarky and unfair things to say about Valerie Sayers’ review in Part 2 (why does she get paid and I do not!), but I will try to actually finish the review next time, and if I fail in that attempt, well, it wouldn’t be my first three-parter, would it now?  Here’s hoping the hook is sufficiently well stuck in your mouths for you all to come back and find out.  See, I really am a hooker.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Addendum: Genealogy of a Hunter


Generally speaking, I don’t think writers know who they are; it’s a disability–and an advantage–they share with actors. And it’s probably just as well, really. Self-knowledge can lead to self-consciousness, and in a writer self-consciousness can only lead to self-parody. Or silence.

Whereas actors receive an endless supply of surrogate identities in the roles they’re given to play, writers tend to begin their search for identity in their predecessors. Every one of us began by imitating the writers we loved to read. Those writers had made their worlds so real and appealing for us that we tried to move in and live there.

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

I’ve had this article in mind for quite a while now, and I’ve put off writing it for a reason. I didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. And I still don’t, and it’s increasingly clear to me that I may never have them all.   I keep coming across another piece, then still another, and they’ve started to accumulate.  I’ve got a pile of books on my desk to prepare for writing this, and I just realized, the morning I started writing this, that there’s another book I have to read, and thankfully it’s on Kindle, so I can download it, finish it in a day or two, and see if it’s worth adding to the pile.  But the pile will probably never stop growing.  So maybe I better start writing.

The Hunter is a deceptively simple book, much like Parker is a deceptively simple character.  There are hidden depths under all that bare bones language, those emotionless onyx eyes.   It runs 155 tersely worded pages in the original paperback edition–a book that was specifically designed to fit any decent-sized pocket, which is why the publisher called itself Pocket Books.  I’ve often taken that quite literally, when in the process of reading one in the course of a workday.   That image of the book up top is substantially larger than the book itself, at least on my computer screen.   Your device may differ.   But the book itself, in any edition, never changes, never dates, never needs an upgrade.

You can get lost in those 155 pages.  I’ve no idea how many online reviews there are (in all languages?  hundreds, at least), but a while back, somebody actually started a blog devoted to nothing more than analyzing the entire book, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence.  And I thought that a worthy endeavor, and also thought maybe he didn’t have quite enough context to pull it off yet, but look who’s talking.  He stopped updating, and now I can’t find it anymore.

Those who try to bring this story to life in another medium invariably founder on the rocks of its seemingly simple narrative, adding bells and whistles, subtracting sense–of all its adapters, the late Darwyn Cooke (sad to type ‘the late’ before his name, but everybody’s elevens come up sometime) got closest, by sticking closest.   Still far from a match.  I doubt anybody will ever really capture it.  Like its ‘hero,’ it just can’t adjust to life in captivity.  It always breaks out–slips through the cracks, and it’s gone.

I’m not a deconstructionist–I don’t really want to take it apart like a watch to find out how it works–I can’t do that with a real watch, not that I wear one anymore (even they’ve become obsolescent, except as status symbols).  Westlake often admitted he never fully understood what makes Parker tick.  But he wasn’t averse to explaining what made him, personally, tick–as a writer. What, and whom.  If he liked another writer, learned something from that writer, somewhere or other, he talked about that writer, made his admiration known.  Some he liked much better than others, but a useful lesson–positive or negative–might come from anywhere.

So before I get lost in prologue, let me state the point of this article–I’m looking for all the stories that went into the making of this particular story, and the intimidating figure at its center.  In that introduction I quoted up top, Westlake made it clear there were many.  I’ve made it clear I may never know how many.  Westlake was a voracious and omnivorous reader, who also cheerfully admitted to borrowing heavily from the movies (or had Stark admit it for him).   Maybe you’ve seen some things I’ve missed.  Maybe that’s what the comments section is for.

When I first discovered the Parker novels, only a few years back, I saw people speculating on their influences.  They would mention books, and I’d read them.  I usually ended up feeling that yes, there were parallels, but not very close ones.  Then I’d read something I didn’t connect at all with Parker, more or less by chance, and I’d find something that seemed very direct and obvious to me.  Like this book.

That’s the first edition to the left, from 1936, but I read the 1955 Bantam Books reprint edition to the right, with the title changed to match the Alan Ladd film–and not nearly so pristine a copy as you see above, either.  Picked it up vacationing in Colorado–one of those tiny paperback exchange shops you sometimes find in aging strip malls.  There’s a lot of Greene I’ve yet to get to, and this was one of those.

Believing then, as I do now, that Parker is a wolf in human form, and that Westlake at least sometimes wrote him that way on purpose,  I couldn’t help starting when I saw how Raven, the titular gun of the story, was described as a ‘mangy wolf in a cage.’  That probably helped me to notice that the entire story of his single-minded vendetta against the men who had double-crossed him –that’s Parker’s story in The Hunter.  Very freely adapted.  Raven is an assassin, not a thief.  He was hired to kill an idealistic politician on the continent, who was proving an impediment to a British industrialist who hopes to get another big war going –good for business.

Raven’s employers had betrayed him to the cops after he’d done the job.  They wanted to cover their tracks–he’d resist arrest, get shot down, loose ends all tied up.  In retrospect, this seems like a bit of a plot hole.  Why would they risk him being captured alive, talking to the law?  It’s a fine book, but it has quite a few weak spots, that Westlake would have noted as aptly as its strengths.

The point is, Raven’s hunting the rich man’s paymaster, Cholmondeley, following him to a little industrial town–Raven knows his number is nearly up, and he just wants to take the guys who screwed him over down with him. A compulsion he can’t shake, a driving obsession–maybe even an instinct–he can seem very human and vulnerable at times, but at others he really does seem like some kind of predatory automaton–a killing machine who finally gets pointed in the right direction.

Cholmondeley, a fat frightened flunky, has delusions of being an impresario, uses his money to fund cheap music hall entertainments, and sleep with the showgirls.  That’s how Raven gets him–through that weakness.  Then from Cholmondeley to Sir Marcus, the rich man, a sort of legitimate mobster.  Then the cops kill Raven.  Because he’s still a villain, a murderer, and he’s got to be punished.  Even though technically he just averted, or at least delayed, a second world war (in The Assassination Bureau, Oliver Reed is decorated as a hero, and gets to screw Diana Rigg–unfair!).

It’s more complicated than that, as well as a bit preachy and Little Englander at points, and though Greene was certainly right about a war coming (not so hard to spot on the horizon from Britain in the mid-30’s), it’s rather unfortunate that his rich warmonger is Jewish–that book has actually dated a lot in some respects, but it’s still Graham Greene, and Westlake couldn’t have thought he was going to improve on it–just streamline and repurpose it–get rid of all the excess baggage.

There’s a nice girl caught up in the story, just to remind us what nice people look like, provide a moral underpinning, a witness to Raven’s partial redemption (and someone to point him, like the gun he is, at the real villain of the piece).  But that’s basically the whole story.  Raven’s quest for retribution, which indirectly makes the world safe for Democracy, or whatever.

He’d never had a chance, being raised the way he was, in the class he was born into, with a nasty birth defect (harelip–they never put that in the movies, somehow), but God, Greene quietly implies, was using him for a higher purpose.  And part of me thinks that purpose was to give Donald Westlake the bare bones idea for a book that wouldn’t be even the least bit preachy, about a wolf without a trace of mange in his coat.   Better in every way?  Of course not.  But The Hunter holds together as a narrative in ways A Gun For Sale does not.

Westlake referred to this book more than once (as in the Samuel Holt novel What I Tell You Three Times Is False).   He didn’t come close to plagiarizing Greene’s very different story and protagonist, but he still wanted to quietly admit the debt.

He was never going to come out and say “I got part of the idea for Parker’s hunt for Mal Resnick in The Hunter leading him to (eventually) kill Arthur Bronson in The Outfit from Graham Greene, and that’s why Parker finds Mal with a high class call girl, and Parker is, in some ways, an idealized version of Raven, translated into a Gold Medal style crime fiction paperback.” I mean, just reading that over, you’d see why no professional writer would ever say something like that, unless it was about something long in the public domain.  (Anyway, that probably wasn’t even his only influence for that part of the plot, but another template I’ve since located will have to wait a bit.)

He just saw a fascinating but imperfectly motivated story and protagonist that he thought he could improve on.  And on reflection, I’d say that’s exactly what he did.  It’s not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books (one of his ‘entertainments’, as he called them), and I doubt Greene would have minded that much had he ever noticed, but better safe than sorry.

And I talked about some of this already, in my review of The Hunter, but see, I didn’t stop reading books not written by Westlake after that, so these things keep jumping out at me.  Even just rereading Greene’s book a bit today, I came across a section relating to Anne, the young woman who Raven abducts to keep her from going to the cops, and then her kindness brings out something resembling a conscience in him.

Some other minor villain has bound and gagged Anne, and when Raven finds her that way, unconscious, he’s terrified she’s dead–then she wakes up, and their adventure continues. His emotions on finding her like that are wild, contradictory, confused.  He’s swearing to avenge her before he revives her.

In The Hunter, Parker needs a place to scope out the mob hotel Mal has taken refuge in, and towards that end he knocks out a woman in a beauty shop, binds and gags her, and when he returns, he finds out she’s asphyxiated–she had asthma.  He didn’t mean to kill her, as there was no reason to do so, but feels no remorse, just irritation at the pointlessness of it.  This marks the only time in the twenty-four Parker novels that he causes the death of a (presumably) innocent person.  It sticks out a bit–the shop could just as easily have been deserted, or the woman could have lived. Why put that in there at all?   Aside from the fact that something similar happens in Greene’s book?

Westlake, intrigued by that moment in Greene’s book, wants to test his protagonist’s reaction to having caused the death of someone he had no quarrel with.  He intends for Parker to die at the end, just as Raven did–though he wrote later that this seemed wrong to him at the time, false.  Is life really fair like that?  Death isn’t a moral ending slapped on by the Hayes Office.  Everybody dies, often sooner than they expected.

Westlake’s point is to prove to himself that this character isn’t Raven, who is still very much a human being under all his bloody-minded cynicism.  Parker isn’t eaten alive with resentment and guilt.  We’re not going to hear about his unhappy childhood.  He has no class consciousness, because he’s in a class by himself.  There are certain things he’s got to do, and he does them.  There’s no moral other than “Know yourself, know your capabilities, know what has to be done.”  Someone like Anne might be safe from him, but she’d never get to him.   She wouldn’t be able to appeal to his conscience, use him like a weapon.

That’s the first major influence I found–the most recent relates to Rose (aka Wanda), a bright enticing redhead working for The Outfit as a call girl, who knew Parker in the past, and self-evidently has been carrying a torch for him.  He goes to her hoping she can help him find Mal.  She does, eventually.  It doesn’t work out very well for her.  Parker is carrying no reciprocal torch.

That’s another odd little episode that somehow fits into the book, yet sticks out.  The point of all these encounters is to tell us who Parker is, how he’s different–but in this case, different from whom?  Well, in this case, from Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.


I’ve read very little Chandler.  I’ve long known Westlake wasn’t his biggest fan (as has been multiply attested to, by Lawrence Block and others), but I didn’t really know why. In hardboiled detective fiction, there’s the Hammett School, and there’s the Chandler School, and Westlake was firmly in the first column.  But sometimes he took a little from Column B, just to see how it tasted.

Chandler is basically the guy who invented the popular and deeply stereotyped image of the private detective–yes, Hammett and many others got there first, and Hammett was much better, but Chandler really created most of what we now would call the romantic clichés surrounding private detectives in hardboiled crime fiction.  “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”  Really?  Then how far do you suppose that man’s going to get down those streets?   Is what Westlake was thinking.

Anyway, I’m as much of a sucker for those clichés as anyone, and I had a chance to read a vintage first edition of Farewell My Lovely a short while back, so I took it.  I get why people liked him so much, and still do.  He had some serious skills.  Crafting a solid believable story featuring properly motivated characters was not one of them.  Westlake was on the money, as usual.  But he still would have read quite a bit of Chandler before reaching that conclusion.

No, there’s nothing I can find in the second Marlowe novel (Chandler’s favorite among his books) that reminds me of The Hunter.  Though Moose Malloy reminded me of a less hulking more dimwitted version of Tiny Bulcher.   Different franchise.

Reading the novel put me in mind of the short-lived 1980’s cable series, Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.  Not a creative high point for HBO, but also not without its pleasures, not least of which was Kathryn Leigh Scott’s take on Anne Riordan, a bright enticing redhead who Marlowe first met in Farewell My Lovely (she’s not the title character).  Anne didn’t appear in any subsequent Marlowe novels, but after many years, she made her second and final appearance in 1959, when Chandler published the very last Marlowe story, The Pencil.  He died that same year.

The relationship between Marlowe and Riordan is frustrating.  I mean really frustrating.  They meet cute at a murder scene, and she spends the rest of that book and the subsequent short story throwing herself at him, and he likes her as much as he’s liked any woman.  She is, when you get right down to it, the girl of his dreams, and he keeps giving her the brush-off.  She’s basically too perfect–she likes solving mysteries, she can match Marlowe wisecrack for wisecrack, she doesn’t scare easy, she’s smart as a whip–she’s a dead cop’s daughter.  She knows the score.

And in The Pencil, taking place years after their first encounter (which ended with her asking to be kissed), she lets it drop that she’s still a virgin at 28, and none too pleased about it, and not asking for any jewelry, and they should just adjourn to her nearby bedroom right now.  He doesn’t want to ruin her.  Whatever that means.  So he keeps giving her the brush, and she keeps taking it, and running whatever errands he has for her.  And this is generally regarded as the most convincingly three-dimensional female character Chandler ever created, folks.  I mean, she’s not his long-suffering gal friday, like Sam Spade’s Effie–he’s not even pretending to pay for her services.

Now I head-cast Marlowe as Robert Mitchum a few pages into Farewell My Lovely (Mitchum in the 40’s, I mean–how it took until 1975 for Hollywood to get around to that, I’ll never know–would you believe they wanted Richard Burton for that movie?).  In the books, he’s frequently described as a very attractive man, and he leads an exciting life, and he’s good with the banter. So bearing all that in mind, it’s not implausible Miss Riordan would hold onto a wee torch.  But she’s toting a torch that would snap the Statue of Liberty in half.  (See, you get into the habit of making colorful expressions like that when you read Chandler).

So anyway, why is Anne Riordan in The Pencil, if Marlowe isn’t going to make a dishonest woman of her at last (and didn’t he get married to some simpering heiress in the last novel, that Robert B. Parker finished)?    Because he needs a favor.  He’s got a client who’s had a hit put on him by the syndicate.  Or, as it is known in that 1959 story, The Outfit.

Yeah.  That got your attention.  You thought Westlake was doing research on the Chicago mob for a story set mainly in New York?  Westlake never cared about getting the fine details right when he was writing about organized crime–to him, that’s just a metaphor for corporate culture, organization men.  He got The Outfit from Chandler, or at least the name for it.  But again, what he does with it–entirely different.

Marlowe needs to find out who the hitters the Outfit is sending are, where they’re staying.  So he sends Anne to the airport to spot them, and report back to him.  He’s worried about the risk to her (bizarrely, he’s less worried about this than his mobbed up client, who hasn’t even met Anne), and it seems a bit perverse to use her that way when he could just as easily hire some stringer, but it gets her into the story.

He can talk to her about the wrap-up to the case at the end of the story, when they have dinner at the famous Romanoff’s in L.A., with champagne and everything, and this is the last we see of Philip Marlowe and Anne Riordan, and once Chandler wasn’t around anymore to hold them back, I say they tore each others clothes off right there in the fancy restaurant and did it on the table, while the waiter looked on with a mixture of disapproval and arousal.   Try and stop me, copper!

So again–the same story, turned on its head.  Parker goes to Wanda’s apartment seeking help, appealing to ‘the loyalty of friendship’ as she puts it, somewhat sarcastically.  She’s throwing passes the whole time and he’s not catching any, because he’s Parker.  It’s been explained to us.  No sex while he’s working.  He sort of hints maybe they could get together after he’s done, but only because he needs her help.   If she happened to be there when he was done, he’d give her all she could handle and more, but Parker couldn’t carry a torch if you welded it to one of those big veiny hands of his.

He’s just using her.  And he’s not pretending otherwise, at least not to himself.   Not the way Marlowe uses Anne, while never quite admitting that he’s doing that.  Marlowe has a tendency to say things like “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive.  If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”  I can appreciate the sentiment, and still think to myself that’s a big stack of baloney, and so’s Marlowe, most of the time.

When Parker thinks Wanda’s betrayed him (like Lynn), tipped Mal off, he’s in a rage–much less in control of himself than in the later books.   But she hasn’t, and now fearing for her life, she gets the information he needs, but by a less discreet method, that leads back to her. When Parker leaves, she’s getting ready to pack up and run, before her employers get wise.  He should be guilty about this.  He’s not.   No champagne at Romanoff’s for Parker and Rose/Wanda.  She’s never heard from again.  And the point is that Parker, unlike Marlowe, is an honest bastard.  He’s not dishing out any baloney.

So is that it?  Not even close.  But I think I’m going to need a Part 2 to deal with it all.  And by all, I mean all I’ve found up to now.   There’ll be more, I’ve no doubt.  But let me get something out of the way here–all the books people might think were an influence, but aren’t.  Why?  Because I say so.  But I’ll say why I say so, because that’s what I do here.

People often point to a book written by a different Marlowe, name of Daniel J.   You know the name of that game.  And there’s another book Westlake made no secret of his admiration for (and therefore, a book he’d be damned cautious about taking anything too obvious from).  You may note my title is itself an homage.  And finally, Parker’s one true rival in the field of cold blooded crime fiction bastardry.  Who beat him to the bookstands by seven years.

I’ve read Dan J. Marlowe’s bloody masterpiece maybe three times now–I have a British reprint of the Gold Medal original paperback I cherish like it was made of real gold.  In many ways, it’s the best novel ever written about a bank robber (much more specialized than Parker).  But it’s in the first person, multiple chapters are devoted to telling us where this guy came from and why he is the way he is (short version–it’s always somebody else’s fault), and even though there’s a revenge subplot, it’s got nothing in common with Parker’s.  Telling a story about a thief and killer who has no guilt over being a thief and killer isn’t a plot idea, it’s just a concept that could occur independently to many people. Westlake took nothing from this book.

And that’s not just my opinion.  Because he couldn’t have taken anything from it if he’d wanted to.  Because as we now know, those two books were in the gestation stage about the same time.  (So was I, actually.   Must have been something in the air.)  Westlake showed Lawrence Block the manuscript of the book he was planning to submit to Gold Medal sometime around the end of 1960 or the start of 1961.   And thanks to Charles Kelly’s brilliant biography of Marlowe, we know that at that same time, he was living with a couple in Florida, working on his book.  No way of knowing who finished first, but we can be quite sure there was zero influence on either end–which is not to say they never influenced each other.  That’s an entirely different article I keep putting off writing.

Anatomy of a Killer is clearly a book that influenced Westlake in many ways (he drops little references to it here and there), and elements of it may have gone into the creation of Parker–it came out in 1960, so there was time.  But since that book is itself clearly following in the wake of A Gun For Sale, I’d call it a secondary influence.  Rabe’s assassin is a rather pitiable, almost adolescent figure, who switches off his humanity to do his job.  Rabe usually made his hit men menacing supporting characters, with little in the way of an inner life, but here he wanted to delve deeper into what might make a man choose that job.  Basically the job chose him, and he went along with it.  Then he  meets a pretty girl, and gets confused. Confusion is almost invariably deadly in a Rabe novel (in a Stark novel as well).

Some of how Rabe gets into his characters’ heads, describes their emotions, certainly impacted Westlake.  But that would be just as true of Rabe’s other books, some of which Westlake liked even more.  Point is, it’s mainly a stylistic influence, the way the story is told, much more than the story itself–I’ve read pretty nearly all of Rabe’s books, and I didn’t see much in the way of direct influence–except maybe Westlake was trying to improve on one of Rabe’s weakest books, The Out is Death, when he wrote The Jugger, and as I mentioned in my review of that book, Westlake ended up thinking he’d failed in that attempt (I disagreed, and you can read that review to find out why).

So that leaves Mr. Ripley.  I don’t doubt Westlake read the book within a few years of its publication.  He probably read most of Highsmith, adapted her once (it didn’t work out), admitted to finding her both fascinating and repellent, which was a common enough reaction.  Perhaps he had some problems with Highsmith’s intriguingly convoluted writing style that sometimes makes even her most ardent admirers throw up their hands in despair, but he would have appreciated her gift for looking below the surface of things.  It’s one of the most original pieces of work in all of crime fiction–I’m not sure the qualifier is even needed.  It would be difficult to find a previous story in the annals of popular storytelling where somebody who committed cold blooded murder–not of some stranger, but a friend!–was not punished in some way.

But Ripley and Parker have little else in common.   Ripley feels guilt all the time–it just doesn’t stop him from doing what he feels he has to do. He sees himself as a force for evil.  He doesn’t live in the present like Parker does–the past is always haunting him, often in physical form.  We’re told in almost excruciating detail what he’s thinking and experiencing at all times.  That’s the point, from Highsmith’s POV–to get all the way into  his head, which I’d argue is actually her head–an aspect of her own personality, that she both dislikes and wishes she could give freer rein to.  Ripley is a sociopath, not a wolf in human form.  He’s very much a human being, but with some crucial parts left out, which makes him at the same time more and less free than the rest of us.

And most importantly, Ripley is a dabbler in crime, a dilettante–the ultimate amateur.  Parker is the ultimate professional.  He’s not playing games.  Ripley never does anything else.  Nor does Ripley have that weird trigger in his head like Parker, that when pushed, leads him to incessantly hunt down those who have offended him in some way.

But what both books have in common, of course, is their lack of moral pretense, embodied by a ‘hero’ who defies all social norms, and somehow never pays the price.  So I could see Westlake reading that and wondering if he could get away with it–but he wasn’t in Highsmith’s position.  She wasn’t a huge bestselling author, but she had a certain prestige most crime writers never had, partly because of her association with Hitchcock via Strangers on a Train.  Partly because she became a sort of protege of Graham Greene’s, who rather oddly found her a kindred spirit.  But mainly because most of her books were published in hardcover.  She didn’t do series fiction until the 70’s, and she never did much of it.

She was in a somewhat more refined area of publishing, and she was writing about more refined sorts of characters, and the rules were different.  She was pushing the envelope pretty hard, but she had that option open to her.   Westlake didn’t think he did.  He didn’t even think he could let Parker live past the end of The Hunter, until Bucklin Moon told him that would be the condition for Pocket Books picking up the option Gold Medal had passed on.  Which those who have read my earlier review of The Hunter will know I think was an offer Mr. Moon made for reasons as much personal as professional.

Bad guys are supposed to die, no matter how much you like them.  It’s a fictional convention that stretches far beyond the confines of genre.  You can find it in Tolstoy.  You can find it in ancient mythology.  You can find it in the goddam bible.  Exceptions are rare.  Dan J. Marlowe’s protagonist was only a half-exception, since at the end of his first book he’s alive, unrepentant, but in a sort of living hell.  Ripley is still looking nervously over his shoulder for the cops at the end of his book.   That final shoe doesn’t drop for him until the last novel.

And by the time Ripley came back for another go, Parker had already appeared in a dozen outings.  He, more than than any character in fiction that I know of, would define what it meant to be a really bad guy and get away with it–over and over and over again, with a lot less excess verbiage along the way.   And what makes him so different from any of the other literary badmen I’ve compared him to here is that he keeps his secrets a lot better.   He’s a protagonist treated almost like an enigmatic supporting character.  Because that is, in many ways, how Westlake conceived him.

And when I get back to this–this week, next week, not sure yet–I’ll delve deeper into his consciousness–and his antecedents–without the slightest hope of ever fully comprehending either.  Because Parker always gets away.  The Hunter is never successfully hunted.  But I’ll do my best to stay on the scent.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Deadly Edge



Jessup was half-good, which is the other side of being half-assed.  He knew how to do some things right but he wasn’t careful enough, he didn’t follow through on the reasons for doing this or that or the other.  He would be one of those people who live their lives as a movie, in which they star and direct and write the story.  That kind goes for drama, like traveling with a Manny.  Or the way they  handled Keegan.  Or what they did to Claire with Morris’ body.  And a man like that won’t crawl across a floor to a doorway, not if his life depends on it.

That was the edge Parker had; he knew that survival was more important than heroics.  It isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.

Up to now, the Parker novels were all paperback originals, that never saw a hardcover edition, and could be found at newsstands, drug stores, and other places cheap tawdry books were sold.  No coincidence that in Adios, Scheherazade, Westlake had an alternate universe version of Stark, named Rod Cox (who has a contract with a paperback house called ‘Silver Stripe’) appear as the now-successful author who started out doing near-porn, and is farming out his pseudonym.  The joke there is that Rod isn’t really respectable either.  Respectable authors get published in hardcover, then reprinted in paperback.   The crime paperbacks are right next to the smut at the newsstand.

Westlake had stopped publishing books under his own name at Random House, because he’d signed on with Simon & Schuster–but only as Westlake.   As Tucker Coe, he’d continued to publish books for their hardcover mystery division.  Now Richard Stark would join Coe there.  The Grofield novels written as Stark had already seen hardcover publication at Macmillan’s Cock Robin mystery division–which come to think of it, is probably one reason why the first three Grofields weren’t heist stories.   The typical Stark narrative didn’t fit the publishing niche.

But Westlake obviously continued to maintain professional ties with his first major publisher, and somehow it was arranged for Parker to come over there, as his relationship with Gold Medal fizzled out, along with the market for paperback originals.  That deliciously lurid era of publishing was coming to a close.  Parker and his ilk would need to find alternative venues for their exploits.

Please note that Deadly Edge was not, like most prior Westlake novels for this publisher, referred to as a ‘Random House Mystery’ on the cover.  It doesn’t seem to have been put out specifically by the mystery division there.  It’s just a novel published by Random House.  Unknown whether Lee Wright, the Random House editor Westlake most esteemed, was involved with it, though if it was up to him, she surely would have been.

Most houses were reorganizing themselves at this time, as the business changed, so maybe this wasn’t such an issue anymore.   But this isn’t labeled a mystery, nor is it from some peripheral imprint of a large house–this is a mainstream book from a mainstream publisher (the mainstream publisher).  It isn’t a paperback original, so it’s not being specifically marketed to men, as crime paperbacks invariably were.  Hardcover mysteries, as Westlake said, were marketed more to women, but this isn’t a mystery either, in the conventional sense.  So what audience is it aiming for?

Westlake, and presumably Wright (if she was involved) would know that Parker’s fanbase was a great deal more diverse than might have been thought.  Women did read Parker novels (and still do).  Men weren’t going to stop buying them just because they were hardcovers and you had to go into a real bookstore to buy one (horrors).

And leaving the gender issues aside, the times they are a’ changin–and Parker has at times seemed to be operating in a dimension where the 1930’s never ended, and Dillinger is still Public Enemy #1 (while somehow Parker never makes the list at all).

This worked because Parker himself is so clearly oblivious to social changes that don’t directly impact the way he does business.  For example, he knows that the electronic transfer of funds is becoming more and more prevalent, because it’s harder and harder to find large amounts of cash that aren’t too well guarded to heist, which makes him more likely to take a risk on an unconventional score if there’s a lot of cash involved.  He may notice men’s clothing just enough so that he can dress himself without standing out in a crowd.  Most changes in the world around him are just surface noise, irrelevant to his profession, therefore ignored.

But for the reader, there’s an increasing dissonance to the way Parker lives and lets die in this ever-changing world in which we live in–meaning that maybe it’s time for that to change.  For example, maybe it’s time for him to stop living in hotels all year ’round–give him a base of operations, something more down to earth.  And maybe the way the books are written, the style itself, has to be updated a bit.  Without losing everything that makes the books unique.  And maybe Parker himself has to be updated slightly, but that’s going to be harder.   That’s going to take some real finesse.   Can Stark do finesse?

One thing that clearly had to be updated was the depiction of organized crime.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was published in 1969, and while the mob has never been 100% Italian (crime is everybody’s thing), to show it as anything other than Italian-run was just not going to be credible anymore, and certainly not in an urban setting.  Parker had done extremely well against the seemingly WASP and Irish dominated organization known as The Outfit (which would be shown to still exist on some level), but could he hack it in the world of La Cosa Nostra?  In three of the next four books, he’d be given a chance to prove he could.

This book would have been written around the same time as the final Grofield outing, Lemons Never Lie, and shares a fair few plot points with it.  In both books we see the protagonist in an unconventional domestic setting with his female companion of choice, and in both cases he’s got to leave that domestic scene to take care of business, leaving his woman undefended.  But Parker is not Grofield, and things arrange themselves quite differently in most respects.

The first real change is that the book opens right at the start of a heist, which neither Stark nor Westlake had ever done before (Jim Thompson had, in The Getaway, Dan Marlowe not long after in The Name of the Game is Death).  None of the novels had opened with the classic “When such and such happened, Parker did something” riff since The Handle in ’66, none would again until Comeback in ’97, but the opening to this one in ’71 is radically different, not even mentioning Parker’s name or describing any significant action until the second paragraph.  That had never happened before, and it never happened again–in all prior and subsequent novels, Parker is there in the very first sentence.  Doing stuff.

Parker is working with a solid string of pros, guys we haven’t seen before, and they’re standing on the roof of an old theater, the Civic Auditorium in an unnamed city, which is going to be demolished soon, part of an urban renewal program–change is in the air, literally–they can feel the vibrations of a rock concert going on below them, and as they cut their way through the roof, the music gets louder and louder.

Their objective is the box office take, all in cash, because of the impending switch-over to the new theater.   Ticketron had gotten started a few years earlier–a lot fewer people buying their tickets right there at the theater on the day of the concert, but they have no choice this time, and it’s a big concert, featuring several popular bands.   Not the first time Parker has come into contact with rock&roll–remember Paul Brock’s little record store in the Village, in The Sour Lemon Score?–but this is the first real acknowledgement that rock is now the dominant musical form, something that Westlake the jazz buff must have had mixed emotions about.

Since Parker cares nothing for music, Stark expresses that conflict through the other members of the string.  There’s Keegan, the capable but nervous and pessimistic electrical expert, Briley, the lanky affable Tennessean, and Morris, youngest of the group–a member of the rock generation, who would probably be going to see this concert if he wasn’t in the process of robbing it.

Keegan and Briley get into a bit of a musical debate as they make their way down through the breached roof into the building, and the music keeps getting louder.

“Listen to that music,” Keegan said peevishly.  “What the hell ever happened to jazz?”

“It’s still there,” Briley said, going over to the filing cabinets, “in the same gin mills it always was.  When did jazz ever play a joint like this?”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Keegan said.  “I used to have all those records, before that time I got sent up.”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Briley said scornfully.  “Fake.”  He opened a file drawer.  “Empty!  There’s a break.”

“What do you mean, fake?  All the greats were on Jazz at the Phil.”

“Okay,” Briley said.  “Give us a hand here, will you?”

Keegan went over to help him move the filing cabinet.  “I don’t know how you can call them a fake.  My God!  Lester Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges–”

“I guess you’re right,” Briley said, grinning.  “I must have been thinking of something else.”

(Keegan isn’t quite the jazz maven he thinks he is–he’s conflating Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, both of whom participated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and recordings produced by Norman Granz, which many an old school purist did sniff at, but which remain brilliant records to this day.  Westlake, who probably had all those records himself, knows full well that the kvetchy Keegan made a mistake–maybe Briley does too, and doesn’t want to rile his partner in crime up any more.  That’s a real inside baseball joke, and just the kind of thing Westlake loved to do–there for the people sharp enough to spot it–and I missed it the first time I read this one, so some maven I am).

Part One of the book is nothing but the heist, and it’s a good one, offbeat yet believable, very much in the now, no sense of anachronism, except to the extent that Parker himself is an anachronism, and always has been.  Not truly a part of any era he might find himself in.  The guns he and his colleagues are using are quite contemporary by contrast–three Smith & Wesson Model 39’s, which went on the market in 1955, and were still being used by U.S. Navy SEALs.  Parker atypically hangs onto his after the job is done, for reasons we’ll get to shortly.


The job goes smoothly, with just a few minor wrinkles.  Nobody gets hurt, and they score a decent haul, nothing amazing–about 16g’s a man.  Stark heisters tend to be percentage players.  Still and all, according to an inflation calculator I just checked, sixteen thousand dollars then had almost the same purchasing power as one hundred thousand dollars today.  And lest we forget, tax free.  Parker’s presumably still submitting a tax return, but he’s not reporting this income.

He’s still caching part of his split, and bringing the rest back to Claire.  It’s been about four years since the events of The Jugger forced him to start over from scratch–that matches up with what we’re told in Lemons Never Lie–obviously, since they were written around the same time.

Anyway, Part One is just prologue.  This one isn’t really about the heist itself.  None of Parker’s colleagues try to pull a cross, they have no troubles with the law, they get back to the hideout and divide the loot four ways, and after waiting a few days for things to calm down, they all head off to spend their ill-gotten gains.

There’s just one complication–a fifth man, Berridge, opted out of the job at the last minute, supposedly because he’d decided he was too old to hack it in the heisting world anymore.  But there he is at the hideout–dead.  Somebody killed him, and it wasn’t a clean job. His head was caved in with a wrench.  This isn’t a murder mystery.  So they don’t try to solve the murder.  But maybe they should have.

Part Two picks up with Parker meeting Claire at a house she’s just purchased for them in Northwestern New Jersey.   It’s on a small lake called Colliver Pond, and is located within a few miles of the borders of New York State and Pennsylvania, which means it has to be in Sussex County.  Not a lot of people are familiar with that part of the state.   It’s very rural, quite remote, even though it’s less than a hundred miles from Manhattan.  Pretty country–not the part of the state I grew up in (see my review of The Man With the Getaway Face), but I’ve spent a little time there.  Lot of black bears in Sussex.  No wolves, up to now.

Claire is feeling the nesting impulse.  She’s tired of swanky hotels in Florida and New Orleans and such.  It’s been fun, they can still do it sometimes, but she wants a place of her own–security (Parker might not come back someday, and then what?).  She’s taken Parker’s peculiar needs into account–two state lines nearby–little in the way of local law–the houses around the lake are mainly summer homes, so there are few people around most of the year–they can go somewhere else in the summer.   Probably gets damn cold in the winter, but that won’t be a problem.   She makes that point quite adequately when she joins Parker in the shower.

This is the last book to feature Claire as a major POV character, and to get into her head to any great extent.  It’s definitely the most ‘domestic’ of the Parkers, and I have to think this is at least partly because of the assumption (accurate or not) that more women would be reading Parker novels now that they were in hardcover, so you had to make him seem like a better boyfriend (though I suspect many if not most female Parker fans are identifying with him, not Claire).  At one point, talking to him on the phone she thinks “His voice is very dear to me”–possibly the first person to ever react to his voice that way.   She’s not quite the same kind of fantasy she was before.  She is, for all intents and purposes, his wife.  At least in her mind.

Parker’s mind is harder to plumb, as always.  He’s being as accommodating as he can with Claire, making a conscious effort to appear interested in the house, genuinely pleased at how much thought she put into it, but it’s impossible for him to think of any structure, any geographic location, as home.   To the extent he has a home, she’s it.

He is compelled, as we have seen, to have a woman he can go back to after a job–a mate.  He doesn’t stay with any one woman very long in the first eight books–not after Lynn betrayed him.  Claire represented a return to his old pattern, but it’s not the same as it was with Lynn.  He thinks to himself here that Lynn was hard, but she broke–Claire isn’t hard, but he believes she won’t break–more resilient, more intelligent, more adaptable.

He couldn’t handle being a free agent indefinitely; it was too destabilizing, too far from his instinctive drives.   Does he love her?   We’ve been over this before.  If a wolf can love, Parker loves Claire.  And there’s considerable evidence wolves can love.  But not as we do.  Perhaps that’s too bad for us.  Stark clearly thinks so.

Claire has up to now avoided getting too sentimental about their relationship as well, but now that she’s got a house to wait for him in (purchased with the proceeds of his heists), the relationship has progressed for her.  She doesn’t mind him being away, we’re told, because it’s pleasurable to think about him coming back, in his usual post-heist state of sexual excitement.  She’s got her own domain now.  Once he steps into the house, and then leaves, it’s really hers.  She’s invested in it–maybe a little too invested.

Parker gets a call from Handy McKay a few days after his return–Handy had gotten some panicked-sounding phone calls from Keegan–something’s wrong, and he needs to talk to Parker directly, but he can’t leave a number because he’s on the move.  Impressed by the sense of urgency he heard in the man’s voice, Handy gave Keegan the number of Claire’s house, which could be used to obtain its location.   But Keegan never called.  Parker has to go find out what’s going on (as he did when Joe Sheer wrote him in The Jugger).  He wants Claire to go stay at a hotel in New York until he comes back.

And she won’t go.  She’s just found this place, and she can’t abandon it.  Her instinctive drives are as strong as his, and they’re telling her she has to stay.  Parker doesn’t like it, but his drives are telling him to get on the trail before the scent goes cold.  As she watches him leave, Claire wonders if women are as much a mystery to men as men are to women–she still hasn’t quite come to terms with who–and what–she’s living with.

The rest of Part Two is Parker traveling, finding Keegan not merely dead, but nailed to the wall–he’d clearly been tortured by somebody who is really into torture (I’m tempted to make a Cheney joke, but never mind).  Knowing now that there’s a real problem, Parker tries once more, over the phone, to get Claire to pull up stakes and leave the house, before whoever is tracking down the concert heisters one by one makes it to Colliver Pond.  She just won’t do it.  He’s frustrated, and in his own unemotive way, worried.   He tells her to remove any vestige of his presence from the house, and if anybody comes looking for him, say she’s just his answering service.

He goes looking for Briley, and in the process runs into a small branch of the Italian mob–their first real appearance in the series.  Somebody looking for Briley killed a woman who ran a mob brothel, and the local capo wants Parker to help them find whoever did it–Parker says he works alone.  He doesn’t always, of course, but it would take too long to explain, and you know how much he hates explanations.

The boss puts a tail on him.   He lures them into a trap, disables their car, leaves them there.  They say he’ll never get away with it; they’re national, and he’s just one guy.  He’s heard that song before.  He’ll be hearing it again before long.

When the mobsters pat him down for weapons, we find out Parker sometimes carries a knife in a sheath on his back–he can reach back for it and throw it, often hitting the target–a neat trick, if somebody has a gun on you and makes you put your hands behind your head.   We never actually see him do this, but his knife-throwing skills factor pretty heavily into the next book, and Westlake wanted to set that up in advance.

Parker finds Briley dying–he offers no assistance, not that there’s anything he could do–and he finds something else–evidence of drug use by at least one of the people who killed Briley.   These are not your typical old school pros.  They’re effective, dangerous, unconventional–but sloppy.  Amateurs.  Again with the amateurs.

After he leaves Briley, still breathing but basically dead, Parker goes to a nearby diner, and calls Claire.  She answers him very formally, addresses him as Mr. Parker.   He gets the message.   They’ve arrived.

Part Three is all Claire and the longest time we’ve spent in any character’s mind other than Parker’s since the early days of the series.  The structure is different here–in the past, Part Three was usually switching from one character to another, chapter by chapter, and then we’re back inside Parker’s head for Part Four.  Here we stick with Claire the whole way.  It’s her show, and she’s not enjoying it much.

In the days following Parker’s departure, she whiles away the time in her new domicile, enjoying the life she’s found for herself, the secret heister’s moll–it’s a great fantasy.   Nobody around her knows her secret–just going out to dinner with Parker is a thrill.   Nobody knows she’s involved with one of the most dangerous men on the planet.   Does she?  Yes and no.  She can be very honest with herself at times, very self-deceptive at others–it’s a coping mechanism.   We all have them.

After Parker calls her, and she refuses to leave, she sets out to prepare herself for whoever might be showing up–she increasingly realizes, as Parker knew all along, that your typical country home, full of doors and windows, is not easy to defend.

She buys a hunting rifle, and teaches herself how to use it–it’s the ladies home edition of the type of outfitting we see Parker do all the time–unlike Parker, she can just walk into a sporting goods store and buy a gun.  She also tries to get a dog, but there are none for sale right now who would be any use as guardians.  We hear her thinking she’d love to get a puppy and train it–that would have been interesting, if she’d gone through with it–how would the dog react to Parker?  How would Parker react to the dog?  We’ll never know.

Did Westlake ever have the “Let’s get a dog” discussion with any of his wives?   By this time he was living out in the country himself, and then he’d be traveling for work, and of course it would come up, and he wouldn’t want to say “I don’t want a dog because they scare me.”  He’d see the logic behind having one–even a friendly dog is a deterrent to most burglars, and I know it was one reason my dad got us a dog when I was growing up–he traveled a lot.   Westlake frequently mentions that people who live out in the country keep dogs for protection.   But it’s pretty clear the Westlakes never had one, and neither will Claire.

She gets back to the house, walks in, and then realizes she’s not alone.  There’s this weird-looking vaguely hippie-ish man on the couch, who is apparently tripping out.  Then she turns around and there’s another one–also dressed a bit wild, with his hair frizzed out like an Afro, wearing a fringed leather jacket.  The guy on the couch is Manny.  The other one is Jessup.   It’s really hard to say which is worse.

This is not a book about psychotic hippies.  That’s just to give it a more contemporary spin.  There’s no attempt by Stark to get into their heads, tell us anything much about their past, why they dress like that, who they are.  Claire and Parker will have to try and understand them, but only for the purposes of survival.  Westlake probably had his reservations about the counter-culture, but he’d dealt with it sympathetically in the past, and would again later.

The real point of these guys isn’t what subculture they’re from–it’s that they are amateurs who don’t know where to draw the line, or that any line exists.  They smell money, and they want it.  They don’t care what they have to do to get it.  They don’t care who they hurt.  They have a certain loyalty to each other, and they don’t think of themselves as bad guys, but real bad guys never do.  In some ways, they’re like Parker, but without the self-knowledge, or the self-control.  Claire compares both of them to wild animals in her mind, but the only animal that ever behaves like these guys is homo sapiens sapiens.

Jessup in particular feels familiar–we’ve seen variations on this guy in the past.  Matt Rosenstein in The Sour Lemon Score, who was sort of in Parker’s subculture, but not really–only half a pro–he enjoyed the violence too much.  His physical description is very reminiscent of Bruce Maundy from A Jade in Aries–I’m guessing these characters are all based on somebody from Westlake’s past–you know how Michelangelo put some guy whose guts he really hated in hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling?  Like that.

So Claire plays the role Parker instructed her to play–she knows nothing, she’s just the answering service.  She’s just a little mouse, as she puts it.  She’s had to deal with dangerous men before.  Jessup takes a good look at her, and rape is in his mind, but she gets it out by fooling him into thinking she’s got some exotic kind of clap.  For which he gives her a morally disapproving look–like I said, no self-awareness at all.   There are so many people like this in the world, you wouldn’t believe it.  Or maybe you would.

Manny is much more abstracted than Jessup.  Well to put it another way, he’s nuts.  He wants Claire to play a game called ‘Surrealism’–there are actually a lot of mind games associated with that artistic movement, but Manny seems to have come up with his own, where you pick a famous person, and then guess what kind of car they’d be, and like that.  Manny can go from childish delight to fiendish rage in a heartbeat, so she has to step lightly.

So she plays the various games as best she can with these two guys, and when Parker calls, she lets him know what’s going on, without alerting Jessup (the brains of the outfit, such as they are).   She hopes he’s not too far off.

They’re sitting down to a sort of pseudo-Mexican dinner Jessup cooked up, when the doorbell rings–it’s Morris.  You remember–the young member of the string–the rocker.  They’ve been looking for him, but he found them first.  Only he’s not quite sure at first who they are.  He sits down at the table with them–Claire can’t tell him anything without admitting she’s not who she’s been claiming to be–and he tells them a story.

Turns out Berridge had a grandson, who had a friend, and they found out about the money.  Berridge refused to help them, and they killed him.  Then they followed Keegan, and he gave them enough leads to find the others, except for Morris.  Only see, they thought there was a lot more than there actually was–they didn’t believe Keegan when he said all he had was 16 grand.  No sense of real-world limitations.

And just as Morris decides yeah, these are the guys, and draws down on them–well, he waited a bit too long.  They get the jump on him, and good-bye Morris.

And as Part Three concludes, Claire, having barricaded herself in the bedroom, is realizing she’s got no more cards to play–she’s witnessed them commit a murder.   They are not going to let her live.  They probably wouldn’t have anyway.  They trick her into emptying her rifle into Morris’ dead body on the porch.  Then they break in and grab her.

But then it’s Part Four, and you know what that means.  Parker’s here.  We see the last few hours from his perspective–he stole a rowboat on the other side of the lake, and came across quietly.   He gets there just as Jessup and Manny break into Claire’s room–and he puts a bullet in Manny’s arm.  It’s not hard to freak out guys like this–they’re both cowards, as Claire contemptuously tells Parker–their nerve tends to fail at critical moments.

They run for their car–a Corvette, so either they stole it or they’ve been spending Keegan’s money damn fast–and try to get the hell out of Dodge.  But Parker shoots out a few of their tires, so they can’t get far.  He’s ready to end this.  They’ve triggered that itch in his head that he can only scratch by killing whoever caused it.

Claire fills Parker in, and her information, combined with what he’s already learned, gives him insight into how these guys think.  Enough to track them to an empty house nearby.  Where he finds Manny tripping out again (of course).  He creeps upstairs, through the darkened boarded-up house, lit up by one candle stuck in a wine bottle.  He’s got to be careful how he disposes of them–he doesn’t want to leave blood on the floor if he can help it–nothing that might trigger alarm bells with the local law.  He wants to kill these men in such a way as that nobody will ever connect their deaths to Colliver Pond.

So Parker has to use his hands–he finds Jessup in the dark, and begins to throttle the life out of him–but Manny, alerted by Jessup’s screams, comes in with a tiny .22 pistol, and tells him to stop.  Jessup is half-dead by then, desperately in need of medical attention, so Parker tells Manny he’s going to need Parker to carry Jessup to the car, and drive him to the doctor.  Without Jessup to think for him, Manny is easy to fool.  But still cagey enough to sit in the back, with the gun pointed at Parker’s head.

Now Parker has to get them just a few miles away from there, so some other police department will be dealing with their corpses.   Jessup comes to, and starts whispering to Manny through his badly damaged larynx–he knows Parker was doing more damage to his throat, even as he was carrying Jessup down to the car.  He knows what’s coming, but it’s already too late.   Parker is driving too fast.   Shoot him, they all die.   He makes it to a turn-off on the highway, and then into a construction site, and then he leaps from the speeding car, which collides with a tractor.

Parker’s legs are bruised, but he’s otherwise unhurt.  And still armed.  Manny never thought to take his gun.   How have these two clowns made it this far?  Jessup is out of the car, firing at him, and there’s a brief stalemate.  That ends when Manny starts shrieking like the damned.  Between his wounded arm and the crash, he’s in too much pain–he took a huge dose of the hallucinogenic drug he’s been using.  His mind is collapsing on itself.   And Jessup can’t take it.  As twisted as their friendship might be, it’s all he’s got, and as Parker already knew, he lives for the drama.  He runs out into the open to help his partner.  And Parker shoots him.  Then Manny.  At this point, it’s the merciful thing to do.   Not that mercy is even remotely the point.

He gets a ride back to Colliver Pond from a friendly farmer.  He tells Claire they won’t be back.  She knows what that means.  She isn’t exactly glad, but she’s not the least bit sorry.  Knowing the monsters are dead, she beckons to the far more terrible monster she lives with to join her on the couch, by the fire.  The monster does so, and stares moodily into the flames.  Thinking surprisingly human thoughts.  He wishes she hadn’t turned the lights off, and lit that fire.  It reminds him of the candle light in the dark house he found Manny and Jessup in.  But he knows she meant it to be romantic, so he lets it go.  He can be flexible.  She’s worth it to him.  She’s all the home he’ll ever have.

It’d be interesting to compare this book with Ripley Under Ground, the second book of the so-called ‘Ripliad’, which was published about a year before Deadly Edge.  It’s barely possible Westlake read it before writing his radically different blue collar take on the same basic story.  I kind of doubt he did–timing’s a bit close–and yet–the American edition was published by (wait for it)–Random House.  Anyway, it’d be interesting to make the comparison, but I haven’t read any of the Ripleys yet (been saving them for a rainy day).  I’ll do a Westlake/Highsmith piece one of these days.  Going to have to, eventually.

Parker isn’t like Ripley–that much I know.  Ripley needs to own things–he got started on his life of crime because of that desire to possess.   He does want a home, a sense of place, culture, to make up for a certain blankness within himself.  Parker has no such desires.  Blankness is his natural state of being, except when he’s working (or with Claire, playing).  The house is just a house to him.  He could walk away from it without a backward glance, but Claire couldn’t. She’s lived there like five minutes, and it’s already a part of her.

As soon as Parker goes to hunt down Jessup and Manny, she starts cleaning it–to make it hers again.  Before he does anything else, she makes him get rid of Morris’ body.  It isn’t that she’s weak.   It’s that she’s hanging onto something–something she desperately needs.  And he doesn’t understand that need at all.  He never could.

The book is about this dichotomy in their natures, and yet, as Parker muses, with those rare flashes of what might be called empathy that we get from him now and then, he can see that it’s not entirely different from the way he gets sometimes–the way he does things that make no sense in certain situations.

He looked at her, and understood vaguely that there was something in her head about the idea of home that wasn’t in his head and never would be.  The world could go to hell if it wanted, but she would put her home in order again before thinking about anything else.

He tried to find something in his own mind to relate that to, so he could understand it better, and the only thing he came up with was betrayal.  If someone double-crossed him in a job, tried to take Parker’s share of the split, or betray him to the law, everything else became unimportant until he had evened the score.  And like the two tonight, Manny and Jessup; there was no way that Parker was not going to settle with them for the insult of their attack.  In some way, what Claire was into now had to be something like that, with a sense of home instead of a sense of identity.

Identity.  It always comes down to that in a Westlake novel, but the word itself appears only rarely in his books, as if he’s trying to hide the central theme of his work from us, make us work for it.  And yet here he’s putting it into the head of his most nonverbal and uncommunicative protagonist.  Perhaps because he was, in a sense, reintroducing Parker here, to the new world of ‘respectable’ hardcover publishing, and he felt the need to make things a little more clear than usual.  Or perhaps because as Mary makes Grofield more three-dimensional in Lemons Never Lie, Claire makes Parker just a bit more human. But underneath, he’s still the same predator he was before.

At one point, she compares him to a gorilla–to which he responds “Gorillas have mates.”  Yes, but they don’t hunt.  Wolves do.  And are hunted in return, by men.  And in the next book in the queue, Parker finds himself hunted as never before.  But the hunters in that book don’t know their quarry at all, and it will cost them dearly.  Forget ‘Surrealism.’  Parker is the most dangerous game of all.

(Very belated postscript–Wikipedia gave me a bum steer–the first edition of Ripley Under Ground was published by Doubleday, not Random House.  One of the few major houses Westlake never worked with (I don’t think they even reprinted any of his books).  So the odds of his getting a sneak peek are very poor, making the timing very close indeed for Westlake to have been influenced by it.  I’ve read the Ripley book now, and the differences are a lot more striking than the similarities.   However, there’s this one scene–involving a hung effigy–that makes me wonder if I was right after all.  And I’m still a long way off from writing that Westlake/Highsmith piece.  But if Westlake did read Ripley Under Ground before writing Deadly Edge, it would be no more plagiarism than Bach doing a variation on a theme by Vivaldi doing a variation on a theme by Bach doing a variation on etc.–and yes, in this analogy, Westlake is Bach.  There’s nothing insulting about being compared to Vivaldi.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels