Tag Archives: The Manhattan Correctional Center

Review: Put A Lid On It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is for Mickey.  Forest green.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USAschwerner2

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine Goldfarb said “Which is how long?”

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

Jeffords said “Why would we count today?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government, everywhere you turn.

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

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

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

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

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels