Tag Archives: Robert E. McGinnis

Review: Forever And A Death, Part 4



Bennett went over to stand beside Curtis and study the plans. God, it was good to be back in construction again! To be standing in a site office, shoulder to shoulder with the boss, looking over the plans. This, Bennett thought, is where I’ve been supposed to be, lo, these many years.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Looking at the plans, Curtis said, “We don’t have as much time as I’d hoped, Colin.”

“No, sir.”

“Them being here in Hong Kong, and in one of the tunnels, suggests they know far too much.”

“It’s that Mark Hennessy, sir,” Bennett said, meaning, there’s a bad employee, and here, sir, right here at your side, is a good employee.

Curtis said, “I suppose part of it is Mark, but not all of it, he didn’t know that much. I think it’s mostly George Manville, figuring things out. Why I didn’t get rid of him when I had my hands on him I’ll never know.”

“You thought he could still help you, sir.”

“Well, I was wrong about that,” Curtis said. “But it isn’t going to stop us, Colin.”

Us. “No, sir!”

It might be interesting, in fact, to stay here in Hong Kong, particularly if they didn’t after all manage to thwart Curtis. To stay at the Peninsula—switching to a Hong Kong view room, of course—to sit in a comfortable chair by the window, and to watch the towers across the way begin to tremble, to shudder, then to fall to their knees, window panes snapping out into the air like frightened hawks, walls dropping away, floors tilting, desks and filing cabinets and people sliding out into the world, then to feel the power ripple in this direction across the harbor, to see it come like a ghost in the water, to feel it tug at the landfill on this side, the buildings swaying, the yachts and junks and huge cargo ships all foundering and failing and staring with one last despairing gaze at the sky, then the harbor boiling, this very building bending down to kiss the sea…

What a spectacular sight. Who would want to look at anything else after that?

One of the things I’ve had to chronicle, as I’ve worked my way from 1960 to the present day, has been the decreasing diversity and quality of cover art for Mr. Westlake’s various efforts.  (Though Richard Stark, as ever, remains the outlier, and I’ll have the covers to prove it in the coming weeks.)

Hard Case Crime, which published this book, is one component in a much larger media corporation, headquartered in the U.K., so the American and British covers are identical.  If there are different covers for any foreign language editions thus far, they have eluded me.  As of the present time, I don’t believe that’s the case (translations take time).  So was I going to just keep posting the same cover image, four times in a row?

Then it occurred to me–wouldn’t Hard Case Crime have commissioned a few alternate takes, before settling on one? Charles Ardai confirmed they had considered a different cover, and his email came with an attachment.  When making the inquiry, I figured the most I’d get would be a somewhat different preliminary sketch from Paul Mann, who did the cover you’ve already seen, but Ardai said Mann nailed it the first time, so no need for a second.

Instead, I got what you see up top, and that’s from none other than Robert E. McGinnis.  Yowzah.

There could be no more obvious choice to illustrate a Westlake novel based on an idea for a Bond flick that never happened than the man of a thousand (or more) gorgeously lurid paperbacks.  McGinnis also provided iconic poster art for 007 back in the 60’s, and to make it even more perfect, he did some of his best work for the six Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels–including their reprint of The Hunter, (entitled Point Blank, because of the film version just coming out), where Parker looks like Sean Connery, and doesn’t resemble Lee Marvin a whit.

(Also, I’m pretty sure Westlake put a fondly irreverent caricature of McGinnis in Nobody’s Perfect.  And McGinnis seems to have depicted himself as Parker in his cover for The Black Ice Score.)

So this is what McGinnis came up with, when approached.  And it’s breathtaking.  It evokes the villain’s plan memorably, as well as one of the heroes of the piece.  And I can see why they still went with Mann. (McGinnis’s art won’t go to waste; it will be used for some other Hard Case offering, in the next year or two.)

His nifty noirish style has held up beautifully (as two recent art books featuring his work can attest).  His technique (at 91 years of age!) can hardly be improved upon.  And his take on the female protagonist here–well……..

Kim Baldur is not some pale protein-deficient red-headed art model in heels.  Nor would she be wearing a pink bikini, let alone green mascara.  At any time in her life, but least of all when Hong Kong is about to be turned into a malodorous mire.  She’s going to be the one upon whom it falls in the end to prevent this, and she should be dressed for the occasion, no?  And she should probably eat something first.  Though not too soon before she goes in the water.  Like cramps are her primary concern there.

Also, there are no exploding helicopters or hungry sharks in the book, nor does George ever get his hands on an assault rifle, but that’s quibbling.  Mann’s cover has Kim boldly brandishing a sidearm, when the only weapon she ever employs is a can of hairspray, and that’s quibbling too.  One’s license to kill may never come through, no matter how many applications you fill out, but artistic license is a thing.

So how much license do we grant Westlake here?  Obviously this isn’t meant as an exercise in gritty realism.  Nor is it meant to be pure wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Somewhere in-between.  Taking the kind of story where the hero is a smug sexy secret agent, and the villain is trying to take over the world from his secret base on an island or inside a volcano or whatever–and recast it.  Re-imagine it.

The heroes (plural) are still attractive enough, but one is a duly diligent engineering wonk, another an earnestly impulsive eco-warrior of a girl, and the third is not merely gay, but German!

The villain is an arrogant billionaire, and that’s nothing new, but he’s wealthy on paper only.  In debt up to his deceptively bland eyeballs, caught in a trap of his own making, and not at all interested in conquering the world.  He merely wants to retain his current standing in that world, maybe improve it a tad.

But to do this, he has to pull off a stupendous (and murderous) caper,  taking most of the gold reserves from the Bank of China, then destroying all evidence of his crime, by obliterating most of the city of Hong Kong.  The same city the People’s Republic unceremoniously evicted him from, not long after they took charge there, so let’s just say that there’s a certain synergistic aspect.  Well, it was the Chinese who said that Crisis = Opportunity, right?

And in the process of dealing with certain complications that sprang up along the way, he’s hired a disgraced ex-employee of his, a hulking man-monster of a Singaporean, to deal with those complications, with extreme prejudice.   He’s got other henchmen as well, but keeps faith only with himself.  He expects none of the others, heroes or henchmen, to make it to the end of the movie.  But he fully expects to be there at the end, the last man standing, and he gets his way. Spoiler alert? If you don’t want to know, better stop reading now.

The final part of this novel is the shortest,  15 chapters.   Westlake has been paring away at the cast to make this possible (some posthumous paring from Ardai as well).

The guilt-ridden Captain Zhang is dead.  The murderous Morgan Pallifer is dead.  The well-meaning but tunnel-visioned Jerry Diedrich is dead.  Colin Bennett’s arc effectively concluded in Part Three, and now he’s just Curtis’s servitor–in his creator’s mind, he might as well be dead.  Inspector Fairchild, though making himself useful here and there, isn’t going to be solving any mysteries, or making any arrests. The once intrepid Mark Hennessy is soon to be reduced to a shadow of his former spying self.  A new POV character is introduced, then even more abruptly taken out of play.

One key figure after another has fallen by the wayside in this story, until there are only–


Martin Ha lived on a comparatively quiet side street in the middle-class neighborhood called Hung Horn, southeast of Chatham Road, an area heavily populated by the city’s Chinese civil servants, in which group, dressed for his commute, he seemed barely likely to belong. Mounted on his bicycle, teetering slightly as he made the turn onto Ma Tau Wai Road, this slender knobby-kneed serious-expressioned man of about 40 looked as though he might be a rickshaw driver on his day off. He didn’t look like anybody important at all.

Ha rode his bike down Ma Tau Wai Road and right onto Wuhu Street and then left onto Gilles Avenue, all the while ignoring the usual press of traffic that raced and squealed and struggled all around him, the other bicyclists, the hurrying pedestrians, the taxis and trucks and double-decker buses and even, though this was off their normal grounds, the occasional bewildered tourist. Gilles Avenue led him at last to the new Hung Horn ferry pier. Until just a few years ago, where he now stood had been Hung Horn Bay, next to the main railway terminal, but the bay had been filled in just recently, to make more precious land, on which had been built the opulent new Harbour Plaza Hotel, five minutes from the railroad terminal and even closer to the ferry pier.

The ferry ran every ten minutes or so, and took only fifteen minutes to cross the harbor, and this was what Martin Ha loved. The view from the ferry. Out in front of him, across the sparkling water, Hong Kong Island gleamed and blazed in the sunshine, its glittering towers bunched together like the crowded upraised lancetips of some buried army. Behind him, almost as huge, almost as modern, almost as gleaming and sleek and new, clustered Kowloon, Hong Kong’s mainland extension, the gateway to China. In the old days, you could take the train from that railway terminal beside the ferry dock on Kowloon and travel all the way across Czarist Russia and all of Europe to Calais in France, and then board one more ferry, and be in England. The jet plane had changed all that, of course, but the sense of it was still there, the ribbon that tied two worlds together.

The opening of Part Four serves several purposes–first to introduce us to Martin Ha, a Hong Kong police inspector, who bicycles to the ferry every morning, looking like some minor bureaucrat, which is pretty much how he sees himself. He will be informed over the phone by a fellow officer in Singapore that there are some people who have just arrived in his town, with a story he needs to hear. A story that may alarm him somewhat, he is cautioned, and he finds himself hoping it is something out of the ordinary–he could do with some excitement.

It also introduces us to Hong Kong itself, which matters because we need to be reminded this is not merely an idea of a city–this is one of the world’s great gathering points, a hub of commerce and trade, the home and workplace of millions of people–and much of it used to be ocean.  And might be again.

Then it shows us Ha thinking to himself about his city, how much he understands of the world he lives in–and how little–we all take the stability of our daily existence a bit too much for granted at times. No matter how many times Life warns us not to do that.

The surprising thing, Ha thought, as he sat in the air-conditioned back of his official Vauxhall, feeling the slight forward tug of the Star Ferry taking him back across to Kowloon, was how little the city had changed. Everyone had thought the transition from British rule to Chinese rule would be fraught with problems, particularly political and social problems, everything but economic problems, but everyone as usual had been wrong.

In hindsight, it was easy to see why. For one hundred fifty years, Hong Kong had been ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, London. Then, for just a few years, there was an attempt to paste a democratic smile on this autocratic face, but the instant the pressure was released the smile fell off, and now Hong Kong was once again ruled by an oligarchy installed from a far-off capital, Beijing. Nothing had changed.

Except, of course, for some of the gweilos living in Hong Kong, the expats as they called themselves, the Europeans and Americans, but mostly the British, who had done well by serving the far-off capital of London but couldn’t be expected to receive the same opportunity to batten off the far-off capital of Beijing.

The ones who belonged to the working class, the barmaids and jockeys and interior decorators, mostly took it in good part, vanished when their work permits expired—or shortly after, when they were found to be still on the premises—and were presumably now living much the same lives in Singapore or Macao or Manila or half a dozen other neon-lit centers of the Pacific Rim.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few Richard Curtises had also found the world shifting beneath their feet. The homes they’d enjoyed for so many years up on the Peaks, the steep hills in the middle of Hong Kong Island, behind and south of the main financial districts, they’d sold off to their Chinese counterparts, entrepreneurs who now made their comfortable livings in exactly the same way the Curtises used to do. Those who’d left had sold those mansions on the Peak before the real estate crash; not bad. And if they hadn’t gotten quite as much in the sale as they’d have liked, well, how much money did any one rich person really need?

(To which many a rich person would respond “How much is there?”  That’s how they got rich in the first place.)

But Martin Ha finds it hard to believe this Curtis, who he remembers well as a ‘corner-cutter,’ could really have such a profound grudge against Hong Kong, or that he’d risk everything on some crazy scheme to steal tons of gold from one of the most powerful nations on earth, to cover some bad debts.  (Might as well imagine he’d run for President of the United States.)

So he has lunch with these people, at a world class restaurant in Hong Kong’s most luxurious hotel (where we are briefly told that George and Kim have happily renewed their sexual relationship, and that’s the very last bit of sex you’ll get in this perhaps over-prim Bond pastiche).

He’s hoping to hear a diverting tale, but for all his calm complacency, he’s a thoroughgoing professional, and no fool.  He can tell they’re not hysterics, or cranks, and one of them is a police inspector from Australia, another the somber son of a wealthy German (not known for histrionics, okay one exception, but he was Austrian).

And one is an engineer, who keeps talking about something called a soliton.  And about the solid ground beneath them, which is not solid at all, and only recently ground.

Inspector Ha nodded at the windows. “Hong Kong Island has been added to and added to. The island used to end far back at Queens Road. Just about everything you’re looking at on the flats is reclaimed land.” They all looked at the gleaming towers, and Kim remembered the great bruise of water thundering at her from Kanowit. She suddenly felt cold.

George said, very quietly, “Inspector, you’re using the wrong word.”

“What word?” “Reclaimed,” George said. “Everyone likes to talk about reclaimed land. ‘The new airport is on reclaimed land.’ It’s a wonderfully solid word, but it is a distraction.”

Ha said, “From what?”

“The Dutch reclaim land,” George said. “They build dikes, and force the sea back, and the lands they find are called polders. They’re solid and real, the same lands they always were except they used to have water on them.”

He waved a hand toward the window. “That isn’t reclaimed. It’s landfill.”

Inspector Ha said, “Reclaimed is more…dignified.”

“But landfill is what it is,” George insisted. “Inherently unstable, never quite solid. And now I suppose you’ll tell me there are tunnels under there.”

Of course there are.  They are used for air conditioning in this very hot climate.  The landfill section of Hong Kong, which is most of Hong Kong, is networked with tunnels.  Many of which go right past underground bank vaults filled with gold ingots–also constructed in landfill.  Fifty feet under the surface of what isn’t really solid ground.

But for the soliton to work, these tunnels would have to be connected to each other, as they are presently not–and how might this be done?  By construction crews, working quietly beneath the surface of the city, using one of Hong Kong’s many active construction sites as a front.  And what business is Richard Curtis in?  And in what city did he formerly practice that profession?

What truly alarms Inspector Ha is Luther’s mention of Jackie Tian, a man he knows to be midway between a union bigwig and a gangster–a man of few scruples, who would know basically every qualified worker in town who might be persuaded to engage in such a nefarious venture, could easily arrange for such a project to be undertaken without arousing suspicion.  He informs his luncheon hosts that they have succeeded in alarming him.

Luther Rickendorf, the self-exiled gay scion of a wealthy old German family, has been a somewhat neglected character in the previous three sections of this novel.  He’s made his voice heard throughout, but he rarely speaks when he doesn’t have something significant to say.  He’s been happy to live in the shadow of his more outgoing American lover.  But now the shadow is alone, and wondering what to do with himself.

For Luther, the last few days had been muffled, without resonance, like a pistol shot in a padded room. Or as though his brain and all his senses were in that padded room. Nothing came through to him with much impact or clarity. It was as though he watched the world now on a television monitor, listened to it through a not-very-good sound system.

He still went through the motions. He thought about the problem of Richard Curtis, he took care of his own needs, he responded quite normally to Kim and George and the others, but it was all simple momentum, nothing else. He went through these motions because there was no way to stop them, short of death, and he didn’t much feel like death right now; it would simply be the state he was already in, intensified.

He supposed he grieved for Jerry, but even that was muffled. He couldn’t find in himself much enthusiasm for revenge or justice, though he continued to trudge along with the others in Curtis’s wake. What he was realizing, and even that slowly and without much force, was that in grieving for Jerry he was grieving for a part of himself. Jerry had been his id, the outward expression of all those emotions and instant reactions that Luther had never quite managed to feel or express on his own. Without Jerry, he was merely the cool and amiable somnambulist he used to be, but now with the added memory of there having been once a Jerry.

(That’s also Luther, in the second quote up top, half-wishing he could be there to see the destruction of Hong Kong, the fall of its towers. Maybe he should try moving to lower Manhattan.)

Jerry Diedrich’s reaction to the loss of the man he’d loved before Luther was to lose himself in grief, bitterness, and retribution, leading ultimately to his own destruction (though it must be said, if he hadn’t pursued his grudge with such stubborn fervor, Curtis would be facing no opposition at all now).

Luther, you should pardon the expression, is not such a drama queen.  He processes his feelings more quietly, less directly.  It seems to run in the family, this emotional stolidity.  His father, upon learning his tall blonde athletic son was attracted to men, expressed no anger, no disappointment–he simply indicated he would prefer Luther live out his alternative life away from Germany, has been willing to supply the funds to make this possible.  (It is, in fact, Rickendorf pater who is shouldering much of the bill for Luther and his friends to stay in Hong Kong, in some considerable comfort).  Luther has no strong feelings about any of that, either.  Or is it that he keeps his anger locked away against the day he’ll need it?

Inspector Ha arranges for them to tour the tunnels, and Luther lags behind, still in something of a fugue state, thinking about how he and Jerry will not be spending eternity together in his  family’s ancestral burial vault, as he’d once allowed himself to imagine.  He hears something.  He looks around, curious.  Then he looks up–and Colin Bennett drops down on him, swiftly renders him unconscious, drags him away.

Just bad timing, is all.  Bennett, attending to his duties, got caught by surprise when the tour group came through, concealed himself overhead, had to neutralize Luther once he was detected.  Curtis is angry at the foul-up.  Now he knows for sure Manville is alive, and has come to stop him, and Rickendorf’s disappearance will make Manville’s story all the more believable–but it can’t be helped.  And he can always use another worker to dig in the tunnels.  He wants this over and done with as quickly as possible.

Next chapter is from Mark Hennessy’s POV, and it is not a happy one.  Curtis found out he was Diedrich’s mole.  Instead of just firing Mark, blackballing him as he’d once done to Bennett, Curtis decided to take a more satisfying revenge–and get yet another worker for his tunnels.

I’ve been informed by Greg Tulonen that some of Mark’s development got cut out of the published book, but all I can say to what I’ve read is that I don’t find his transition satisfactory.  He’s been spying on his employer, and doing a good job of it.  He’s been told Curtis is planning something terrible, by people he trusts.  He knows Jerry Diedrich has disappeared, and what’s more, his disappearance is directly linked to a man Mark knows to be in Curtis’s employ, a man who has been trying to learn the identity of the spy.

Luther had begged him over the phone to come talk to the Singapore police, back up the story he and the others are telling, and he refused to even give that very honorable man permission to tell the police his name.   To out him, in effect.

That all being said, it’s very hard to believe somebody smart enough to do what he’s been doing for years, right under Curtis’s nose, is dumb enough not to smell a rat when Curtis abruptly says he wants Mark to come along on a business trip with him.  He decides he’s done his bit for the environment, for his friends, and now it’s time to focus on his career.  His career is about to take an unexpected turn.

He was in the cabin only a minute or two, laying out his possessions on the top bunk, deciding he’d sleep on the lower, when there was a sharp rap at the door. Expecting Curtis, he crossed to pull the door open, and the man from that day in Curtis’s office shouldered in, shoving the door out of the way, punching Mark very hard in the stomach.

Reeling, doubled over, bile in his throat, Mark felt panic and blank astonishment. The man he’d delivered the money for, the one who’d been following Jerry and Luther, who’d done something to Jerry, was here! In this room, shutting the door behind himself. And when Mark stared upward at him, mouth strained open, air all shoved out of him, the man punched him in the face.

Oh, Luther, tell them! Tell the police, force me to change my mind, convince me, make me stay in Singapore and tell the police what I know, make me stay, anywhere but here! Luther, let me not be here!

(Mind you, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that smart/stupid in this world.  Thinking they can play both sides, leaking things to the press, let’s say, while still defending their master in public, collecting their paychecks, padding their résumés, praying there isn’t a Colin Bennett in their future, or just assuming nothing like that could ever happen to them, that’s just in stories.  And history books.  I’m just saying Mark needed a bit more fleshing out for this twist to work.  I don’t know if he got it in the original manuscript, but he doesn’t here.)

Bennett takes Mark to Curtis, who casually remarks that since Mark’s spying cost him some time, he surely wouldn’t mind helping to make up for that by doing a bit of honest labor.  Every time Mark objects, Bennett hits him.  Hard.  He stops objecting.

What follows, once they get him into the tunnels, is a subterranean hellscape, rather like the one experienced by Rolf Malone in Anarchaos, after he was sold as a slave and sent to be worked to death in a mine.  He is beaten mercilessly, fed minimally, allowed little rest, and in no time at all the man he was before crumbles away to nothing, his will broken.  He doesn’t even known if it’s day or night up above.  Well, that’s one way to learn how the other half lives.

What our heroes have to learn is which construction site–out of dozens now active in Hong Kong–is being used to infiltrate the tunnels.  It would take too long to find out which is a dummy corporation.   They’re so dug in now that searching the known tunnels for subtle alterations would likewise take too long.

Manville has a hunch–he remembers Curtis’s story about how the Hong Kong construction firm he took over with his wife’s help was originally called Hoklo Construction–Hoklos being pirates who escaped punishment and achieved respectability by blending into society, once they’d made their pile.  Anybody could be a pirate, hiding in plain sight, was the point.  (I’m sure Westlake read or heard about this somewhere, but I think there’s a whole lot of people who’d object to this characterization.)

Inspector Ha makes a call, and no, there’s no Hoklo Construction, nothing that obvious–but there is a company called Xian Bing Shu–which means ‘rat pie.’  I’m not quite sure whose expense that’s supposed to be at, but it’ll do as a hint.

(Very Long Sidebar: Let me point out one gaping Hong Kong sized plot hole now, and get it out of the way.  Both sides in this struggle seem to be of the opinion that if Curtis pulls off his coup, there’ll be no one left in the world who knows about what Curtis did.  They’ll all be be entombed in mud and rubble, and no fingers will be pointing at Curtis from any direction, and he’ll be safe as houses.

Curtis is seen thinking to himself that he will gradually transform the gold reserves he steals into ‘impulses in cyberspace.’  So there is a well-developed internet.  We know there are cellphones, rarely as they are mentioned.  And the telephone is mentioned quite frequently, as it has been since the dawn of the 20th century.

Martin Ha and Tony Fairchild are high-ranking police officers with easy access to those higher up in the chain of command.   It is hard to imagine that a few calls have not been made to various concerned parties, in Beijing, Australia, and elsewhere.  Maybe emails.  If this story took place in the 19th century, there’d still be time to send a telegram, or a even a goddam letter.

And, lest we forget, there’s Wai Fung, an inspector of equivalent rank in Singapore, who heard the entire story from Manville and the others, referred it to Ha’s attention, and is still in Singapore, immune from Curtis’s machinations.  He was skeptical, but he wouldn’t be once he saw the news footage.

Andre Brevizin, the eminent Brisbane attorney, came to Hong Kong with Manville and the others in Westlake’s surviving draft, but he seems a thorough sort of person, who leaves notes and things–and in this edited down version of the story, he’s still back in Brisbane.

Let’s acknowledge that Curtis is not in an entirely rational frame of mind here, and doesn’t know how many people Manville has talked to.  Let’s acknowledge that there is no absolute proof Curtis intends to destroy every acre of Hong Kong built on landfill, although if he doesn’t, he’s got to split the loot with a lot of other people, any one of whom might someday spill the beans on him.

Let’s acknowledge that it would be impossible to evacuate an island city in the time they have left, that mass panic would ensue were they to publicly announce what they’ve learned, and that Beijing’s reaction to the news might be problematic.  Let’s also acknowledge that nobody in the story has a lot of time to weigh their actions, which is very much by the author’s design.

And acknowledging all that, I think this aspect of the story needed a lot more work, and that Curtis would have to be stark raving to think he’s going to get away with this–I mean, even if they can’t prove a thing, doesn’t Beijing have a few assassins on the payroll?  Curtis doesn’t seem to be that particular kind of crazy.

And let’s finally remind ourselves that Ian Fleming’s Moonraker is today seen by many as the best-written Bond novel, and at the time it came out, none other than Noel Coward found it less outlandish than the previous two, which he admitted wasn’t saying very much.  One must always make some allowances for the literary form being employed.  Back to the story at hand, still bloody gripping for all my cavils.)

Things start happening very quickly now.   Inspector Ha surrounds the fake construction site, demands the workmen open the gate, or he’ll knock it down.   The workmen respond by opening fire, and one of the first to die is Inspector Ha.  He never liked gunplay, and his prejudice was well-founded.  But the point being made is that when  you’re going to arrest a group of men who are in the process of stealing billions in gold from a powerful and ruthless totalitarian government with some truly horrible prisons, best not expect them to come along quietly.  We say farewell to Inspector Ha, a better man perhaps than his world deserves.  (We could use you in America right now, Inspector.)

Curtis is now on a boat in the harbor, waiting for a small remote-controlled cargo submarine to deliver him his pirate gold (I would assume he got this very Bondian gadget from the same place real-life drug lords do).  In touch with Bennett, he gives the order to go ahead with the operation, get the gold to him, then get out of the immediate area before the soliton hits.  They’ll meet up later to divide the spoils.  (The men all think, remember, that it’s only going to obliterate a small area.  In reality, Curtis will be the sole surviving heister.  George Uhl would be envious.)

And that would be game over, were it not for the fact that Luther Rickendorf’s legendary patience has finally run out.  And the berserker within him is finally released.

It was when the man hit Luther on the back of the head with a fist-size stone, when he felt the pain and a runnel of blood trickling down his neck, that he finally snapped out of the stupor he’d been in ever since Bennett had dropped on top of him in the water tunnel. He turned to look at the man who’d hit him, a short compact pugnacious Chinese, who gestured angrily at the pile of rubble in front of them, making it clear Luther was working too slowly. The man tossed the bloodied stone into the tram and glared at Luther, hands on hips. Luther lifted the shovel, turned, and hit him in the face with it.

That time he used the flat of the shovel, but in the melee that followed he used the edge; it made a very adequate lance, producing quite satisfactory gashes in arms and foreheads.

He somehow fights his way outside, bullets flying everywhere.  He gets to the bulldozer blocking the gate, and much like Manville with the pistol safety in Part One, extrapolates from past experience working with snowplows at ski resorts.  He gets the big machine going, smashing through the gate, then smashing into a bus–but the cops are in, and they’re pretty mad now.  These are somewhat shady hardhats, not seasoned heistmen (seasoned heistmen would have either run away or given up when the cops came knocking).  They don’t hold out very long.

But the submarine is out of the tunnel, into the harbor, under Curtis’s control, as he heads for open ocean  He’s still listening on the phone he told Bennett to leave off the hook when the police smash into his operations room and take Bennett prisoner.  He knows Manville is there, but he assumes it’s too late to stop the charges which have already been set–on a timer.  Like last time  With no failsafe.  Like last time.  And the charges are all under water.

There is confusion in the ranks, because the now-ranking officer on the scene was not told by the cautious Inspector Ha what they were trying to prevent here.  Between Fairchild’s experience with policemen, and Manville’s understanding of what lies Bennett has been fed, they get their answers–and Bennett finally comes to the numbed realization that he’s been used.  And Curtis, still listening in on the other line, hangs up.  He’s won.

The diver Curtis used is their captive, but how can they possibly explain to him what needs doing, and why, and then trust him not to just swim away into the harbor himself, which is honestly what any sane person would do right now, given a chance.  Who could be idealistic and foolhardy enough to dive into dark murky water, with less than half an hour remaining, on a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail?  And it has to be somebody certified as an expert diver, who will fit into the scuba gear of a rather small man.

Oh, you guessed.

Kim had never been so frightened in her life. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that great boulder of hard gray water rolling at her from Kanowit Island, surrounding her, submerging her, beating her into a rag doll.

She was now wearing the other diver’s wetsuit and goggles and headlamp and flippers and air tank, thanking heaven he was a small man so it more or less fit. She moved strongly through the black tunnels. The water filling the tunnels was clouded, already beginning to mix with dirt from the temporary cross-tunnels. In a little while, you wouldn’t be able to see down here at all. Of course, in a little while, there would be no down here.

The more she thought about the urgency of the job, the need for speed and efficiency, the more anxious she became. And she knew that could be fatal. She’d almost fallen down the ladder into the water, unable to control her feet in flippers on the ladder rungs. And she didn’t want to dive or fall into that water, because who knew what debris might be in there, to cut her or knock her out.

And now, when she should be concentrating on swimming forward, finding the bombs, defusing them, all she could think about was the destroyer wave off Kanowit Island, all she could do was feed her fear. George hadn’t wanted her to come down here. None of them had wanted her to do it, none of them would have asked her to risk her life to save theirs—to save everyone’s. But who else was there?

So it’s all come full circle from the start of the book, but this time it’s different.  She’s different.  She’s not some dumb kid who thinks she’s immortal anymore, she’s not just acting on impulse.  She knows what the stakes are, and she knows what she has to do.  She knows who she is.  She’s Kim Baldur, and she wants to save the world.  Or at least this one small piece of it.  And she knows that if she doesn’t, she’ll die anyway.  Not idealism.  Not heroism.  Enlightened self-interest.  Could save us all if we let it.

So if you read this far, without reading the novel first, you have only yourself to blame.  That quote up top would indicate to me that Westlake at least considered having Curtis succeed in his plan, or partly succeed.  He had, after all, done at least three comparable stories before now, of men with vendettas against whole societies, and they were all to some extent successful, though one of them didn’t live to the end of the story.

It’s not made as clear as it might be, but in my estimation, he’d failed from the moment he tried to have Kim Baldur disposed of on his yacht, before she could wake up.  He’s lived much of his life under the illusion that he can control everything, manipulate everyone, and that led to a cascade error, one mistake leading to another, more and more people paying attention to him.

If he’d made a few less mistakes, he might have destroyed the city he feels betrayed him, destroyed many lives, caused global economic and political chaos–who’s to say he might not have triggered a nuclear exchange, the highest aspiration of many a Bond villain.

But in his mind, it’s all so simple.  He steals the gold, he kills everyone in his way, erases the home he can no longer call his own from existence, and he’s himself again.  He’s Richard Curtis, billionaire construction mogul and developer, working on projects like the Kanowit Island resort, and everyone respects him, or at least pretends to.

He’s perhaps a little like Parker–Beijing driving him forth, like St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland, set off a mental chain reaction, a button pushed inside his head, and he could never know a moment’s peace until the slight had been repaid in full.  What was it Parker said in Butcher’s Moon?  “I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.”  But even Parker didn’t mean that literally.  And Parker’s retribution only touched those who had directly offended him.  And Parker never pretended to be anything but a thief.

That’s the problem.  That’s why he fails.  That’s why the soliton won’t go off, and he will watch, in stunned disbelief, miles offshore, on a boat operated by a married couple who know he’s doing something criminal and they’re the getaway car.  The deadline expires, and the lights of Hong Kong keep glowing in the distance.  Mocking him.

He fails because he doesn’t know himself.  He doesn’t know that he can never be what he was before.  He’s a thief and a killer now, and what’s more he’s a thief and killer who doesn’t keep faith with his fellow thieves and killers.  Or with anyone, really.  He has no code, instinctive or otherwise. Without money, he’s nothing at all.

But he’s no quitter, give him that much.

It’s George, somehow. George Manville has done this to me. He should be dead, the man should be dead, and in any case he’s nothing but an unimaginative engineer, how can he stop me?

Curtis had always known this was a possibility, but he’d had to go forward anyway. His position was untenable and getting worse. He had to get out from under or go under, ruined, disgraced. So he’d had to make this gamble, and now he’d lost.

Thirty-seven minutes.

It wasn’t going to blow. George Manville, of all people, had beaten him. (He never even thought of Kim.)

But was this any worse than to fail the other way? To be sued, hounded, taken through bankruptcy courts, reviled by everyone who used to shake his hand and drink his liquor.  If things had worked out…

If things had worked out, he would have had all the money he needed to solve his problems, and he would not have had one breath of scandal to touch upon him. He would have had his revenge on the city that had tried to destroy him, and he would have continued to be Richard Curtis, owner of Curtis Construction and RC Structural, respected, accepted everywhere in the world.

Well, he had failed, and now that failure was behind him, and it was time to start again. He still had a very few trusted people—the Farrellys at Kennison, for instance—he could rely on. Richard Curtis would have to disappear forever, and gradually he would have to build up a new identity. He had lost a battle, that’s all, not the war.

To disappear meant totally, and that meant he had to start now. Defeat had made him tougher, more decisive. He knew what had to be done, and he wouldn’t shrink from doing it.

He shoots the couple, throws their bodies overboard.  He hadn’t intended to do this before, but now that everyone is going to know what he’s done, now that the world is going to be hunting him, he can no longer count on their discretion, their complicity in his crime, to keep them silent.  He’s truly alone now.  And he just made another mistake.

He’s planning on the fly, and he’s never been good at that (he thinks he is, which only makes it worse).  He can pilot the ship, but he can’t run the risk of being discovered with a submarine full of gold trailing him.  He’s got Mark Hennessy’s papers, that will do for a start.  But he’ll need money to start over.  He’ll need a small portion of the gold, to hide on the boat, and take with him.

He has to surface the sub, tether it to the boat, get on top of the sub, open the hatch, start putting the ingots onboard.  He removes the outer hatch, which drops into the sea–no big deal, he has to sink it to hide the evidence.  It’s not the kind you ride in, anyway.  He’s surprised at how heavy the bars are.  For a man who knows everything about money, he doesn’t know much about gold.

It’s not a one man job.  But there’s nobody left to help him.  His choice.

The rope! Curtis saw it was going to happen, and lunged, but too late. The ships made one more incremental turn away from one another, and the rope tying them together met the spinning propeller of the submarine, and the propeller neatly sliced through.

Immediately the ships lunged away from one another. Curtis saw the lights of Granjya rapidly recede. There were no lights on the submarine.

Dive into the sea? He couldn’t possibly hope to swim fast enough to catch up with Granjya. But if he stayed in the submarine, what then?

Granjya’s lights were fainter, they disappeared. Curtis was getting wet. As the waves ran over the submarine, water ran inside through the two open hatches.

He was in pitch blackness, in this small heaving boat on the surface of the sea. It was riding lower, taking on water faster. There was no light anywhere in the world, except far away to the north, far away, the cold white sheen of Hong Kong against the night sky. Curtis, standing in the hatchway on his gold ingots, his body moving with the roll of the submarine, kept his eyes on that far-off pale glow.

After a while, the lights were still there, but he was not.

It’s not a perfect book.  But that’s a perfect ending.

And we never find out (because this is Donald Westlake, master of the abrupt send-off), what happened with George and Kim’s romance.  Last we see of them, they’re laughing and kissing in sheer relief that it’s over and they’re alive.  They can’t know if they’re compatible or not, and neither can we, and in this sub-genre it doesn’t matter.  The sex will be amazing in the coming months, and that does.

We never learn whether Luther got over his heartbreak and his mental solitude, or if he ever went home.  Maybe Papa Rickendorf will reconsider his position on the gay thing, in light of his son’s valor under fire?  Nah, I don’t think so either.

We never learn whether Mark got over his trauma, or his shameful understanding that it’s his own fault for trusting a man he of all people knew could not be trusted.

And most of all we never learn how the world reacted to the news that one of its (supposedly) richest men was a shameless blackguard and fraud, utterly bereft of conscience or fellow feeling, willing to go to any lengths to keep what he felt was rightfully his.  I mean, who would have thought such a thing?  (Anyone who ever did business with him.)

It’s an inspired mess of a book.  Fascinating idea, some magnificent bits of writing, several memorable villains, and if the heroes are maybe a bit less convincing, well, that’s because Donald Westlake doesn’t believe in heroes. Never did.

But he did believe, I think, that we have to go on acting as if we believe in heroes–not the idealized heroes of fiction, no.  The ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things, once they get going.  Once they realize the alternative to heroism is death.  Enlightened self-interest.

The most chilling thing in this book is its description of the falling towers in Hong Kong, that quote that I put up top.  Not just the caliber of the writing, but the fact that Westlake wrote this in the late 90’s.

And then he would have watched, in disbelief, as it happened before his eyes, not to some distant foreign capital, but to the city he knew and loved most intimately.  And the man who planned that was an engineer.  Of course.  Who came from wealth.  Of course.  Though his motives were quite different from Curtis’s, he was still, I’d imagine, trying to get back something he believed was rightfully his.

And who would want to see anything else after that?  (I’d assume if he had any idea of polishing up this novel and getting it published, that idea was yet another casualty of 9/11)

This novel is a somewhat ill-conducted cacophony of long neglected voices in Mr. Westlake’s head–Culver, Clark, maybe Coe (I think I can hear him in Luther’s head).  But most of all, Stark.  Who had just somehow resurrected himself, and exerted great influence here, but Stark is never fully Stark unless he’s writing about Parker.

And the three remaining Parker novels, published over a period of around four years, were all conceived and created in the post-9/11 era.  They are Stark’s reaction to that event, and what followed it.  They are far better than Forever And a Death, and they are, I’d argue, the last great books Westlake ever produced–not so much as individual volumes, but as a collective work of art.

And they are so much better than his other late work, I would argue, because Stark was the voice at the back of all Westlake’s many voices.  He was the core program, that kept on running strong, after the other more sophisticated softwares had started to fade.  He’s ready to share his code with us one last time.

And Parker is going to meet his two deadliest foes.  The Information Age.  And the Security State.

We’ll see how fast and how far he can run from them.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark, Timothy J. Culver, Tucker Coe

Review: Nobody’s Perfect

Oppressed by the continuing silence in the cab, these four large bodies sweating lightly in the hot July London air, Chauncey made a desperate stab at Smalltalk: “This your first trip to London, Dortmunder?”

“Yeah.”  Dortmunder turned his head slightly to look out the window.  The cab, having come in the M4 from Heathrow, was now inching through the normal traffic jam on Cromwell Road.  “Looks like Queens,” Dortmunder said.

Chauncey came automatically to the city’s defense. “Well, this is hardly the center of town.”

“Neither is Queens.”

I don’t really know what my favorite Parker novel is, but I know my least favorite–Flashfire, which is the first thing of Westlake’s I ever read.  It starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to Palm Beach.  This just does not seem to be a place Parker belongs.   You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in Florida, don’t get me wrong (I believe it’s been done once or twice)–just not with Parker in it.

I don’t really know what my favorite Dortmunder novel is, but I know my least favorite–this one.   Which starts out great, then somehow loses its way once it gets to London, and from there to bonny Scotland.  These do not seem to be places Dortmunder belongs.  You could write a perfectly good crime novel set in London and/or Scotland, don’t get me wrong (they’d probably wear funny hats and there’d be fog)–just not with Dortmunder in it.  I believe I vaguely detect a pattern here.

Terra incognita is one thing for a fictional character and another thing entirely for an author.   Westlake had probably been to London by this point, perhaps more than once–referring back to an Abby Adams quote I employed in my review of Brothers Keepers, he reportedly uprooted much of his family for a tour of Britain and The Continent (dates not specified), and of course a writer never takes a trip purely for pleasure–there’s always mental note-taking going on, and perhaps the other kind as well.

Still, he could hardly claim the same familiarity with European locales as he could with New York and other American cities (Britain is still kindasorta European, right?  I mean, there’s a tunnel and everything).   So much of Westlake’s better writing is about the fine details, and particularly his comic writing.  To get the fine details right, you have to know the territory very well.  Or else fake it to beat the band.  That’s always an option.

More than that, though, Westlake must have been wondering where he could go with this series that had dropped into his lap unexpectedly at the tail-end of the 60’s.  What was he supposed to do with Dortmunder & Co?  People loved the books, and he could hardly pass up a steady paying gig, particularly now with Parker, Grofield, and Tobin all out of the picture.

But he’s already on the fourth book, and he’s got a problem–with Parker, he had a lot of options–Parker might steal a lot of money and get to keep it–or go on a blood-soaked campaign of ruthless retribution, which was what he did in the first book.  Dortmunder doesn’t seem constitutionally equipped for the latter course, and anyway, it wouldn’t be funny.  Nor can he do what Grofield does, and play-act his way through a variety of roles, swashbuckler, detective, secret agent.  Dortmunder is just Dortmunder.

The whole point of the character is that he does these elaborate heists that go hilariously wrong, and he ends up with a mere pittance–enough to keep him going until next time. How many stories like that can you write and keep it fresh?    If he wanted to keep writing these books, and cashing those royalty checks, Westlake had to find ways to expand Dortmunder’s options, without surrendering the essential qualities of the character.

Part of that will involve expanding the cast of regulars, but the finale of this book radically shrinks that cast down to just Dortmunder and Kelp.  Who normally make a great team (from our perspective, anyway), but here, not so much.   I’m probably spoiled after the last three books, the pioneering works of the series–this is a transitional book.  There’s so much to like about this one.  So many brilliant moments.  Somehow the pieces don’t quite fit together.  Well, a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite entirely work is still a Dortmunder.   But I’m making this a one-parter, because I don’t want to dwell on it.   Short synopsis follows, and then I shall analyze what went wrong–and right.

Dortmunder gets nabbed stealing TV sets from a repair shop.  He figures he’s going away a long time.  He figures wrong–out of the blue comes this famous legal eagle, J. Radcliffe Stonewiler, who mysteriously agrees to take up Dortmunder’s defense without Dortmunder even asking him to.

The wily Stonewiler performs a little courtroom razzle-dazzle at the preliminary hearing (something to do with doors), and the delighted judge, bored to tears with his humdrum routine of obviously guilty people stringing things out in hopes of getting off on a technicality, dismisses all charges out of sheer gratitude.   Dortmunder goes home to May about six years early, by his reckoning.   Hey, I thought next time he went to jail it’d be for life, due to his prior convictions?   Retconning already, Mr. Westlake?   Hedging your bets, in case you want to do another jailhouse comedy someday?

Dortmunder knows there’s always a catch.   The catch this time is named Arnold Chauncey.   The shiftless wealthy heir to a great fortune, who spends his days lolly-gagging about, jet-setting around the globe, enjoying the fruits of other mens’ labors–enjoying them so much, in fact, that he’s perpetually on the brink of insolvency, due to cash-flow problems.

These problems he has twice addressed in past by claiming that a valuable painting from his extensive collection has been stolen, then cashing a hefty insurance check (he just sticks the painting somewhere nobody but him can look at it).   Now he wants to try it again, with a painting he’s particularly fond of (Folly Leads Man to Ruin, by Veenbes, and there is no such work, or artist, don’t even bother to look) .   The insurance company is getting skeptical.   Hence the need to hire a professional to make it look real this time.  Hence Dortmunder.

But what, you may ask, would prevent Dortmunder, after he’s pretend-heisted the Veenbes, from actually heisting it?   Dortmunder asks this question himself, and then wishes he hadn’t, because it turns out Chauncey hired another professional–from a different profession.   Leo Zane is his name.  Tall, skinny, pale, pronounced limp.  His gun, you might say, is for hire.  Or for sale, same difference.  If Dortmunder doesn’t give back the painting, Dortmunder’s going away for keeps, to that big house in the sky.

So he recruits a string, some of the usual suspects, plus a new guy, Tiny Bulcher, and they steal the painting–and then lose it.  At a gathering of Scotsmen, of all things.  Okay, now what?  Not only can they not get paid without the painting, but Dortmunder is going to get whacked if they don’t cough it up.

So Kelp has an idea (doesn’t he always?).  They approach Griswold Porculey, an artist friend of his nephew Victor (the former FBI agent from Bank Shot), who can turn out a really convincing copy of just about any painting in any style–but he can’t get it exactly right without the original to work from.   It will stand up to a cursory examination, but not an extended one.

Dortmunder calls in some favors from a variety of old friends he re-connected with at this fantastic heister’s Christmas party at May’s apartment, including bisexual black revolutionary Herman X, and heister turned full-time TV actor, Alan Grofield (formerly Greenwood), and they pull an elaborate sting that ends with Chauncey believing Dortmunder brought him the real painting, but then a gang of terrorists or something stole it, and they were seemingly tipped off by Leo Zane (Grofield, giving the performance of a lifetime, in silhouette).   Dortmunder made sure to trap the real Zane in a blockade of trucks over on the west side–by the time he gets out, Chauncey won’t return his calls, and he won’t whack Dortmunder gratis.

So they have a fantastic heister’s Post-Christmas party, with the whole gang present, and Dortmunder feels really good about one of his schemes finally working out the way he planned it, and then he and May go off to Puerto Rico on Chauncey’s money (which of course the ‘terrorists’ stole along with the painting).

Dortmunder is, as I said, atypically contented with his lot in life after making this score, but he can’t help but think he’s missed some crucial detail, and he starts looking around nervously, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And part of me thinks this is where it should have ended, but that would be too simple, right?  Still and all, up to this point, it’s a very creditable effort.   Westlake, playing his usual structural games, divided the book into three ‘choruses,’ First, Second, and Final.  It’s the Final Chorus, only fifty-six pages long in the first edition,  where the enterprise begins to founder.   And in fiction, as in life, how well you end things matters more than how well you began them.

See, Leo got out of the trap Dortmunder set for him, and managed to convince Chauncey that they’d both been had.  And now he and Chauncey are in Dortmunder and May’s apartment (Kelp is there too), Porculey’s fake thumbtacked to the wall (Dortmunder had considered tacking the original up there as well, before they lost it), and not even Kelp can come up with a good enough story to get them out of this.

This is bad–Chauncey didn’t even get the insurance money, because the real painting has shown up (wouldn’t you know it) in Scotland, where an impecunious squire by the name of MacDough (pronounced MacDuff, but no relation, so lay off) is claiming, with a completely straight face, that it’s been in his family for generations.

They are all going to die (even May).  Chauncey believes they lost the painting, knows there was no planned double-cross, but that just means they conned him out of the money with that terrorist gag, and like all rich men in a Westlake novel, his well of compassion runs dry very quickly.

But now Dortmunder has an idea–and here’s where we may detect that most extreme rarity–a genuine gaping plot hole in a Westlake book.  See, Dortmunder says they can go to London and steal the painting back, putting the copy in its place, and then Chauncey can demand the one in London be re-appraised by experts, who will declare it a fake, and he’ll have the real one stashed back at his crib, no one the wiser.

Okay, who knows why this doesn’t work?   First of all, the experts in London would probably have taken photos of the original, which they could refer back to, and see that it doesn’t quite match up to the fake, in ways they would have noticed on their first perusal.

Now that might not be too much of a problem for Chauncey, insurance-wise (he just needs to prove the other guy doesn’t have the real painting), but why is he risking everything, even his own liberty, to help commit an art heist, in a foreign country, with one surly hired assassin and two guys who already bungled it once on their home turf?  Aside from the fact that Westlake figures he needs another fifty-six pages of story?  Obviously because he has a collector’s obsession with hanging onto his collectibles, but that doesn’t work here.

Because once Dortmunder tells Chauncey the whole story, you see, he can get the painting back without their help.   Because he can prove the doughty MacDough was there in New York, in a theater a block away from Chauncey’s townhouse, at a gathering of be-kilted Scotsmen attending a concert.  The very same night his painting was stolen.  And then, shortly afterwards, Mr. MacDough ‘discovered’ this old Flemish master, worth a small fortune, in his dungheap of an ancestral castle, part of his inheritance from a land-rich relation who never had two farthings to rub together.

It’s too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.   Even a Scotsman (sorry lads, couldn’t resist).

You can rationalize it, if you want–Chauncey didn’t really want to be an accomplice to murder, he was intrigued by the prospect of engaging in art theft directly, he just didn’t think of it (though he’s no dummy).   If Westlake thought any of these were viable excuses, he’d have trotted one or all of them out for our approval, but he didn’t.  Because he knew they weren’t viable.  And he just devoutly hoped we wouldn’t notice the hole.   Well, to be honest, I didn’t notice it myself–the first time.    His legerdemain is always adroit.

But much as the Dortmunders are not exercises in gritty realism, there does have to be that underlying credibility–Westlake has to play fair.  He painted himself into a corner here, and he cheated.  Bad form, old scout.

And that may be why what follows just lacks the usual Dortmunder flair, aside from the change of venue.  Oh it’s fun to read, don’t get me wrong–Westlake can’t be boring, ever.  But you compare it to what came before, and there’s something missing, some secret ingredient, and while the ending rather cleverly hearkens back to the overriding theme of Folly Leading Man to Ruin, the final image seems more like the ending of a third-rate Abbott & Costello movie.  Or maybe Tom & Jerry?   You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it (there is no way they could have gotten that armor on so quickly by themselves).

(‘Newgate Callendar’, NY Times music critic and part-time mystery maven, loved this one, by the way.   I don’t know if he saw the plot hole, and if he had, I don’t know that he’d have given a damn, because to him, this is just a silly entertainment, nothing more.   The more depth a book in this genre has, the more it departs from the established format, the less he likes it.   Someday I’ll have to share with you all what he thought of Charles Willeford and Patricia Highsmith.  Maybe you can guess.)

So I’ve prefaced and synopsized and dissected the whole novel in a bit over two thousand words, and delivered my final judgment, and just one short prefatory quote, and it’s not at all my normal way of doing things, is it?

Because, you see, I want to end this on a positive note.  Because even a Dortmunder that doesn’t quite work is still a Dortmunder–just like a painting by an old Flemish master who was having a bit of a dry spell is still an old Flemish master, and as I have said before, sometimes we learn more from an artist’s failures than his successes.   Whatever the Book of Proverbs may think, Folly often leads man to more inspired efforts in the future–if he recognizes it as such, as I believe Westlake did in this case.

So let’s go back to the beginning, and look at all the fine details of the picture, all the things that do work, all the masterful little brush strokes that don’t quite add up to a masterwork this time, but still make for an interesting book.

Detail #1: The Terror of Tiny Town

“Hello, Dortmunder.”  Tiny had the voice of a frog in an oil drum, but less musical.”  “Long time, no see.”

Dortmunder sat opposite him, saying, “You look good, Tiny,” which was a palpable lie.  Tiny, hulking on the little chair, his great meaty shoulders bulging inside his cheap brown suit, a shelf of forehead bone shadowing his eyes, looked mostly like something to scare children into going to bed.

Westlake had introduced many a massive supporting character in past novels–George, the good-natured and oddly philosophical leg-breaker for the Machinists Union in Killy; Lobo, the silent and comically terrifying evocation of Rondo Hatton, in The Spy in the Ointment; Dan Wycza in the Parker novels; and there were two giants in Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.  I think it was the shorter and scarier of the two, Billy Glinn, who provided the main impetus for Mr. Bulcher’s genesis.

Billy was always telling stories about this or that person who had irritated him in some way, and those stories had a tendency to get rather bloody in their details.   Tiny has the same disarming habit of  going off on gruesome tangents, but the point, of course, is to keep reminding his colleagues that he’s not somebody you want to piss off.

And yet, in all his many appearances in the series, we never once see him seriously hurt anyone, because that’s just how the Dortmunder books tend to work out (with only one exception, and even Tiny was scared of him).   So does Tiny just make these ripping yarns of his up, or embellish them, simply to give himself a more fearsome reputation?   Looking at him, one would not think that necessary, but he’s smarter than he looks, and he might just figure the more scared people are of him, the less actual work he has to do.

Mainly he just carries heavy things (like cars), and Dortmunder may want him on some jobs because he provides that intimidation factor that makes actual violence unnecessary.   Dortmunder’s smarter than he looks as well, and he wisely assumes Tiny isn’t making anything up–their professional relationship is always somewhat guarded, with Dortmunder not wanting to let on he’s intimidated, and Tiny not really wanting to head up the string.  He just wants whoever is in charge to know they better not screw up.  As he meets each member of the string in this book, he is moved to recall some person in the same specialty (Driver, Lockman, etc), who disappointed him in some crucial way, and let’s just say you really don’t want to disappoint Tiny Bulcher, and leave it at that.  But the main thing is, he never disappoints us.

Detail #2: The Duo’s Dynamic

“Maybe you’re the jinx,” May said, very softly

Dortmunder gave her a look of affronted amazement.  “Maybe what?”

“After all,” she said, “those were Kelp’s jobs, and he brought them to you, and you can’t really blame any one person for all the things that went wrong, so maybe you’re the one that jinxes his jobs.”

Dortmunder had never been so basely attacked in his life.  “I am not a jinx,” he said, slowly and distinctly, and stared at May as though he’d never seen her before.

“I know that,” she said.  “And neither is Andy.  And besides, this isn’t you coming in on a job he found, it’s him coming in on a job you found.”

“No,” Dortmunder said.  He glowered at the TV screen, but he didn’t see any of the shadows moving on it.

“Damn it, John,” May said, getting really annoyed now, “You’ll miss Andy, and you know it.”

“Then I’ll shoot again.”

The pattern of the books up to now had been simple, though the execution was not–Kelp pitches a crazy heist to Dortmunder, Dortmunder wants nothing to do with the job but somehow gets pulled into it anyway, it all goes to hell (which on some level actually gratifies Dortmunder, because it proves he was right all along), and Dortmunder swears never to work with Kelp again.   And repeat.

Westlake was a lot like Dortmunder (and Parker, and Tobin), in that he often wrote books based on ideas that somebody had pitched to him.  Some of these ideas worked out better than others.   His was a reactive form of creative genius–he needed something to get him started, some outside stimulus.   And anyway, nobody could write as much as Westlake did and only use his own ideas.  And sometimes his own ideas didn’t work so well either.

Dortmunder is a genius (as Kelp is constantly telling him), but left to his own devices, he seems to mainly do penny-ante burglaries, and that’s what he’s doing at the start of this book.  The small job leads to a big one–this time pitched to him by Chauncey.  Work for hire, which isn’t his favorite source of income, but he’s having the same problems Parker is having, with finding heists where he can simply take a lot of insufficiently well-guarded cash.  He’s got to diversify.

So he takes the job, but he doesn’t tell Kelp about it.  Obviously Kelp finds out anyway, and is deeply offended.  May remonstrates on Kelp’s behalf, as always, and Dortmunder relents.  And ends up regretting it, again, but as matters work out, Kelp probably saves his bacon in the end, though Dortmunder is not feeling terribly grateful by then.

Westlake is trying to figure out how to use Kelp without always going back to that same old pattern.  At the end of the book, the two of them are a team, working to steal the painting (again) in London, and then (still yet again) in Scotland.  Yeah, it’s too much like The Hot Rock, only not nearly enough like it.

And yet Kelp is responsible for much of what’s best in this book.   Westlake is starting to develop ways to use him as something other than Dortmunder’s albatross.  His contacts and resourcefulness serve Dortmunder well after the first heist goes wrong, and one contact in particular–a police detective named Bernard Klematsky, who considers Kelp a dubious but useful source of information (and free Italian food)–will factor into future escapades.   As the books go by, it will often seem like Dortmunder is the jinx, not Kelp.  But don’t ever tell Dortmunder that.

And somehow, I always get the notion that what we’re seeing here is an encoded history of real-life friendships Westlake had, that as loyal a friend as he reportedly was, he was also sometimes irritated beyond words with certain (mainly male) associates, and that irritation found expression in the Dortmunder/Kelp dynamic–and that way, he can write from the perspective of the overly helpful friend,  see things from his side, and convince himself that he’s worth the trouble after all.

Dortmunder would like to think he doesn’t really need anybody, but we know better, and so does May, and (at the deepest core of his being) so does Dortmunder.   In the Parker novels, as we saw in Butcher’s Moon, this contradiction between the protagonist’s rugged independence and his need to sometimes rely on others gets expressed with the tried-and-true Starkian romanticism.  In the Dortmunders, it’s expressed in the manner of a Laurel & Hardy comedy, with Dortmunder playing the ever-exasperated Ollie.  And once in a while giving we the audience an aggrieved look–“What did I ever do to deserve this?”  I dunno, John–just lucky, I guess.

Detail #3: Old Friends

Stately plump Joe Mulligan paused in the privacy of the hallway to pull his uniform trousers out of the crease of his backside, then turned to see Fenton watching him.  “Mp,” he said, then nodded at Fenton, saying, “Everything okay down here.”

Here’s another thing I missed the first time I read this–a glaringly obvious reference to the opening paragraph of Ulysses.

Now I’ve read a fair bit of James Joyce, but I must shamefacedly confess, I’ve rather cravenly shied away from his magnum opus over the years (I start reading, and then I stop, and they keep revising it anyway), and am thus not properly equipped to know if this is merely a surface reference, a little wink at the more erudite members of Westlake’s readership–or if there’s something more involved going on.  Probably not.  Then again, possibly so.  But I do know, having read virtually all of Westlake, that stately plump Joe Mulligan, and the six other other security men at Chauncey’s mansion, were in Bank Shot.

They’ve stayed together as a team, and have, as we’re told, been exiled to the wilds of Manhattan after their disgrace (losing an entire bank!).  Used to be cops, public and private, wanted to work Manhattan, but those days are gone–they’d rather be anywhere else.  They’re hoping to get back in the good graces of the Continental Detective Agency, and get posted back out to Long Island, Staten Island, any island but this.

Three of their number are still named after Hal Dresner, Lawrence Block, and Brian Garfield, and they still play a lot of poker during their down time.  They’re guarding the valuables of Arnold Chauncey at a party Chauncey has arranged for the sole purpose of making the theft more palatable to the insurance company, and of course they will fail in their sworn duty, because Chauncey wants them to, and also because Dortmunder is most definitely a jinx to them, whatever else may be the case.  And this won’t be the last time their paths cross, but we’ll get to that.

Detail #4: Kentucky Nepenthe

“Would that be bourbon?” asked the Prince.

“It would.  May I offer?”

“You certainly may.  Say what you will about jazz, the Hollywood movie, the Broadway musical or the short story, but I say America’s contribution to the arts is bourbon.”

I never drank a drop of bourbon in my life before I started reading Westlake novels, and now there’s a bottle of Knob Creek in my living room, and I’ll just pour myself  a dram to get in the mood to write this segment.  I’ve always been more of a beer&wine guy, but you read enough Westlake, you just can’t help getting curious.  Maybe I’ll go with Wild Turkey Rare Breed next time.  Widow Jane is pretty damn good (distilled in Kentucky, bottled in Brooklyn, with limestone-rich water from the Widow Jane mine in Rosendale NY,  not that you asked, but Westlake would have, I bet).

Dortmunder is a bourbon man (as is Kelp), but they normally drink the cheap stuff.  Amsterdam Liquor Store Bourbon: “Our Own Brand”.  Dortmunder thinks to himself, having sampled Chauncey’s extremely fine bourbon, that the stuff he drinks at the O.J. is probably distilled in Hoboken, from a combination of Hudson and Raritan waters (adding a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘Bourbon and Branch’).

So Dortmunder has to steal a lot of valuables from Chauncey’s mansion, along with the painting, just to make it look good, and having had a taste of the top drawer stuff, he crams all the bottles he can find under his suit jacket, and this proves to be his undoing, trapping him in an elevator shaft until after his colleagues have lost the painting.   This would never have happened to Parker, who never seems to give a damn what he drinks (and yet he often drinks bourbon).  Dortmunder learns to compromise, buying a decent if unremarkable brand to have at home, but at the O.J. he’ll stick to the stuff from Hoboken.  And speaking of the O.J.–

Detail #5: The Boys at the Bar 

When Dortmunder walked into the O.J. Bar and Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at eleven that night, three of the regulars were deep in discussion with Rollo the bartender about private versus public eduction.  “I tell ya what’s wrong widda private schools,” one of the regulars was saying.  “You put your  kid in there, it’s like a hothouse, you know what I mean?  The kid don’t get to know all kinds a people, he don’t get prepared for  real life.”

One of the others said, “Real life?  You wanna know about real life?  You put your kids in a public school they get themselves mugged and raped and all that shit. You call that real life?”

“Sure I do,” the first one said.  “Meeting all kinds, that’s what real life is all about.”

The second one reared back in disbelieving contempt.  “You mean you’d put your kid in a school with a lotta niggers and kikes and wops and spics?”

“Just a minute there,” the third regular said.  “I happen to be of Irish extraction myself, and I think you oughta just give me an apology there.”

The other two stared at him, utterly bewildered.  The main offender said “Huh?”

“Or maybe you’d like a swift left to the eye,” said the Irishman.

It is now an established feature of these books that Dortmunder will walk into the O.J. Bar and Grill and Rollo will be at the bar, and will tell him who’s in the back room waiting for him, identifying them by their drinks.  And as Dortmunder waits for his Hoboken bourbon, he will hear snatches of very strange conversations, and here’s one of the stranger ones, though by no means the strangest.  And let me say, I fully believe that Irishman is out there, to this very day, defending his Celtic race from wholly unintended ethnic slights, and if you don’t believe me, how’d you like a swift left to the eye?  Huh?  And it’s not just the Irish, either.

Detail #6: Family Resemblances

And now some of them were fighting.  Over there by the head of the second aisle, two or three lads were rounding and punching and clutching at one another, while another half dozen tried to either stop them or join in, hard to tell which.  “What are they fighting about?” Kelp cried.

A passing Scot paused to answer: “Well, you know,” he said, “if it’s neither football nor politics, it’s more than likely religion.” And away he waded, to join the discussion.

Since Scotland voted ‘No’ in the referendum, any visitors I get from there fall under the sway of the Union Jack, which is a damned shame, because I’d love to add the Saltire to my collection (118 flags and still counting).  And maybe for other reasons, but we all compromise at times, don’t we?  I’m quite sure a referendum in Northern Ireland would go the same way for the present time, and sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  Tiocfaidh ár lá.

Anyway, I haven’t known a lot of Scots, and that’s only my misfortune, but there’s this one story that reminds me of the Dortmunder gang’s experience at the concert hall.

It was a different kind of concert hall–The Ritz, in lower Manhattan, and not my usual type of venue at all, but I wanted to see The Pogues live, just once (it was twice, eventually, but Joe Strummer was in for Shane MacGowan the second time at the Beacon Theater, and that doesn’t really count).  Anyway, once the lads started playing their Celtic Punk, an impromptu mosh-pit quickly developed, and at its center were these muscular fellows, whipping their shirts off, and pouring beer all over each other, and (inadvertently) myself.

“We’re sorry, we’re from Scotland,” one of them cheerfully informed me. I forgave them at once.   That’s a perfectly decent excuse.  Fight on, Scotland the Brave.

And perhaps I’d best wrap up this itemized list with–

Detail #7: A Portrait of the Artist as a Lewd Man

While waiting, Dortmunder  looked around, absorbing this weird dwelling place and noticing here and there on the dark walls unframed paintings, presumably Porculey’s.  They were all different, and yet they were all the same.  In the middle foreground of each was a girl, either naked or wearing something minimal like a white scarf, and in the background was a landscape.  The girls were mostly seen full length, and they were always very absorbed in what they were doing.  One of them, for instance, sitting on the grass with some ruined castles behind her, plus in the distance a couple of trees and a small pond at which two deer drank, was studying a chess set laid out on the grass in front of her.  Another showed a girl on a beach, leaning over the gunwale to look inside a large stranded rowboat, with a huge storm way out at sea in the background.  (This was the girl with the scarf.)

The girls were not quite identical.  Glancing around, Dormunder saw maybe four different girls among the paintings, and it was with a sudden shock that he realized one of them was Cleo Marlahy.  So that’s what she looks like with her clothes off, he thought, blinking at a picture in which, against a background of an apple orchard white with spring flowers, an unsmiling girl was rather leggily climbing over a rail fence.

My favorite part of this book involves Kelp taking Dortmunder to see Oswald Porculey, Victor’s artist friend, whose studio is rather improbably (and yet entirely plausibly) situated in a Long Island shopping mall (the sheer wealth of detail in its description puts to shame the rather threadbare descriptions of London later in the book)–he gets cheap rent on a space that formerly housed a clothing store, in exchange for doing some security work.  He’s described to us as a man around fifty, overweight, unshaven, sloppily dressed, with about the most beautiful model/mistress any artist might desire, and somehow we know that much as he may enjoy fucking her, he’d much rather be painting her. She’s that beautiful.  Even Dortmunder ogles her, and he’s not generally the ogling kind.

Porculey is a tremendously gifted artist, with (let’s be honest) somewhat banal tastes.  Technique is not all.  His ability to mimic other artists is nothing short of uncanny, but left to his own devices, he mainly does very elaborate pin-ups.  And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  And what is the point of all this?

It may interest those of you who collect old paperbacks (like the Gold Medal editions of the Parker novels) that at the time this book was written and published, Robert E. McGinnis was just about exactly fifty years of age, and while I couldn’t possibly know what his shaving and dressing habits were, that physical description matches him to a proverbial T, and the descriptions of that artwork bear an even more striking resemblance to what McGinnis generally paints when left to his own devices.   Though I would tend to doubt he was ever reduced to doing night watchman duty at a Long Island mall.

I don’t believe this is a coincidence.  You may draw your own conclusions.   And really, since McGinnis drew himself as Parker (fondling a nearly-naked Claire) on his cover for The Black Ice Score, one might argue this is merely one feminine-obsessed artist returning the sincere compliment of another.   And I would hope McGinnis would take it as a compliment (particularly since Westlake wrote him into the final chorus of this book), but in the unlikely event that I ever meet him, I think maybe I won’t bring it up.

I could say more.   I can pretty much always say more.   But I think that’s enough.  I like this book.  It could have been better.   Pretty nearly all the subsequent books in this series are better, I think.  But there’s so much here.  So much richness of description, so many little flourishes put in there for those able to enjoy them, that you can’t call it a failure.  It’s just a bit less of a success.

Anyway, Newgate Callendar liked it.  I can imagine Westlake reading his rave review, having previously read his pans of far superior efforts, and wondering where he’d gone wrong.  And where he might, with a bit of extra effort, go right.

I am now going to commit heresy.  Our next book is Castle In The Air.   Perhaps Westlake’s least-loved comic caper featuring a cast of professional thieves–operating out of Europe this time.  And I think it’s funnier than Nobody’s Perfect.   And if you can refrain from the tar and feathers until next week, I’ll tell you why.

PS: One final array of covers–and again we see that the foreign editions tend to have the best artwork, where Dortmunder is concerned.  Some really creditable efforts.   No McGinnis art, though.  Somehow, I don’t think Dortmunder would have appealed to him.  Maybe that’s why he’s in a Dortmunder novel.

More at the Official Westlake Blog–my favorite place to commit art theft. 😉

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels, Nobody's Perfect, Uncategorized