Tag Archives: The Spy In The Ointment

Plug: Mr. Westlake and the Open Road

Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes
Ah but, two hours of pushin’ broom buys a
Eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road

Third boxcar midnight train, destination Bangor, Maine
Old worn out suit and shoes, I don’t pay no union dues
I smoke old stogies I have found, short but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road

I know every engineer on every train
All the children and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain’t locked when no-one’s around
I sing…

Lyrics by Roger Miller (hey baby, would I lie?)

This morning I arise, like an extra on The Walking Dead, shake off the cobwebs, take some pills (non-recreational, alas), make my way from bathroom to kitchen to desktop.  At the last destination, I am mildly discombobulated to find a new comment for The Fugitive Pigeon review I posted almost four years ago.  Appropriate, since I feel very much like a dead nephew most mornings of late. (I can’t drink coffee anymore.  It would take too long to explain.)

Why, it’s Anthony!  When’s the last time he showed up here?  As Bernard Shaw once wrote to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, having just received a missive from her following a lengthy lapse in their correspondence–“So–you yet live.” 

It is a brief but substantive message.  Somebody has put out the first-ever (to my knowledge) ebook edition of the aforementioned Columba Livia on the Lam.  Westlake’s very first comic crime novel, his most popular book ever at the time it came out, much to the befuddlement of the agent who begged him not to write it.

Many editions have appeared over the years, foreign and domestic, but at the present time it is out of print.  Unless you count pixels as print.  I’ve never been clear on that.  Point is you can have it for Kindle now, if you want.  Don’t have to rely on Amazon Marketplace anymore.  Yes, the cover art is pretty on the nose, but that was true of some of the real books as well.  (Also some very good ones, mainly from those artsy overseas publishers, but I’m partial to the fourth American printing, paperback, from Ballantine Books.  Even though that’s technically a dove.)

The publisher is listed as MysteriousPress.com/Open Road.  Open Road Media is a company that does ebooks, and all the Mysterious Press Westlakes that are currently evailable are evailable through them.  Most of the Dortmunders, Dancing Aztecs, Ex Officio, Two  Much!, all five of the Mitch Tobin Mysteries.

(Hey, when did he write that book about Hitler?  I haven’t reviewed that one.  Oh wait, different Westlake. Possibly different Hitler. What day is it?  Anyone know?  Are my feet supposed to be feeling all prickly like this, doctor?  Are my thoughts supposed to be so scattered?  I don’t  normally have back pain.  You smiled that world weary smile when I brought up the matter of side effects.  “Oh foolish layperson, do you want the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals or do you not?  All for a mere twenty-five dollar co-pay.  Here, I’ll even give you a free sample.  Whole pack of them, right on my desk.  Funny coincidence, that.”)

So there’s no link for me to follow, Anthony was clearly off somewhere in a hurry, no time to chat with his old Uncle Fred.  That’s fine, Anthony.  Go off and enjoy your life, why don’t you?  See if I care!  I bet you can still drink coffee!  Mumbling incoherently to myself, I consult the great oracle Google, and find the e-edition in question post-haste.  But wait–there’s more!

(Well you already knew that from the images up top.  I really have to stop it with the spoilers sometime.  It’s an old habit.  You know, as a boy, I snuck down early one Christmas morning and opened all the presents.  I don’t just mean my presents.  I was always thorough.  Some might consider that a virtue.)

SIX new ebooks!  Westlakes long and unforgivably out of print.   All bearing similarly schematic digital decorations, clashing a mite with the graphic art from earlier Mysterious Press/Open Road editions.  Some starving artist paid off the back rent on his loft with that assignment, I’ll bet. (Unless it was a starving computer.  Do computers get hungry?  I should probably call the doctor soon.)

They’re all good in my book, but I’d place The Spy in the Ointment, Cops and Robbers, and Trust Me On This on any best-of list I compiled for Westlake.  Which is the same thing as saying any list I compile of books to read before you die.  (Good thing I already have. Read them, I mean.  Pretty sure that’s what I mean.)

Some of his finest remain on the most-wanted list,  Looking at you, Adios Scheherazade, and don’t look so furtive, the #MeToo movement doesn’t even know you exist yet, and anyway, you’re on their side, kind of, maybe, I guess.  If they come for you, torches blazing, just shout “Hark! The Ghost of Philip Roth!,” then run for it while they hold up their crucifixes and chant the rites of exorcism.  Waxing Roth, you might say.  (I’m starting to feel better.)

I don’t know what we’re going to do about Up Your Banners.  I really don’t. As piercingly penetrative a perusal of American race relations (biblical and otherwise) as ever I’ve read, and I just don’t know who’d risk putting it out there now.  But it ought to be out there.  It has things to teach that we need to learn.  But there’s this thing called ‘whitesplaining’ now.  Okay, I get it, but seems to me we’ve all got a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to do, and nobody does it better than Westlake.  The real problem is that it’s not any identifiable genre.  A white elephant, you might call it.  In bed with a black one.  (I can just say it’s the medication talking.)

A Likely Story likewise isn’t the right genre, if any, and yet it’s one of his funniest books, and it should at least be evailable, even if there aren’t any crimes committed in it other than adultery.  Anarchaos doesn’t have that problem, and is as genre as they come.  Killy is a murder mystery where the protagonists are union organizers in a hostile factory town–hey, that’s timely.  There’s still some really good low-hanging fruit, as yet unplucked.

The list of Westlake novels not available in any form is shrinking fast.  I don’t know if a Library of America collection will ever happen at this rate.  There may not be enough books no other publisher has taken responsibility for.  Hard Case Crime is coming out with their edition of Brothers Keepers soon (print and pixels, hey big spenders!)  I’m sure more will be forthcoming from there.  Maybe they’ll do the natural follow-up to their reprint edition of The Mercenaries.  (I know Killing Time isn’t the sexiest crime novel ever, but it’s sure as hell one of the bloodiest, and people still read Red Harvest.)

Anyway, I’ll keep watching for the next big digital dump (these all came out on May 29th) and keep you all posted when it comes.  The books I mean, not any hurried trips to the lavatory.  (That being one of the side-effects I missed.)

Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better.  Well no, we’re not.  But at least we have stuff to read while we convalesce.  Sing ho, for the open highway, sing ho, for the open road………..

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Uncategorized

Review: The Spy in the Ointment

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TheLiquidatorOur_Man_In_Havana_(novel)_cover

“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?”

“No.”

The National Fascist Reclamation Committee?”

“No.

“The Progressive Proletarian Party?”

“No.”

“The Brotherhood of Christ Defense Fund?”

“No.”

“The Sons of Erin Expeditionary Force?”

“No.”

The Householders’ Separatist Movement?”

“No.”

“The Pan-Arabian World Freedom Society?”

“No.”

“The Eurasian Relief Corps?”

“No.”

“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.

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