Tag Archives: Spy Fiction

Review: Money For Nothing

He’d been bemoaning his fate, on the basis that outrageous things did not happen to ordinary people, but now, focusing on those long narrow strips of yellowy light from the outside world below, bars of butter across the dark ceiling, he reminded himself that anything could happen to anybody, and that only science contains impossibilities: Time does not reverse, for instance, the apple does not fall up, the sun does not circle the earth.

He had been careless.  He had lived his life as though there were no consequences.  If he could forgive his seven-year-younger self for cashing the checks, back when he was footloose and single and broke, what excuse could he find for going on with it as his life had changed, as he had taken on responsibility and maturity?  It had just been passivity, from the very beginning.

This is the very last non-series novel Westlake published in his lifetime, five years before his death.  I believe it also constitutes the tenth and final ‘Nephew’ book, though with so many variations on the basic formula as to render it almost unrecognizable.  To some extent it is an attempt to blend elements from the two of his weakest books–his first comic caper, Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and his first major attempt at satire, I Gave At The Office (the seventh Nephew)–among many other sources. I would rank it somewhere between the two.

It’s also revisiting the themes and ideas of The Spy in the Ointment, third of the Nephews, best of the first five (all of which simultaneously relied upon and subverted classic genre tropes).  This is a far less well-balanced narrative, because it’s trying to say more (and thus ends up saying far less), but that’s still what’s going on here.

It returns, one final time, to Westlake’s longstanding fascination with the acting profession he so briefly joined as a young man.  I had completely forgotten that it did that, prior to rereading it.  I had forgotten nearly all of it, to be honest.  That turned out to be both a bad and a good thing.

Its protagonist is an organization man–a copywriter for an ad agency, and not of the creatively tortured Mad Men variety–his primary role seems to be schmoozing disgruntled clients at fancy restaurants, one of which is plucked directly from the pages of I Gave At The Office–there is no firm indication by the end that he is going to quit his job and become an independent, but neither is he going to end up like that earlier book’s harassed lead, on the outs with his employer and stalked by a deranged FBI agent who has fallen for him.  This guy’s employer never seems to notice anything’s amiss, and there is a sexy agent here, but she’s only obsessed with designer clothes and cable TV.

He’s happily married, with a two year old kid, who is centrally involved in the story, which involves seriously imperiling the wee tot’s life.  His wife, unlike all previous love interests in Westlake’s books written in this vein, is not a well-developed or terribly interesting character, nor is she physically present most of the time.   This all marks a break not only with the Nephew books, but with nearly everything Westlake ever wrote in his life.

This protagonist is the sole POV character in the narrative–which is, unlike all the other books in this informal series besides The Busy Body (which it doesn’t resemble at all), written in the third person.  It would have been simplicity itself for Westlake to write this one in the first person, and there was no evident reason to bring in an omniscient narrator to tell us only what the protagonist is seeing and experiencing, when he could tell us that himself.  A distancing device, let us say.  Westlake couldn’t find it in himself to write directly from such a person’s perspective, but at the same time wanted to remain entirely focused upon it.  To see how it might change, develop, under the pressure of certain very frightening stimuli.  I think this would have worked better in the first person, but hey, it’s his book.

I keep saying ‘protagonist’ because it’s an open question for most of the book whether this fellow is going to be the hero of his own story, and you can’t convince me Westlake, a lifelong devotee of Dickens, wasn’t thinking of David Copperfield as well.  But David Copperfield is, of course, the first person narrator of his life, even if Wilkins Micawber is the hero of it–because Dickens still identified more with Copperfield than with Micawber. Westlake has intentionally created a protagonist he will have a hard time identifying with.  (It’s never worked before, but maybe this time..?)

There’s a sort of Micawber here as well (no threat to the original, but fun) and that’s likewise intentional.   He’s rather reminiscent of a subsidiary character from the very first Nephew book, and similarly pops up at the end smelling like roses, with the second female lead.  Though his penchant for doing impressions probably comes, yet again, from the justly forgotten Sassi Manoon.

Which Westlake self-evidently never forgot, never stopped returning to, because when he knew he hadn’t gotten something right in a book, he kept coming back at it, tinkering away until he’d figured it out, at which point he could let it go if he wanted.  Here he is, at the tail-end of an exceptionally successful career, still trying to make his various ‘lozenge plays’ play out as intended.  But never again, after this.  And I don’t know if that’s because he decided he finally had made these ideas work, or if he just threw up  his hands and said the hell with them all, he had better things to do with his final years on earth.

There are few Westlake novels I enjoyed less than this one, when I first got to it, a few years ago, as I was finishing the last few books he wrote under his own name.  But it is true that you haven’t really read a book until you’ve reread it.  Having spent several years since my last reading micro-analyzing all the books that came before, I understand much better now what he was trying to do here.  And I still don’t think it’s much of a book (though the reviews were mainly on an approving note, and almost uniformly missed every single point being made, because that’s the history of Mr. Westlake and the critics in a nutshell).

I greatly enjoyed various bits and pieces of it, there are, as always, fascinating insights and brilliant bits of writing scattered hither and yon throughout it, but I don’t think it works, because it’s a bit of a Diddlebock.  Yes, I’ll explain.  (This is going to be a two-parter, by the bye.  I just decided that now.  I was resisting that conclusion, but I’m afraid there’s no way around it.  How much I like a book and how much I write about it–two different things.)

One of the most underappreciated geniuses of the silent film era is Harold Lloyd, though that’s been changing, gradually.  After struggling for years to find his own voice as a comedian, building a creative collective with himself at the center, by the 1920’s he was making one sidesplittingly original film after another, all centered around The Glasses Character, otherwise known as Harold, or ‘The Boy,’  a comically over-earnest striver, who is always trying to win both success and ‘The Girl,’ played successively by Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, and Jobyna Ralston.  (Lloyd had real-life romances with all three, the last of which was adulterous, since he’d married Mildred–ardent pursuit of The Girl can be a tough habit to kick for some Boys.)

Then came talkies.  Lloyd was still very popular (perhaps even more than Chaplin, at least in America), and he went on making basically the same films, only without the inter-titles.   The Lloyd talkies did good box office for a few years, more or less entirely on the strength of nostalgia and name recognition.   His string had run out by the late 30’s, and he retired to a life of amateur photography (that involved a slew of nubile nude models; see what I mean?).

Cut to the late 40’s–Preston Sturges, who appreciated the debt all practitioners of screwball comedy owed to Lloyd, wrote and directed a comeback vehicle for him, entitled The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (aka Mad Wednesday). It is an attempt to basically revive the original Lloyd comedies for a later generation.  Like most such attempts at ‘reimagination,’ it was a colossal dud.  There are those who consider it a work of genius.  Auteurists, I suppose.

I’ve seen it in a theater.  An avid admirer of Lloyd and Sturges, I suppressed many a yawn throughout.  Though to be fair, it’s hard to actively dislike a movie where the hero goes around in a checked suit and a cowboy hat, with a real live lion on a leash, and there is one good joke at the beginning, about how Harold had romanced each of his intended’s older sisters, one after the other, and he kept getting older, but ‘The Girl’ stayed the same age.  A great comedian knows how to laugh at himself, above all things.

Artists get old, but great art stays young forever.  Take Lloyd’s best work from the 20’s, pack it in your time machine, show it to people living a thousand years from now (if you can find any).  The cultural references may baffle them, but they’ll still laugh until their bellies hurt, and root like hell for Harold to succeed, outwit his rivals, get The Girl, because those are eternal themes, that never lose their luster.

But you know what does?  Style.  Presentation. Weltanschauung.  What he did in the 20’s was fresh and new, and will remain so, because you can feel the excitement and innovation that went into it, bursting through the celluloid (or pixels, once the Lloyd family finally broke down and let their progenitor’s creations be released on DVD).  The spirit of an era bubbles and fizzes within those films, like homemade beer in poorly capped bottles, and thus it can speak to all eras.

But once The Glasses Character had outlived his specific era, he could never speak to us that way again in any new works–even if films had remained silent, I think.  Even if The Jazz Singer hadn’t happened.  The sin of Harold Diddlebock was his inability to accept that his time had passed–but how could he know that for sure if he didn’t pick himself up and give it the old college try?  A freshman to the end.

The analogy between Westlake and Lloyd is extremely strained, I’ll be the first to admit.  Writers age a lot better than movie stars, as a general rule.  Westlake had a thriving career that stretched across more than half a century.  He produced work of lasting merit throughout that time.  The Nephews were one small part of his legacy.  Never mind a second act; he had at least nine or ten of them.

And his work was not produced by a collective, though he certainly gave all due credit to his editors–it was still his work, sweated over in various small rooms, as he hammered away on a manual typewriter, right into the 21st century.  I think Westlake might have envied Lloyd the nude models, but not much else.  (Okay, maybe Preston Sturges, but that collaboration probably wouldn’t have meshed either.)

All that being said, the Westlake Nephews are, in a very real way, his equivalent of The Glasses Character–who is most certainly a picaresque hero (another of Lloyd’s second act problems, once he was no longer young enough to play one).  Like the silents featuring that bespectacled battler, all the Nephews but one were produced over a period of ten years, starting with The Fugitive Pigeon  in ’65, and ending with Brothers Keepers (maybe the best of the bunch) in ’75.

And this one’s the Diddlebock to round out the set.  And just like the Sturges film, it’s both a nostalgic look back at something that doesn’t quite track anymore, and a satiric commentary on it–an attempt to update it, comment on it, make it relevant again.  A fairly entertaining and even gripping attempt at points.  But ultimately, a failed attempt. You can’t go home again.  Or if you do, you end up sleeping on a futon in the basement.

I don’t know how well it sold, but if it had moved anywhere near as many copies as the earlier books, he had time for a few more.  Nothing but Dortmunder and Parker, for the rest of his life.  I think that tells the story.  He read between the politely parsed patter of the respectful reviews, and winced.  He rang the curtain down on the Nephews, and it never came up again. A closed chapter.

And yet Money For Nothing, I’m deeply irritated to say, is evailable, when The Spy in the Ointment, Adios Scheherazade, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Brothers Keepers, and A Likely Story are not.* Neither are Who Stole Sassi Manoon? and I Gave At The Office, which may be nothing to mourn now, but it’s going to matter someday, when lit scholars finally start to take Westlake seriously, and can’t find the damn books without hitting an archive somewhere.  (Library of America, where are you when we need you?)

The only Nephew books you can actually buy new copies of, albeit in electronic form, are The Busy Body (bad movie adaptation), God Save the Mark (Edgar Award), Somebody Owes Me Money (recent Hard Case reprint), and this one (which came along late enough in the day as to be digitized right off the bat).  The five best Nephews (and I Gave At the Office, so it’s not deliberate irony at work here) are the ones you still have to scrounge around for old copies.  I’ll try not to let such a rank injustice prejudice me against this not too inaptly titled work, but no promises.  Enough prologue; let’s dissect this sucker.

Josh Redmont (I even hate the name) is about to catch the ferry to Fire Island, where he, his wife Eve (oh please), and their two year old son Jeremy (these are very WASPy people) are spending the summer.  Josh stays at their Manhattan apartment during the work week, rejoining his loved ones for the weekend, an arrangement that can also be seen in Two Much!, A Likely Story, and Mr. Westlake’s own personal life, though presumably he could just bring his typewriter with him on the ferry.  (The world famous gay scene there had to settle for Sacred Monster.)

Having moved to New York from Indiana as a young man just out of a short stint in the army (the last time Westlake made reference to his own brief and undistinguished military service), Josh rattled around doing temp jobs for a few years, before getting into advertising.  During that time, he started receiving checks for a thousand dollars, one every month, from something that called itself ‘United States Agent.’

When he changed abodes, the checks mysteriously followed him.  He could not, for the life of him, find out why they were coming, or the slightest trace of any organization by that name, but a thousand bucks is a lot of money to a temp (even in the late 90’s in New York), and he deposited them, and they cleared, and he never got any tax forms in relation to them, so he never reported them to the IRS.

And by the time he didn’t really need the money anymore, he’d just gotten used to it.  Accepted it as a fact of life.  So he went right on cashing the checks, and since Eve wasn’t interested in co-managing their finances, he never mentioned them to her, even though she noticed them in the mail, and never asked about them, and is anyone buying this?  This might be the single most unbelievable part of the book, and that’s saying something.

This is the central plot device, from which the title stems, and I’ve long wondered if some political commentary is intended, perhaps relating to entitlements, and I’m still not sure.  Westlake wrote a short story as a very young man in which Patrick Henry, sentenced to immortality by his having said “Give me liberty or give me death!” sickens because of the welfare state, and is finally done in by Medicare.

There was an ambiguously libertarian streak in Westlake, that Anarchaos seems to be at least a partial refutation of (we do need government and laws to protect us from rapacious corporations and our own nihilistic impulses), but in The Jugger, what does Joe Sheer in is retirement, brought on by his starting to receive Social Security checks under an alias he cooked up, which he thinks is a great joke on The System, but it turns out to be on him instead.

And what might have resurrected this deep skepticism of Mr. Westlake’s regarding checks that come in the mail for services never rendered?  Well, he presumably wrote this book right around the time he turned 70, or shortly before.  And as the SSA website (which I’m greatly relieved to see has not yet been taken down) helpfully informs us, that’s the very latest age at which you may accept Social Security payments.  Or give them back to the government, if you like.  Either way, you’re admitting you’re old now.   And the most important entitlement of old age is the entitlement to be grumpy about it.

Just before Josh gets on the ferry, he is accosted by a gentleman going by the name of Mr. Levrin, who says he works for the people who were sending Josh those checks, and that Josh is now ‘active.’  Josh doesn’t want to know what that means, but he’s going to find out anyway.

Levrin hands him a bank book, relating to an account in the Caymans, in which forty thousand dollars has been deposited in Josh’s name.  Josh is told that his former handler, Mr. Nimrin is now retired (which is not a euphemism for deceased, though in some cases it might be), and Josh has no idea who that is or that Nimrin is the name of an ancient town in Palestine that was depopulated in 1948, and I have no idea what either name is supposed to mean in this context, so don’t ask me.

Levrin says they just need to use Josh’s apartment in Manhattan for a few weeks.  For an unspecified operation that is going on now.  They’ll be there on weekends, when he’s at Fire Island.  They won’t even leave a trace of their presence.  And for this he’s going to be paid 40 grand, plus all the money he got already?  Something smells bad, but Josh is too stunned to notice that.  Yet.  He hands over the keys, numbly, and barely catches the boat.

Still processing what just happened, he spends the weekend valiantly trying to enjoy marital intercourse with Eve, who meets him at the dock wearing a red bikini and an expectant look, and he does his best to keep up his end, so to speak, but is a mite distracted, and she notices (a mite sketchily developed, but no dummy).

Later, he plays with Jeremy, and there’s a faint echo of an earlier Nephew there.  And of Mr. Westlake’s experiences with his own sons, perhaps.

On Saturday, at the beach, he and Jeremy spent a few hours playing the game they seemed to have invented, in which first they made a village, by upending pails of wet sand and shaping their tops to be the houses and poking fingerholes into their sides to be windows and doors, and then watching as a giant–Jeremy–with many a “Ho ho ho,” and “Har har har,” tromped through the peaceful village, destroying it, and, presumably, all of its peaceful villagers.

Josh had never minded this game before, had known that other little boys up and down the beach were also taking the opportunity of summer in the sun to improve their skills as homicidal maniacs, but today, after United States Agent had made him “active,” he found himself regretting that it was too late to train Jeremy in the ways of pacifism.

(Possibly several million years too late, but why dwell on the recent past?   And speaking of time, when is all this taking place?  At no time is September 11th directly referenced, though terrorism is.  What’s going on here isn’t terrorism but rather Post-Soviet Ukrainian espionage disguised as terrorism, and I’m not convinced that’s a thing, though obviously Ukraine has real-life spies, who, like the spies in this book, used to work for the USSR, and got very confused when there was no such thing anymore, which is one of the reasons Josh is having these problems now.

There are cellphones, but Josh rather oddly doesn’t have one, and there are times when he could really use one.  There’s an internet with highly sophisticated search capacities, but it only comes into play on two occasions, doesn’t seem to be a part of anyone’s daily life.  Well, it probably wasn’t ever part of the author’s daily life, is the thing.

That the smoking ruins of the WTC are never even indirectly referenced would tend to argue for this either being set before 2001, or in an alternate universe where 2001 does not have that grim signifier attached to it.  But all of this inevitably creates a rather unfortunate disconnect from its time that gets in the way of what the book is trying to say; assuming we ever figure out what exactly that is.)

Remembering the name Levrin had mentioned, he looks online (in an earlier book, he’d have been visiting a library to do research), and finds an article in the Washington Post, about an Ellois Nimrin who was tried for industrial espionage seven years earlier.  The prosecution was hampered by the fact that so much of the evidence against Nimrim was classified, and he got off.  That’s all he can find. Then Nimrim finds him.

They have a conversation in the waiting room of a psychiatrist of Nimrim’s acquaintance (she later explains he approached her in Europe, got her to pretend they were involved to evade some people pursuing him, and the pretense became real, though the relationship remained informal and open–you know, that might actually have been a better novel than this, but too late now).

Nimrim explains to Josh how he got recruited–as part of a scam Nimrim cooked up to build himself a retirement nest egg.  Nimrim got himself the job of recruiting sleeper agents in New York.  He would get the names and contact info of some likely recruits, get them into the system, and then route their 12,000k per annum retainers to an account he’s set up.  Once he’d recruited enough phony sleepers and harvested their earnings for a decade or two, he’d have several million dollars, tax free, and would disappear to live out his life on some tropical island or other.

Josh finds out Nimrim was tending bar at an establishment Josh frequented as a single guy looking to pick up NYU coeds (Nimrim is a master of disguise, which he later explains simply involves making yourself look like the kind of person people tend not to pay close attention to).  Because he was young and foolish and trying to impress girls, he’d made some radical statements, that put him on Nimrim’s radar, made him a credible recruit.  So for two years, Nimrim was getting the checks made out to Josh, and everything was fine.

But then Nimrim got implicated in a case involving stolen computer tech, his name and picture were in the papers, and he was burned, as they say in spyland. His associates opted not to make him disappear, but they took his passports, kept a close eye on him, and ever since he’s been living a marginal lifestyle at the fringes of the organization, fuming over his lost millions.

Since nobody found out these sleepers never dreamed of being any such thing, the checks started getting mailed to them.  Most of Nimrim’s people did not cash the checks, so they were written off as bad bets–but Josh and two others cashed them like clockwork, and thus were assumed still ready to become ‘active.’ (Which means that if Josh had simply stopped taking the money once he didn’t need it anymore, he wouldn’t be having this conversation now.)

Nimrin tells Josh he should simply do what these people tell him to, and ask no questions, and maybe this way they both stay alive (they still don’t know about his little scam, and it would be bad for his health if they found out, as well as Josh’s.) Under no circumstances should Josh attempt to contact the authorities.

One authority he absolutely must inform, however–his wife.  She’s already noticed his distracted mental state, and suspects him of having an affair.  It’s a bit hard to tell whether she thinks the story he tells her is an improvement over the one she was imagining.  But she believes him.  He strategically neglects to tell her he was recruited before he ever met her because he was spouting a lot of guff in a bar in order to bed college girls, or that Levrin has told him that now they’re going to be storing ‘matériel’ in the apartment next.

Which turns out to be four AK-47’s under the bed, and four green-brown military uniforms with black and red ornamentation here and there, hanging in the bedroom closet.  This is all getting much too real, much too fast.  He goes back to the psychiatrist’s office, and asks her to contact Mr. Nimrim, tell him to get in touch.  She says it will take a while.  In the meantime, he figures out something even Nimrim doesn’t know–what the operation is going to be, and who the target is.

Seems there’s this little country called Kamastan (I believe this is Westlake’s final fictive nation, unless there’s one from one of the remaining Dortmunders I forgot).  It used to be part of the Soviet Union.  Now it’s ruled by an oppressive brutal dictator named Fyeddr Mihommed-Sinn, who is, wouldn’t you just know it, coming to New York next week on his first-ever state visit, because his country’s first and only Olympic athlete won a gold medal in the recent games, and he wants to be there for this special ceremony being held by the United Nations, at Yankee Stadium, to honor the victorious Olympians and give them even more medals to go with the ones they already have.  I don’t think this has ever happened, but okay, sure, why not?

Josh sees footage of Mihommed-Sinn reviewing his troops.  Guess what color uniforms they’re wearing?

Then another bombshell burts, this one of the female variety–Tina Pausto, six feet three inches of black-haired slinky Eastern European pulchritude, is making herself at home in Josh’s home.  Josh has to restrain himself from saying “I’m married” when she introduces herself.  She already knows that, obviously.  She thinks it’s cute he doesn’t try to sleep with her, like most married men do.  He just thinks about it.

Another thing he doesn’t want Eve to know about–he pointedly avoids mentioning it when he calls her on Fire Island, hears his son breaking a plate, and says something about how their damage deposit for the summer house is going to look like the far end of  a Ponzi scheme. (I only mention this because Westlake died the same year the Bernie Madoff story broke, and that’s when I first found out what the hell a Ponzi scheme was.)

So right after he meets Tina, he gets a call from Nimrim. On his home landline. That apparently is not bugged. Barnes and Noble (of course, of course). Broadway and Sixty-fifth. Author reading on the third floor at 7:00pm. Be there. If I could remember when that store was still there, it might be helpful in terms of dating this story.

Well, if Josh can find Nimrin’s trial–ah!  Here we are.  Closed in 2010.  Actually on 66th St, but it was a huge block-spanning store, so that’s not really an error. It was there for all of fourteen years.  So it opened around 1996.  So this story takes place after 1996 and before late 2001, because seriously, it makes no sense at all in a post-911 world.  (And seriously, does anything?  You tell me.)

But you know what does make sense to me?  Westsider Books is still there. Check it out if you’re ever in the area.  Great little used bookshop, very old school, a true anomaly now. Now that would have made a far more colorful and authentic setting for Josh’s meet with Nimrin, but much less conducive to social satire, which is what we’re about to see.  Mr. Westlake is going to engage in a little cross-genre snarkiness, at the expense of the present-day publishing industry, and perhaps an author whose name has since become something of a household word.

7 P.M.  July 26
Author David L. Fogware
reads from
Volume VII in the
Farbender Netherbender Series
3rd Floor 

Okay, that could be anyone.  But listen to the narrator’s description of the people Josh sees gathering on the third floor of the now-defunct book emporium.

Strange people.  There appeared to be some sixties flower children who’d been cryogenically stored for thirty years and then imperfectly thawed. Scruffy round-shouldered baggily dressed people of both sexes–or indeterminate sex–carried an unmistakable aura of homelessness about them.  Others looked like people who’d lost their luggage, but decided to come anyway.  And down in front were half a dozen burly guys in dark-toned T-shirts and light-toned windbreakers and ponytails and scraggly beards and bent eyeglasses in either tortoise-shell or black.  Josh originally assumed those guys must be a group, but then he saw nobody here knew anybody else, though most people, including the ponytails up front, were amiable about it.

Josh wonders if it will turn out this Farbender Whateverblender thing will turn out to be a sideline of Nimrin’s–which I think would have made a damned decent plot twist, and probably Westlake considered it–hence ‘Enchantress of Nyin’–then decided there wasn’t enough time.  And anyway, he had a larger target to shoot at–

Introduction finished, the spectacled store employee smilingly made his exist, and a fellow carrying a book came out to take his place at the lectern.  He was David L. Fogware, and he looked exactly like the half dozen fellows in the front row, who gave him the most enthusiastic applause of all, the rattle of hand-clapping that greeted his presence.  He, too, was a burly guy with specs and beard and ponytail and windbreaker over T-shirt over baggy jeans over L.L. Bean boots, and he accepted the acclaim with becoming modesty.

Josh hadn’t had occasion to notice this before, but there are in this world two kinds of burliness.  There’s the burliness of muscle and brawn and large bone, and there’s the burliness of beer.  These fellows, applauders and applaudee alike, represented the burliness of beer.

(Well, as long as it’s good beer…)

Mr. Fogware then gives a little introductory speech prior to his reading, in which he talks about how he’d originally thought the Rearender Foreveronabender series (snark is infectious, you knew that already) would be a mere trilogy, but then the richness of the worlds, the tapestry, the implications–he doesn’t mention the money, but that’s probably one of the implications.

Okay, I don’t know this is George R.R. Martin (to put my spellbook cards on the table), but consider the timing.  A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, followed by A Clash of Kings in ’99, and then A Storm of Swords in ’00.  A planned trilogy that turned into a much longer series (that just so happens to be set to end with the seventh book–if the now severely blocked Mr. Martin lives long enough to disgorge the two remaining tomes, and I hope that he may).

Mention is made of combining Arthurian romance with Buck Rogers, which is a pretty fair description of Martin’s niche as a writer (it’s actually a bit unfair, but again, satire).  He’d have been doing events much like this, in bookstores exactly like this, and Mr. Westlake would have been doing promotional events of his own, not to mention that he liked prowling through bookstores for the sake of prowling.

It’s easy to see him just happening across such an event, sitting inconspicuously in the back, and taking in the spectacle of the bespectacled.  He was bespectacled himself, and wouldn’t too obviously stick out among the regulars, few if any of whom would be readers of his.  And is it wrong of me to find all of this spoofery and speculation more interesting than the story I’m trying to synopsize here? Westlake was never funnier than when he was sending up his own profession.

Just to be clear, I find Mr. Martin’s books to be both majestically conceived and ineffably unreadable.  The brief selection from Enchantress of Nyin does sound a bit like his somewhat overworked prose, but overworked prose tends to sound alike, no matter who’s typing it.

It wasn’t long after this highly readable but not so well-conceived book we’re looking at now came out that a certain development deal was struck with a certain cable network, and now I live for those few weeks of the year when I may gaze upon the dark designs of the the variously decent and devious denizens of Westeros and Essos, and I think if Mr. Westlake knew the ultimate fate of Mr. Martin, if Martin was indeed his target here–to have his magnum opus completed on television by other writers, long before he could complete it in print–he’d have been a bit less snarky, and a lot more sympathetic.  But satire must needs be pitiless as Littlefinger and bloody-minded as The Hound. Back to the spy crap.

Nimrin is not, in fact, David L. Fogware.  He’s a fat old woman with a walker. Disguise yourself as people other people don’t want to look at, and you’ll never be recognized.  He’s got news for Josh, and much to his consternation, Josh has some news for him.

Nimrin’s news first–one of the three sleeper agents he recruited who took the money without knowing who sent it has turned up dead–an apparent suicide, but in reality, Nimrin informs a suitably horrified Josh, he was eliminated by Mr. Levrin, for refusing to participate in the upcoming operation.  If the remaining sleeper, who has yet to be activated, should prove similarly intractable, the organization will realize something’s amiss, and Nimrim will be the only possible culprit.  So Josh and the remaining United States Agent have to be cooperative–if not, they’ll be killed, and so will Ellois Nimrim.  Only Nimrin can’t find the third man to warn him.

If Josh goes to the authorities, as Nimrin knows he desperately wants to do, he’ll be spotted, stopped before he gets through the door–and even if he got through to somebody–who’d believe him?  What proof does he have?   He’s been taking a foreign government’s money for nine years.  Best case scenario, he goes to jail. Worst case scenario, he ends up another apparent suicide.

And here I must cavil yet again–there have to be confidential tip lines and emails.  Apart from the main FBI field office in Manhattan, there are also a number of satellite offices scattered about the greater New York City area, and Levrin’s people can’t possibly watch them all.  He’s got canceled checks,  names of two enemy agents, a bank account in the Caymans he hasn’t touched, and a fairly convincing story of how he got recruited without his knowledge.

And once Nimrin accepts that Josh has correctly guessed the target of the operation is Mohammed-Sinn (which somehow he didn’t figure out himself, even though the impending state visit was all over the news and he’s supposed to be really good at this kind of thing?), he quickly deduces that their plan is to use the four uniforms to blend into the Kamastani troops assigned to Yankee Stadium (whose AK-47’s will be loaded with blanks for an honorary fusillade), and kill not only the dictator, but a very large number of innocent people standing around him.  Meaning that Josh has to consider the fact that it’s not just his and Eve’s and Jeremy’s lives at stake here.  (Nimrin’s pretty much exclusively concerned with his own neck, which is going to be a plot point later on.)

Yes, it would be risky to inform the authorities, but much less so than what is to follow, and this wouldn’t be a serious problem if the book wasn’t trying to dabble in dark modernity and realism, while still remaining a madcap criminal farce–updating this kind of story for a new era can be very challenging, even for a younger writer.

The Spy in the Ointment still works, and beautifully so, precisely because it deals with a fictive American intelligence agency contacting the radical pacifist hero who has been mistaken for a different type of radical, recruiting him as a double agent, and then very predictably screwing up their surveillance of him, after first giving him enough training for him to haphazardly triumph over some very unprofessional menaces to society.  That story still makes sense on its own terms. This one, Diddlebock that it is, is shot full of some pretty gaping plot holes.

But as John Ford once said, when asked why the Indians didn’t just shoot the horses in Stagecoach, “Well, that would be the end of the movie, wouldn’t it?”

And this, I think, is the end of Part 1.  Finally.  Sorry for the delay.  I’ve been a bit of a sleeper myself, the past two weeks.  Pretty sure I’ll be back well before Game of Thrones premieres.  But I’m increasingly of the opinion that David L. Fogware shall never emerge from the  Nevereverender series.  Last one.  I promise.  Okay, maybe a few more in the comments section.  Feel free to come up with a few of your own.  Ho ho ho.  Har har har.

*(Parenthetically updating, three of the five out of print books I mention above are now evailable, as well as The Fugitive Pigeon, which I had forgotten was likewise out of circulation. Adios Scheherazade and A Likely Story remain dormant for now, and I remain dissatisfied.)


Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Blackbird


He got out of the shower, toweled himself dry, and walked nude into the room, stopping short in the doorway.  Seated on the chair across the room was a coal black Negro girl in a green pants suit, looking like Robin Hood got up for a Commando raid.  She looked Grofield up and down and said, as though to herself, “They are smaller.”

“I don’t believe it,” Grofield said.

“Take my word for it,” she said.

“I don’t believe God could be so cruel,” Grofield said.  “All I want to do is sleep.  I don’t want anything complicated now.”

“Nothing complicated,” the girl said briskly.  Behind her camouflage, she was a stunning girl, with large flashing eyes and close-cropped hair in the natural style, very wooly.  She spoke with a vaguely British accent.  She said, “All you have to do is tell me who sent you here and why.  Then I’ll go away and you can sleep.”

“My doctor,” Grofield said.  “For the waters.”


“My doctor sent me here.  For the waters.”

“What waters?”  She sounded more annoyed than confused.

“I was misinformed,” Grofield said.  “Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, Casablanca, 1942.  I hope you have an exit line, because you’re exiting.”  He walked toward the bed.

So here we are at the third Grofield novel, published by Macmillan in 1969, which begins with the same fouled-up armored car heist as a Parker novel named Slayground, published by Random House in 1971, even though the next Parker novel Deadly Edge (also dated 1971) clearly takes place before the events of the earlier Grofield novel. And just to make things even more convoluted, Slayground has two copyright dates–1969 and 1971. Confused yet? You will be.

You will read in many souces that The Blackbird has the same opening chapter as Slayground–not quite exactly the case. We see the same sequence of events that Slayground begins with, true enough, but in this book we see them from Grofield’s POV.

In the latter book, Stark sticks with Parker, showing us the action from his perspective–the paragraphs that don’t describe what one of them is doing or seeing are identical (which is evidently the reason for Slayground having two different copyright years). In Slayground, the chapter ends with Parker running into an amusement park with a satchel of money. In The Blackbird, Grofield (appropriately enough) blacks out, subsequent to the getaway car crashing.

Probably by the time Grofield woke up in a nearby hospital, Parker’s very bad day at the fair had already concluded and he was back at a house in Northern New Jersey we’ll be learning about in another book. So that’s where the experiment in parallel plotting ends, but I’m curious–has anybody else ever done this? Start two completely different books from two completely different publishers with two completely different protagonists with the same opening chapter, from two different vantage points?

And did Westlake write these books at around the same time, as Sarah Weinman says in her introduction to the Grofield novels for the University of Chicago reprints? She says it was about publishing schedules–that’s quite plausible, and she may have had inside information to that effect (not entirely clear). After Gold Medal decided to stop publishing the Parker novels as first edition paperbacks, it took a while for Westlake to work out a deal with Random House to publish them in hardcover. He might have had two or three written by that time. For a while there, Grofield was the only Stark character with a job.

However, given that Slayground clearly takes place after the events of Deadly Edge (in the last chapter, Parker goes back to the house in New Jersey), I’m wondering if Westlake wrote The Blackbird before either of them, and decided to give Grofield a sales boost, by having Parker make what was then his only cameo appearance in another character’s book (up until a certain Joe Gores novel in ’72).

Did he get curious later as to what happened to Parker after Grofield blacked out, and decide to write that story? Or did he write The Blackbird and Slayground together, and then decide to fill in the gap of how Parker and Claire came to live in New Jersey with Deadly Edge, before publishing Slayground, and add in the reference to New Jersey in Slayground? See, I told you you’d be confused. Join the club. Anybody knows for sure, pipe up by all means.

So. Grofield wakes up in the hospital, with police guards, and he figures he’s screwed. He is, but not the way he thinks. There are Feds there who want to talk to him. Not FBI. Not CIA. Not Treasury. Some other branch in the great spreading tree that is U.S. Defense/Intelligence/Law Enforcement/Etc.

They do not seem to know Grofield already worked for the government (after a fashion) around a year back (see The Handle), along with Parker, and that it didn’t work out so well for the government (though Grofield was the one who got shot multiple times).

They seem to know everything about Grofield–like for example, that he’s on good terms with with both General Pozos of Guerrero and Unum Marba of Undurwa, who we met in the two previous books–so you’d think they’d know about the Cockaigne job as well, but you can rationalize it as typically poor communication between different agencies. It’s not really that implausible. That’s how 9/11 happened, right? Oh of course, that was a vast government conspiracy. No plane ever hit the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a patsy, or a plant. Because vast sprawling government bureaucracies are just that well-organized. I’m rolling my eyes now.

Grofield has a choice, and you will note it’s not entirely dissimilar to the choice made by J. Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment, published about three years earlier. Eugene’s choice is A)Go undercover with terrorists who think he’s one of them or B)Wait for the terrorists to figure out he’s not one of them and kill him.

Grofield’s choice is simpler–A)Go undercover at a gathering of third world leaders in Canada (including Pozos and Marba) who may find out he’s a U.S. agent and kill him or B)Go to jail, do not pass go, and collect Social Security much later, if ever. He’s not happy with this choice. Nobody would be happy with this choice. But these are his options.

He accepts the deal offered with the tacit understanding by all concerned that he’s going to try to run out on them the moment he gets the chance. He tries really hard–and Grofield has already demonstrated his talent at shaking a tail in The Handle. Makes a run at the airport. No dice–they bugged his clothes. He can’t shake them the way he did the agents in The Handle. He wonders out loud to an agent name of Murray if they’ve even implanted some kind of tracking device inside his body–this is a rather prescient little passage in its way–

“My God!” Grofield said. He felt physically weak. “What a thing even to think about!”

Murray looked thoughtful. “But you know,” he said slowly, “that isn’t such a bad idea. You take your known Commie, say, your incorrigible criminal, like you, for instance, you take whoever it might be you’re interested in, you put the little transmitter in them, then any time you wanted to know what they were up to you’d just triangulate on them, see where they were, go on over and check them out.”

“That’s the most evil thing I ever heard in my life,” Grofield said.

“Why?” Murray seemed honestly puzzled. “We wouldn’t use it on good people,” he said. “Just bad people.” He smiled broadly, delighted with himself. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put that in the suggestion box back in the office.”

Grofield looked at him. “I keep having the strong feeling,” he said, “that for the sake of generations unborn I ought to strangle you here and now.”

Murray chuckled, not taking him seriously. “Oh you,” he said. You’ve just got a vested interest, that’s all. Being a thief and everything.”

Relax, Grofield. It’s been over 40 years, and they still aren’t there yet. Just stay off the internet, and watch out for tiny helicopters–oh never mind, you’d be retired by then. Or dead.

They don’t need tracking devices–they know about his acting career. There’s no way he can elude them indefinitely. He gets them the intel they’re after–the purpose of the gathering of tinpot dictators in Quebec City–or the next time he sees his lovely wife Mary will be on visiting day.

And somehow, superhumanly faithful and patient though she is, it’s hard to imagine Mary waiting 25 years to life. I mean, fair is fair–the last time Grofield went away for a job, he bedded three fetching blondes over the course of maybe two months, and one of them showed up on Mary’s doorstep with his money from the job–wearing support stockings. Like that makes it any better. And he’s going to cheat on her yet again, but not with a blonde this time. He’s an equal opportunity philanderer.

In the scene I opened this review with, he meets Vivian Kamdela, who is from Undurwa, the same country as Onum Marba, and that’s no coincidence–she works for him, and has been assigned to find out why Grofield is there. Strong-willed, educated, and rather contemptuous of Grofield’s every-man-for-himself attitude. Throughout the book, they’re having a back and forth philosophical dialogue strongly resembling that between Oliver Abbott and Leona Roof in Up Your Banners, only these two are not falling in love at any point in time. Vivian is very patriotic and loyal to her country, and believes in being a good soldier. Grofield only believes in being Grofield.

There’s clearly an attraction (of course there is, it’s a Grofield novel), but her reaction to him is even more hostile than that of the female leads in the two previous books–in all three cases, he’s faced with a strong-willed female he’d happily bed given the opportunity, who wants to use him for some agenda that puts his life in danger–difference here is that Vivian’s agenda isn’t personal, but political.

They go for a romantic carriage ride through historic Quebec City, during which Grofield finally meets Mr. Marba again, who respects Grofield’s abilities–which he observed up-close in the previous book–but naturally distrusts him, since he can even use truth as a weapon. Grofield, acting very much against orders, tells Marba who he’s working for, and what he’s supposed to learn. He just wants to find some way out of this mess, and figures Marba might help him. The ride back with Vivian is much less friendly than the ride there.

She faced him again, still frozen-eyed. “If you must know,” she said, “on the way up I thought you were a patriot. I thought you were working for your country out of conviction. A patriot might be my enemy, if his country was my country’s enemy, but at least I would be able to respect him. But you aren’t a patriot, you were forced to be here and you don’t care at all that you are betraying your country. You don’t care for anything but yourself, you don’t understand the existence of anything larger than yourself. I despise you, Mr. Grofield, and I do not want to talk to you any more. And I don’t want you to talk to me.”

“Some day, Miss Kamdela,” Grofield said, “we’ll have a nice long talk about patriotism vs. the draft. In the meantime, I’m going to take care of my own skin whether you approve of me or not.”

It is often hard for me to understand how political conservatives have ever considered Donald Westlake (under any name) to be one of them (as many clearly do). Not that us liberals should ever have regarded him as a reliable ally, either. We’ve already seen him devastate the Anarchist/Libertarian argument in Anarchaos, and he made his feelings clear about aspiring left-wing revolutionaries in Up Your Banners, and quite a few other books. “A plague on all your houses” would probably sum his attitude up fairly well. So good luck trying to stick a label on him.

Grofield is briefly abducted and drugged by some faction, seemingly linked to an extremist French Canadian separatist movement, but their agenda is unclear–they want to know what he knows, and he doesn’t really know anything yet–he didn’t even know there was such a thing as French-Canadian separatist movements. I have to say, he’s much less knowledgeable about politics here than he was in The Damsel–one suspects Westlake decided it just wasn’t believable for somebody as indifferent to politics as Grofield to know much of anything about it. His bugged clothing saves him, bringing in his handlers to the rescue.

But then he gets grabbed again, this time by Marba’s group, who have decided to neutralize him–confiding in Marba was maybe not such a great idea. He’s taken on a plane ride into the frozen wastes of Northern Canada (sorry Canuck readers, but you know better than me what it’s like up there–I can barely make it through a New York City winter these days), given new unbugged clothes, and they finally set down at a remote lodge by a frozen lake, that is only accessible by air, or snowmobile.

Grofield is exactly where the people who recruited him wanted him to be, but not at all in the way they (or he) wanted–he’s got no way to report back, and to make sure he doesn’t learn anything useful to American intelligence, he’s locked in a bleak isolated room with nothing to do but wait for the gathering of third world governments to end.

Grofield can’t stand confinement any more than Parker could, but his reaction to it is different than Parker’s would be–he breaks down the door, and goes to complain about his treatment–taken to see Undurwa’s head of state (who has been told by the irritated Miss Kamdela that this Grofield is not to be trusted), he fails to understand the mentality of a dictator–so alien to a free spirit like himself–and totally blows the interview. He talks to the man as if they were equals. Oh dear.

The military dictator, Colonel Rahgos, says Grofield has unfortunately given him no choice but to order him killed. Nothing personal, of course (it’s a bit personal; military dictators dislike free spirits on general principle). Grofield in this instance does respond the way Parker would–by jumping through a nearby window, after grabbing the Colonel’s overcoat. Which isn’t going to be nearly enough. It’s winter. In Northern Canada. If he can’t find shelter, and better clothing, and fast, they won’t need to kill him.

What follows is Grofield adapting to the situation, as he always does, improvising his way into a nearby structure guarded by only two armed men–normally not such a problem for him, except he’s in the process of freezing to death. But through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck, he figures out a way to ride up on an electrically operated door, and conceal himself on the ceiling–then at an opportune moment, incapacitates the guards, obtaining boots, a heavy mackinaw, and an automatic rifle. There are supplies in the building, and snowmobiles. He appropriates both, and makes his escape.

Only not quite. He had to wait until dawn to see where he was going, and in the distance, he sees that something very bad is happening at the compound–it seems to be under attack. Not from his government, but (as it turns out) the people who had grabbed him earlier. Lots of shooting and burning going on. He sees no reason to involved himself in it–but then he meets Vivian–who assumes he’s behind it, naturally. But he convinces her otherwise, and the fact that he’s her only chance of surviving has a rather thawing effect on her frosty demeanor. They evade an airplane piloted by some of the attackers, and by this time she’s fully on Team Grofield.

She tells him what’s been going on–four African American soldiers managed to steal a really nasty biological weapon from a military storehouse. They’ve hidden it somewhere in the surrounding area, and are auctioning it off to the highest third world bidders. There’s enough of it to kill everybody on the planet forty times over (Uncle Sam being nothing if not thorough), so there’s plenty to go around–and as Vivian explains, even if they never wanted to use it, the threat of a neighbor having it would be enough to make them want to have some too, just as a counter-balance.

Now Grofield is not the altruistic sort. That’s been very well established. It takes a whole hell of a lot to motivate him to do anything at all for anyone other than himself. What he wants to do now is head south, find a phone, and call his handlers–let them handle it. If the sale was going ahead as planned, that’s exactly what he’d do.

But Vivian, being a practical levelheaded sort of girl under all her patriotic zeal, convinces him that this won’t work–clearly what’s happened is that some more dangerous entity than these little impoverished countries intends to get the whole stockpile, and then maybe drop it on major American cities, or blackmail the western governments–when you can kill everybody in the world forty times over, your options are fairly expansive.

Grofield’s options, by contrast, are very limited–if he chooses escape, then these people will get the gas canisters, and make off with them, long before the cavalry arrives. There’s nobody else to stop them. Grofield doesn’t want to be James Freakin’ Bond. But that’s the role he’s been forcibly cast in. And he’s really really pissed about that.

He’ll play the role, because he’s a professional and all, but he won’t enjoy it one bit, and he’s going to take some ethical shortcuts, because he just wants to get back alive, and play the role he’s more comfortable in–taking other people’s money. However, for his actor/heister lifestyle to continue, he does need civilization as we know it to go on functioning. Not much demand for an actor in a post-apocalyptic world, and since everybody would be stealing, his other profession would get much too crowded. So once more into the breach.

Vivian tells him only the four black American soldiers–Grofield’s countrymen–know the location of the gas cannisters. Grofield and Vivian fight their way through the chaotic scene at the compound, get to the soldiers, who are being held prisoner, preparatory to having the information tortured out of them–and what happens then–okay, major spoiler alert–

One of the four said to Grofield, “I don’t know where you came from, man, but you’re beautiful.” All four of them were grinning in relief.

Grofield said, “Did you tell anybody where the canisters are?”

“Are you crazy? That’s what kept us alive.”

“Nobody at all?” Grofield insisted.

“Not even the chaplain,” the spokesman said.

“That’s good,” Grofield said, and pointed the machine gun at them and pulled the trigger.

Here we see that Grofield maybe does pass muster as a Stark protagonist after all. He’s learned a few things from Parker. If it needs doing, do it. These men had betrayed their country (which to be sure, hasn’t exactly done right by them most of the time), and Grofield doesn’t give a damn about that. But they put the lives of everyone on the planet at risk in the process. They were self-evidently going to kill Grofield as soon as they didn’t need him. And even if that wasn’t true, the only way to be sure the people attacking the compound don’t get the gas is to make sure nobody–absolutely nobody–knows where it is. They gots to go.

So why make the soldiers black? It just raises the question of race in a way seemingly unnecessary to the story being told–so clearly Westlake, who was working on a book about American racial turmoil around the same time, wanted to raise that issue–but not deal with it seriously, because it’s not a serious book.

Now, we don’t get to know these men–not even their names–so it’s not as shocking as it might be for Grofield to just whack them. We’ve seen him kill lots of white guys before now, and not waste a moment’s time worrying about it–but still–pretty damn cold. And dealt with by Stark in his usual terse offhanded anti-climactic approach to violence.

The point, I’d guess, is who would be most likely to have such a low opinion of society as to not give a damn what happens to it? Obviously the people society treats the worst. Not most of them–but it only takes a few. And, as Westlake said in Up Your Banners, nobody condescends up–if you keep treating people with kid gloves because you’re sorry for the way they’ve been treated, or guilty about it, you’re not really treating them as equals. Rather the opposite. People deserve to be judged by the content of their character–those who sell weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder can’t really be said to have any character at all.

He’s had mainly sympathetic black characters in his books up to now–Grofield himself makes a metatextual comment to Vivian about how black guys are never the villains in this kind of story (not really true–see Live and Let Die, clearly an influence on this book). Time for a little balance. Black men can be just as despicable as white men, if they set their minds to it.

While it’s a bit hard to buy that four black soldiers could steal such a deadly weapon without the government noticing, we Americans do tend to misplace our toys rather a lot, don’t we? So allowing for that level of bureaucratic incompetence, as Westlake invariably does, what’s the simplest answer to Grofield’s dilemma?

Vivian can’t believe he chose that answer, and once they’ve gotten clear of the bad guys (well, the worse guys), she really lights into him–accuses him of killing the men just because they’re black. But she’s forced to concede eventually that it was the only way–to stop the weapons from getting into the worst possible hands–and for the two of them to survive.

And having forgiven Grofield, seen that there is some merit to his worldview, even if she can’t entirely share it, and of course being impressed by his capabilities–well, this is the third Grofield novel to end with him bedding the hostile broad. I’m a guy, so I’m not complaining, but it is getting a mite repetitive. By the bye, he explains to her in mid-coitus that while white men seem to have smaller procreative members than black men on average, it’s actually only true when they’re in the flaccid state (hey, don’t ask me). She finds this very sexy, for some reason. It’s good to be the hero–as long as you survive.

Overall, I think this is the best of the three Grofields published by Macmillan–Westlake has gotten much closer to figuring out how to write like Stark without writing about Parker. I think actually that’s one of the reasons he put Grofield in that situation with the four soldiers–to prove that Grofield could be just as cold and capable. But somehow, he’s not nearly as convincing, or compelling. He’s still too much of a Mary Sue, if you know what I mean (if not, click the link).

I’d take any of the Parkers over this book. Of course, Parker wouldn’t have let himself get involved in this kind of story to begin with–as I said in an earlier review, Parker forces the narrative to bow to his agenda–Grofield, however grudgingly, will ultimately agree to be whatever the story calls on him to be–even a hero who saves the world from dastardly villains seeking doomsday devices. He’ll do it in his own unique style, with a lot fewer pretensions than Philip Marlowe or James Bond, but he’ll do it. An actor learns to make do with the roles he’s offered. The show must go on.

Grofield is an interesting experiment, and by no means a completely failed one. Stark will give him one last chance to be the protagonist, working on familiar Stark territory at long last, and we finally get to see Mary again (and she shows us why Grofield always goes back to her, however far he strays). The Blackbird won’t be the best Grofield novel for very long. But ultimately, Westlake had to acknowledge that enough was enough–he’d taken this character as far as he could go. There wasn’t enough there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

What distinguishes Grofield most from Parker is the sense of humor–there’s humor in the Parker novels, sure, but it’s very subdued, played so close to the vest as to be nearly indistinguishible–you don’t laugh reading them. Grofield is always joking, never taking anything seriously, least of all himself–it’s endearing in its way, but the thing is, he’s so determined to find the humor in every situation, so convinced of how funny he is, that you don’t really laugh reading about his adventures either. He’s trying too hard.

Suppose there was a Westlake protagonist who aspired to be like Parker–who wanted to be cold and capable and competent–and who really is, in so many ways–but life keeps conspiring to make him look ridiculous, and there’s nothing he can do about it? Comedy always works best when the protagonist doesn’t want to see the joke–nothing funnier than wounded dignity. Than things not working out as planned. Buster Keaton never laughed at anything, and that’s why everybody laughed at him. Parker doesn’t want to make us laugh–refuses to participate in comic ventures–Grofield, for all his wit, can’t make us do much more than chortle–the Westlake Nephews are diverting, amusing, but the bellylaughs somehow just aren’t there.

Donald E. Westlake, having had his biggest success with a comic crime novel, has been trying for half a decade now to be funny–really funny. But he hasn’t had the right foil. He’s going to find him now. And perhaps you see him in your mind’s eye, walking out of prison with a perpetual hangdog air, like a malnourished coyote, and now a car bears down upon him–and is that a girly scream emitting from his mouth? What the heck?

The Blackbird was the last Donald Westlake novel to bear a 1960’s publication date (and they can be somewhat misleading, but never mind that now). The 70’s are here, and they’re going to be something quite quite extraordinary in this particular writer’s career. Westlake the comedian has fully emerged from his chrysalis. And the crime novel will never be the same again.

(But first, I’m going to do one more thing about Grofield–patience, readers. Dortmunder is coming–save me a seat at the OC Bar & Grill–I’ll have a bourbon–something cheap–but oh so sustaining).


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: The Spy in the Ointment



“You should dream more, Mr. Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”

From Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene.

The borderline between crime fiction and spy fiction has always been sketchy, to the point where one could argue it doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense (some might argue the line between real crime and real espionage is equally porous). Westlake once argued, rather convincingly, that his acquaintance Robert Ludlum was writing best-selling crime novels dressed up as espionage thrillers. Graham Greene wrote about criminals and spies alike under the general heading of “Entertainments” (later, he repented of making even that cursory distinction between those and and his ‘serious’ books about conflicted Catholics and such).

Dan Marlowe created one of the most hard-boiled crime protagonists of all time in The Name of the Game is Death–that character being a murderous bank-robbing sociopath with a somewhat redeeming affection for animals and redheaded tomboys–but by the third novel in the series Marlowe had transitioned his anti-hero over to the ranks of spy fiction, where he remained.

The character stayed at Fawcett’s Gold Medal division the entire time–there was no need to relocate him, because Gold Medal did both genres, and probably encouraged Marlowe to make the switchover, due to changing trends–it was assumed that people who read sexy violent paperback crime novels were every bit as inclined to read sexy violent paperback spy novels, if not more so. After all, Mike Hammer had never made any distinction between fighting gangsters and commies. A crime is a crime is a crime–and what’s more, a genre writer is a genre writer is a genre writer.

Westlake had experimented with several different genres in his early days as a writer, but since publishing his first crime novel, had focused more or less exclusively on that form, perhaps feeling the need to better define himself, stake a claim on a specific market. Having started out doing what could best be described as ‘noir’, he had recently started experimenting with a comic approach to the crime/mystery/detective story, against the advice of his agent (because comic mystery novels had been defunct as a subgenre for years).

His first two novels in this vein had been notably successful, and this would have encouraged him to stretch out even further–hence, a comic spy story. But in this case, he was not bucking existing trends in the publishing industry. Quite the contrary.

There may have been comic spy novels before Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I can’t find any, and as was typical of Greene, he did it first and best (and got an astonishingly good film adaptation to boot). And in writing this book, he laid out the most enduring theme of the comic spy story–which is that the people working in ‘Intelligence’ are often surprisingly devoid of that quality. Misunderstandings abound. Comedies of errors are never-ending. Also, and much less surprisingly, many of the people working in that area of endeavor have a remarkable talent for telling stories.

Working for MI6 during WWII, Greene had learned that German agents in Portugal were passing on completely fictitious reports to their spymasters, which were being taken quite seriously, not only in Berlin but in London. Having nothing of any significance to report, and wanting to keep their comfortable well-paying posts in what must have been one of the safest places in Europe during the war, these enterprising informants had simply made stuff up.

This was the core of Greene’s book–his protagonist, an unsuccessful British businessman selling vacuum cleaners in Batista’s Cuba, shortly before the revolution, is recruited by a British spy agency, which assumes for some reason he’ll know how to recruit assets and collect vital information–and they have no end of money to dole out towards this end.

Not having any idea how to do any of this, but desperately needing the aforementioned funds, he begins crafting bogus reports full of bogus intelligence, and nonexistent assets to draw very real paychecks–only to learn to his horror that his opposite numbers in Havana are taking his accounts as seriously as his London employers, and that real people are being endangered by his doctored dispatches. Enemy agents who have broken his code are zeroing in on people who seem to correspond to his fanciful descriptions of his operatives–one of whom is actually killed. He himself is being targeted for assassination. It’s as if his creations have taken on a life of their own–the novel is as much about fiction itself as it is about espionage–and human folly.

The book was a great success, as was the delightful Alec Guinness movie that followed it, and whether it was the first true spy comedy or not, it served as the mold for nearly all such stories ever since. Spy comedies are, most often, about amateurs somehow confused with professionals–mistaken identity. Ah-HAH, you can hear Westlake thinking to himself.

Before long, you had Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy (1951), where a comedian is recruited to fill in for a real secret agent he coincidentally resembles–a plot that was later recycled for Fred Flintstone, of all people–in 1966. That very same year, the late James Garner appeared in A Man Could Get Killed, which was at least a bit more realistic than a movie about cavemen with ICBMs, but still revolved around its hero being mistaken for a spy.

More interesting to a novelist in 1966 would have been The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax–about a bored elderly widow who actually wants to be a spy, but only succeeds via a bureaucratic snafu, combined with her own previously unrecognized talents. That led to a very long-running series of books, as well as a 1971 movie. The joke here is that Emily Pollifax was born to be a spy, but doesn’t look like one. Which of course is probably true of most actual spies.6900202-M

Only a short time earlier, there was The Liquidator, published in 1964, with a film adaptation in 1965. John Gardner wrote it as a direct satire on the Bond novels (which he ended up writing himself, after Ian Fleming’s death), about a tall good-looking Brit named Boysie Oakes, who looks like a ruthless coldblooded killer–you see, under extreme stress, he has this facial tic that makes it seem like he’s leering diabolically (Gardner filched that from P.G. Wodehouse’s The Smile That Wins, if anyone cares), but he is actually a tenderhearted soul, incapable of harming a mouse, let alone a man.

His only real vice is–well–vice. Meaning women. For Boysie, “Make Love, Not War” is a way of life, not merely a slogan for protest rallies. All he wants is to get paid and get laid. He may resort to violence when given no option, and he’s even semi-competent at it, but he could never act with malice aforethought.

He is recruited to be a government assassin by an otherwise highly competent spymaster who has formed an unshakeable but entirely mistaken view of Boysie’s character due to a wartime incident–needing the money, Boysie accepts the job. Then realizing he can never actually do the job, he hires a contract killer in the private sector to do the dirty work for him, and everything is fine until–well, read the book. Seriously, it’s a lot of fun. It’s no Our Man in Havana, but what is? Well, aside from that, I mean.

The Liquidator led to yet another long-running series of books, and as already mentioned, a remarkably faithful film adaptation with Rod Taylor, Trevor Howard, and Jill St. John, that flopped miserably at the box office, which I’ll always think is because they didn’t actually let Boysie and the Jill St. John character knock boots in the movie, though they do so repeatedly in the book (did the producers never see any actual Bond films?). Perhaps also because Jack Cardiff, the greatest cinematographer who ever lived, does not even rank in the Top 1,000 as a director. Yes, I digress. Don’t I always?

My point in recounting all of this is that Westlake was hardly breaking new ground here. His agent, when told he was working on a funny spy story about mistaken identity would not be the least bit concerned, since at that point in time, everyone was doing this story. Though the French, for some reason, didn’t get to it until 1972. And that may be the best spy comedy ever made (not the American remake, though). The last shall be first, they do say.

Neither last nor first on this particular scene, Westlake was content, as usual, to be different. The Spy in the Ointment, his eighth novel for Random House, is a departure for him in several senses–first of all, it’s not a murder mystery, as all his previous Random House books had been, at least nominally. (You will note the first edition cover doesn’t have the legend ‘A Random House Mystery’ on it).

There are murders, but there’s not the slightest confusion over who committed them, so the hero is not a detective, reluctant or otherwise–he’s a spy, which is not the same thing, though there is some overlap in that they both go around looking for information. A detective typically figures out who did what to whom and why, after the fact. A spy ideally figures out who is doing what to whom and why, before it’s actually done.

It’s the first novel Westlake published under his own name without a murder mystery somewhere within, and his delight at being able to at least temporarily put aside the onerous duties of whodunnitry is palpable. This is, I think, one of the reasons he decided to try the spy genre, since nobody ever asks James Bond to solve murders. Well, Bond is usually the murderer himself, right? That’s what the ’00’ stands for.

Secondly of all, and distinguishing it not only from Westlake’s previous work, but from all the other spy comedies discussed here, other than Greene’s, the book is full of politics. Not electoral politics, but the other kind–the kind that would like to dispense with those messy noisome elections, and use more direct efficient methods to effect hope and change, mainly firearms and high explosives, and the occasional garrote.

There was politics in Killing Time, as well as firearms and high explosives, but it was all of a very local nature, and we’re never told which parties any of these machine politicians are affiliated with, because it doesn’t really matter. Mainstream politics is about money and power (though it aspires to ideology). Fringe politics is about ideology (though it aspires to money and power). And the people our hero runs up against in The Spy in the Ointment are about as fringe as fringe can get.

But our hero himself, much as he’d object to that term, is also quite ideological. He is that ultimate in oxymorons–a militant pacifist. J. Eugene Raxford (Gene for short) is somewhere in his middle 30’s; as perpetually impecunious and lecherous as Boysie Oakes himself, but differing in one very key respect–he’s got principles. Studying at City College in the early 1950’s, he got involved in the Citizens’ Independence Union, fairly popular among his fellow students then, partly because it advocated against them being sent to die in Korea, and partly because it was a good way to hook up.

Gene fell under the sway of Ethical Pacifism at this time, and when most of the CIU membership drifted away (no longer worried about the draft, and figuring there were easier ways to get laid), he and other pacifists of varying bents took over the group, and have continued to write and disseminate pamphlets no one reads (except the FBI) and organize protest rallies no one attends (except ditto). This is his life, and for all its little deficiencies (mainly of a financial nature), he seems to be enjoying it.

Most of all, he’s enjoying his current girlfriend, Angela Ten Eyck, a raving beauty in black stretch pants and a Chinese red bra, who enjoys the dubious distinction of being Westlake’s first dumb blonde of any consequence–perhaps ditzy would be a more tactful way to put it. Ethereally lovely, sweet-natured, mechanically gifted (comes in handy when the mimeograph machine breaks down), and as devoted a pacifist as Gene, mainly because her father is a massively wealthy and thoroughly unpleasant munitions manufacturer. Imagine a felicitous co-mingling of a 20-ish Blythe Danner and Teri Garr as she appeared in Young Frankenstein

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Like that. But dumb. There really is no other word for it. And Gene spends a good part of the book complaining about this deficiency in his lady love, while simultaneously conspiring to rip her clothes off. Which she’s perfectly fine with, as long as she’s not busy fixing something. A fine specimen of The Girl, that essential factor in all of Westlake’s ‘Nephew’ books, but his girls have not, up to now, been so endearingly yet irritatingly helpless, or so–blonde. The operative term here is “Shiksa Goddess”, and once again we see why Westlake never has any trouble identifying with nebbishe Jewish guys. Spiritually, at least some of the time, he is one.

As the narrative begins, Gene tells us how one Mortimer Eustaly came to his door one day, inviting him to a meeting to be held uptown, at the Odd Fellows Hall at Broadway and 88th Street–there never was an Odd Fellows hall there, best as I can tell, but maybe Westlake knew something Google does not. In any event, an Odd Fellows hall is certainly the appropriate setting for this event–

“Mr. Raxford,” he said, leaning forward and pointing a tapered clean finger at me, “have you ever heard of the American Sons’ Militia?”


The National Fascist Reclamation Committee?”


“The Progressive Proletarian Party?”


“The Brotherhood of Christ Defense Fund?”


“The Sons of Erin Expeditionary Force?”


The Householders’ Separatist Movement?”


“The Pan-Arabian World Freedom Society?”


“The Eurasian Relief Corps?”


“The Gentile Mothers for Peace?”

“What? No!”

“The True Zion Rescue Mission?”

I shook my head.

Gene is bewildered by Mr. Eustaly’s seeming assurance that he has anything in common with this motley assortment of seemingly overspecialized enthusiasts. Only later does he learn that his devoutly pacifist group–the Citizens’ Independence Union–has been confused with a devoutly non-pacifist group who called themselves the World Citizens’ Independence Union, before one of their bombs exploded prematurely at a meeting and wiped out the entire membership.

The State Department published a list of dangerous terrorist organizations, and through a regrettable clerical error left out the ‘World’ part of the now-defunct organization’s name. Not knowing of the WCIU’s untimely demise, Eustaly has mistakenly assumed Gene is the leader of a group of violent bloodthirsty fanatics who want to eliminate all borders everywhere. This would be the mistaken identity component of the plot, we may safely assume.

Eustaly intimates that the goal of this meeting is to unify all these highly disparate but individually rather small and ineffectual groups under a single umbrella, and channel their combined energies into something suitably impressive–say, blowing up the United Nations building. Unmindful of Gene’s horror-struck reaction to this (which he probably interprets as astonished delight), Mortimer Eustaly departs.

Gene (who is under constant FBI surveillance, because wanting to end all violence is subversive), tries to get the Bureau interested in his predicament, but they just assume he’s trying to play them for fools–which in all fairness, he’s been happily doing for years–Aesop could have warned him about that kind of thing.

Advised by his close friend and attorney Murray Kesselberg that if he doesn’t attend the meeting, its attendees will probably come gunning for him, he decides to go there, with Angela, and since he’s constantly tailed by the FBI (because wanting to end all violence is subversive, remember?), he figures they’ll follow him there, and deal with the bad guys.

What he doesn’t figure is that the Feds tailing him will lose him at Columbus Circle, and having been there many times, I can tell you he should have figured that. Westlake, it should be said, is none too impressed with J. Edgar’s boys.

At the meeting, Gene and Angela are admitted by a looming monstrous individual who goes by the name of Lobo and seems rather less intelligent than your average Golden Retriever (and far less affable), but as Gene puts it “brains aren’t everything.” They are then treated to a succession of increasingly bizarre political manifestos from the leaders of the various groups–all of whom seem to hate each other even more than society at large (and that’s saying something).

But with Lobo’s help, Eustaly is able to keep order, until one of them–who seems to be the head of a disgruntled order of plutocrats (perhaps distantly related to the Koch Brothers?)–refuses to play nice, and says he’s going to report all of them to the authorities.

What happens then is not entirely clear, because Gene, our pacifist narrator, closes his eyes, and we’re treated to a succession of highly suggestive sound effects. But the general gist is that Lobo rips the rich twit’s head off and rolls it down the aisle like a bowling ball. That is not meant as a figure of speech. Have I mentioned that Westlake really really did not like The One Percent? I probably have, yes.

So any hopes Gene had that this was just a gag, or that these people were all talk are now thoroughly flushed, and it’s only going to get worse. Because Eustaly and Lobo are not actually the worst people he’s going to meet here. In comes a man introduced as Leon Eyck–“tall as an eagle is tall, lean as a wolf is lean, quick as a cheetah is quick. Lupine, saturnine, sure of himself and contemptuous of everything around him, he was dressed, inevitably, in flowing black, as black as his hair, as black as his eyes. His face, sallow and cruel and sardonically handsome, glinted like an evil thought.”

And just to throw one more gasoline-soaked log on the fire, he’s really Angela’s brother, Tyrone. A truly dangerous revolutionary who fled the country years ago, after a happy childhood of torturing cats, servants, younger siblings, and anyone else unfortunate enough to command his attention. He’s been selling his services to the Red Chinese and anyone else who’ll have him, but his loyalties are only to himself. And he’s always hated Angela. Who is mortally afraid of him, as well she should be, but Gene tells her to just stay calm and he’ll never notice her. Which he doesn’t, until in her panic she knocks down a whole row of folding chairs.

Somehow, they manage to get away, and finally they talk to somebody who believes them–not the FBI, but one of those shadowy fictitious intelligence groups, so much more hush-hush than the paltry likes of MI5 or CIA, that nearly always crop up in this type of novel. It should be mentioned, by the by, that nearly all the various agents Gene and Angela meet are identified by letters of the alphabet, and now I have mentioned it.

An agreement is reached–Gene will infiltrate this new patchwork organization, the League for New Beginnings (is it just me, or does that sound like a glee club?), learn their evil plans, and try not to get too dead in the process. They will accept him back because the newspapers will report that he murdered Angela, and even the regular police will have no idea the story is a plant. Gene is not overly thrilled by this scheme, but since his alternative is to wait for the League to come to him, and he’s already seen (or rather heard) what happens to informers…..

He goes through a rushed five-day training program, in which he’s schooled in self-defense, among other things. He makes it very clear to his trainers that whatever the provocation, he is a true pacifist–he will not resort to violence even in defense of his own life. Not for any reason. Never. This is the one part of his conception of himself that he will not bend on.

J. Eugene Raxford is anything but a saint–he’s actually something of a cad, self-centered as all hell, and his manners leave much to be desired, but he is not calling himself a pacifist just to avoid having to fight anyone. Though that certainly doesn’t hurt. Not like getting shot, or having your head ripped off, anyway.

The plan works–up to a point. Gene contacts a young member of the group, a blonde, muscleheaded young Nazi living in Queens named Jack Armstrong (a much funnier joke in 1966), and through him meets Sun Kut Fu, leader of the aforementioned Eurasian Relief Corps (also from Queens), who takes him to Tyrone Ten Eyck. And in the process, he loses his shoes, which were full of transmitting equipment that was going to keep him in touch with his handlers.

Gene is completely on his own now–the spy is fully immersed in the ointment. He can summon the spy cavalry by submerging a coin they gave him in a glass of water (don’t ask), but until he has actual information, there doesn’t seem to be much point. His faith in the efficiency of his handlers is less than 100%, and he wants to make damn sure there’s nobody left in this group to come after him once he’s been outed as a spy. His natural cowardice is leading him to discover heretofore unsuspected reserves of courage.

But he feels the strain of putting up this facade most sorely–he thinks “What a nerve-wracking way to live! If I’d never found any other reason to advocate pacifism, this would be it; it is so much easier on the nerves not to be perpetually circling your fellow man, hand warily on the hilt of your knife.”

So he spends several days in the company of this assorted bag of nuts, this ‘volley of terrorists’ as he calls them (Westlake’s original title for the book) noticing to his surprise that they are all quite human, and getting on better than you’d expect now that they’re all living in the same house, and working towards the same goal. He also learns that Ten Eyck is gradually eliminating them, as they cease to be useful to him (many never were to begin with). It’s like Big Brother, only with an actual Big Brother, in the Orwellian sense.

Ten Eyck is an interesting villain, and I am quite convinced, an alternate take on Parker (you’ll note the physical description is highly reminiscent)–he’s similarly ruthless and amoral, but being brought up in an obscenely wealthy family seems to have corrupted his nature, driven him insane. A wolf cursed with ideology is a mad wolf. Though he’s more often described as a panther.

He thinks Gene is a fellow carnivore, and Gene does a good job faking it–and just by accident survives an attempt by Ten Eyck to have him eliminated while out on a little trip to Canada to pick up explosives. Which just further convinces Ten Eyck of Gene’s formidability. Gene has figured out that one way to avoid violence is to convince others you are supremely good at it, and are only refraining from it out of a dislike of wasted effort. But he knows that’s only going to work for so long. He hands Ten Eyck a pistol with which he could have tried murdering him in response to that attempt on his life–only he couldn’t–only Ten Eyck doesn’t know that.

He looked at the pistol in his hand, and then at me. “You amaze me, Mr. Raxford,” he said.

“I prefer reason to violence,” I told him. Which was the absolute truth; in my groggy state, my true and false personalities had found a basis for merger. (If I had come to Ten Eyck under my true colors and advocated pacifism to him, he might have murdered me merely in rebuttal. But coming to him now in the guise of another panther like himself, advocating the identical pacifism, I seemed to him a dangerous and capable man, an awesome opponent, and he embraced my ideal [in this limited and local application] with pleasure and relief.)

“Reason,” he said, his glinting smile touching me and the pistol in turn, “is always preferable to violence.”

Gene’s penchant for tangents, as you see, often makes him place bracketed asides within parenthetical remarks. Westlake is putting a lot of himself into Gene–he knows one of his weaknesses as a writer is going off on tangents (it’s one of mine too, which I guess is one reason I like him so much). He turns it into a strength here by making it a window into Gene’s confused personality, his overly glib but nonetheless acute intellectual capacities.

Gene is a true Nephew–somebody with lots of potential, who has been drifting, liking his bohemian existence, but not committing to any part of it. Unlike his predecessors in the previous two Nephew books, he’s found his life’s work, but he’s never been fully serious about it. What’s missing is focus–and as Dr. Johnson so aptly remarked, nothing concentrates the mind like knowing you’re going to be hanged tomorrow. If not sooner.

So skipping way ahead, past the revelation of the villain’s evil plot (which is pure MacGuffin, and never really the point of the story), Gene’s hangman faces him at the Ten Eyck Mansion, where Angela has been hiding out with her father, who Tyrone intends to murder, along with his sister, to inherit the family fortune, and just because it’ll be a fun thing to do. By the way, this is the point you really need to stop reading if you have not yet gotten to this book.

Seeing Angela is alive (and that therefore Gene did not murder her), Ten Eyck’s pantherish illusions about Gene are dispelled. “What are you?”, he asks Gene–not whom, but what. Gene takes advantage of his momentary confusion to grab Angela’s hand, and run out of the room–they hide in the attic, but Angela once again manages to betray their location. Gene is beyond exasperated with her now. How dumb can a girl get? He manages to turn Sun Kut Fu and his men against Ten Eyck and Lobo, but the ensuing battle leaves one survivor–and sadly, it’s Ten Eyck.

Luger in hand, Ten Eyck points the gun at Angela–he knows Gene is no panther now, but some kind of double agent, and unarmed, anyway. He’ll attend to him in a minute, but sister dearest comes first. He tells her how much he’s going to enjoy killing her, while she stands there like the proverbial deer in the headlights. And Gene runs.

He runs right at Tyrone Ten Eyck. He takes the Luger out of his hand and tosses it away. He then somehow channels his five day intensive training course in self defense into an all-out adrenaline-driven physical assault on the most frightening man he has ever met. He does this without thinking, without any conscious choice, though he is painfully aware all the while that he is flagrantly violating his most sacred principles. He lays Ten Eyck out cold on the floor. “That was a terrible thing for a pacifist to do, Gene.” Angela says quietly.

He is neither proud of himself, nor relieved to be safe once again. Instead, he asks himself a question he says he may spend the rest of his life trying to answer–“If I’ve been right all my life about who I was, how came I to be where I was?”

How indeed? Not via his instincts for self-preservation–the gun wasn’t aimed at him, and he could have just run away again–he’s always been good at that. Anyway, he’d had a perfect chance to push Ten Eyck off a cliff a short time earlier, and hadn’t taken it, because of his principles.

No, it’s because J. Eugene Raxford, much as he may not want to admit it–much as he never once admits it in the entire course of the story–is a man in love. And what he cannot express in words can still be expressed through violence. What he could not, would not, do for himself, he can do for her. In fact, he could not stop himself from doing it. This was a part of himself he never acknowledged, but it was there all the same, waiting its time.

All well and good, and after a few more wrinkles, the case is closed, the plot is foiled, Gene is eventually cleared of Angela’s murder (the police have a hard time processing the fact that she isn’t dead), the remaining terrorists are rounded up, and Gene’s alphabetized Federal agents all say he’ll be left strictly alone from now on, having proved his loyalty beyond all question, and anyway he surely realizes now that his pacifist ideals are just a big joke, right?

Wrong. What happened only served to show him, more vividly than ever before, how much true pacifism is needed in this violent world of Tyrone Ten Eycks and all their ilk. He and Angela rededicate themselves to that cause for which so many others have given the last full measure of devotion. He tells us that he’s related this story not as an account of his unexpected bravery and proficiency, but as an admission of guilt.

The fact of the matter is, my activities before all this mess were pale and half-hearted attempts by comparison with my pacifist work thereafter. Since that night with Tyrone Ten Eyck outside Tarrytown, I’ve had something to live down, to pay penance for, to equalize.

It’s only the fool who, because he’s fallen once from grace, believes he should never have tried to be in the state of grace to begin with. I fell, when sorely tempted by Tyrone Ten Eyck, but I stand again, and I hope eventually to have made up for that slip.

And Angela helps me. We discuss it from time to time, as she fixes the mimeograph machine or we drive together in her convertible to peace rallies, and she has admitted to me that when I attacked her brother she was glad, she stood there delighted, urging me on with shouts of encouragement that in the excitement of the moment I never even heard. So we are both struggling back.

Man’s nature is violent because man is partly animal. But we’ve come into an era in which that violence must be quelled, and if it must be, it can be.

And who would know this better than a man supporting his family by crafting supremely enjoyable tales of mayhem and bloody retribution? This book, in a very real sense, is Donald Westlake’s own personal act of penance–the lapsed Catholic inside of him comes out in full force here, and you can see that effect on the language. You also see that Angela’s name was not chosen merely because it sounded pretty.

He must have spent a good bit of time talking to his editor at Pocket Books, Bucklin Moon, who as I discussed in my review of The Hunter, was himself a dedicated lifelong advocate of ethical pacifism–who got denounced as a subversive and had his writing career ruined as a result. So this book is also a tribute to Mr. Moon, to whom Westlake owed a great deal for seeing the potential in a series of books about a wolflike armed robber who kills without qualm–the contradictions in human nature really can seem insurmountable, can’t they? But what was true in 1966 is even more true now–that violence in our natures must be quelled. And if it must be, it can be. Right?

As his story concludes, Gene describes how, accompanied once more by truly perplexed Federal agents, he and Angela picket the United Nations building–still there, unexploded, in spite of the worst efforts of Ten Eyck and his volley of terrorists, who have been exposed to us not as evil geniuses, but as deluded buffoons, like the rest of us, only better armed and less inhibited.

Gene and Angela carry no weapon but signs, and you know what those signs say? They say BAN THE BOMB. That’s how the book ends, and years later, in an interview, Westlake recounted how he’d just received a very upset letter from a woman who said she didn’t expect to read radical propaganda in a nice spy thriller.

But to Westlake, that’s not what it was at all, and he couldn’t see how this woman (who sounds herself like a potential inductee to the inaptly named Gentile Mothers for Peace), could possibly have come to the conclusion that this was a political book in the sense that she meant it. Gene, after all, had very narrowly escaped being blown up himself–his message is not political, but personal. Pacifism is not a partisan ideological stance, or shouldn’t be. We can argue about politics all day if we like, but the point is, let’s keep arguing. For as long as we possibly can.

But in the meantime, I still have many violent novels to reread and review, and I expect to vicariously enjoy them all, as I have before. Including the extremely violent Richard Stark novel that comes next on our list, where Parker (the non-ideological one) takes out an entire island–and then commits an act of mercy that would probably confuse the hell out of Tyrone Ten Eyck. As Saint Augustine used to pray–before he was Saint Augustine–“Oh Lord, make me virtuous–but not yet.” He was actually a lot more likable before he was a saint, but never mind that now.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels