Tag Archives: Trickster Myth

Review: Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Part 2


The dinner party itself was a bit unreal.  Alice Dombey, wife of a convicted professional forger, produced an incredibly complex and tasty dinner (Gourmet was one of the magazines she subscribed to) for eight AWOL cons who sat around making polite conversation with one another.  Alice beamed genteelly at everybody, used her knife and fork as though it was an intricate skill she’d learned from a correspondence course, and actually extended her pinky when lifting her coffee cup.

At the other end of the scale, and the table, there was Billy Glinn, absentmindedly snapping chicken bones and crunching through his food as though he’d wind up by eating the plates.  Jerry Bogentrodder became silly and giddy in Marian’s presence, coming on with her in the style of a collegian who has drunk too much at his first beer party.  Max also came on with her, though both more subtly and more seriously; I was beginning to feel a bit ambivalent about that fellow.

As to the others, Phil and Joe spent most of the evening talking shop with one another: guns, alarms, lawyers, stolen goods.  And Eddie Troyn kept popping in and out of his Captain Robinson persona–never in quite far enough to call me Lieutenant, but in enough for me to recognize the genial authoritarian style.  And Bob Dombey, our host, was so clearly madly in love with his wife and his home, so patently proud of both, that the great warmth of his feeling filled the room with a kind of amber Dickensian glow.

Afterwards, Marian and I rode to her place in her Volkswagen, and she said “I keep thinking it has to be a put-on. I know you’re a practical joker, and this is a whole elaborate rib.  No way on Earth those people are crooks.”

“Oh, they’re crooks, all right,” I said.  I hadn’t mentioned the bank robbery, or the stings by which the others supported themselves, and though I was tempted now I once more refrained.  Even with Marian, I didn’t feel that trust could be one hundred per cent.

I am a straightforward man, with no crime on my conscience,
But I was accused of being a spy for China.
So life, you see, is never a very smooth business,
And now the present bristles with difficulties.

Ho Chi Minh, Prison Diary

It is good to remember that this is a book written by a man who had just recently fallen madly in love–again.  The dedication in the first edition reads “for Abby–the jentle jailer.” I’m tempted to say he was love[sic], but the intended misspelling was corrected for my Ballantine paperback reprint, and probably many other editions I have not seen.

So perhaps not so coincidentally, there is a sort of amber Dickensian glow about the whole enterprise, which Westlake tries to correct for a bit (as always in the Nephew books, if there’s no real danger, there’s no real laughs), by making it very clear these guys our hero is working with mainly have pretty violent pasts.  But since this is a comic caper, we don’t see them be violent, we merely hear about various acts of physical mayhem they have previously perpetrated.

You get a hint of the soon-to-debut Tiny Bulcher in Jerry Bogentrodder and even more in the monstrous Billy Glinn (who likes to tell blood-curdling stories about the unhappy fates of people who annoyed him in some way)–maybe Westlake made Tiny by combining the two into one fine Fomorian felon.  Waste not, want not.

Phil Giffin, by contrast, is very much like Dortmunder, as we first met him coming out of prison in The Hot Rock–not the demoralized sad sack we saw later, but a tough as nails planner.  In many ways, Phil is the the most formidable member of the gang, but repeatedly frustrated by what seems like bad luck.   Even though he was the first to befriend Harry, Harry senses that Phil would likewise be the first to do Harry seriously bodily harm if he thought his new recruit was not strictly on the up and up.

But in many ways, the funniest and most frightening hard case in this gang is Eddie Troyn.   He’s the other identity puzzle of the book (the first being Harry, of course).  Eddie has such a large role in the middle of the book, that he even got his own cover, in the first Italian edition–


Among the most misleading cover art Westlake ever got, but that is actually a scene from the book–maybe war novels were really big in Italia that year?   The next Italian cover (different imprint, same publisher, same title) was more pacific by far.


Eddie’s shadowy military background makes him the ideal person to go into the nearby army base, Camp Quattatunk, and liberate the implausibly portable and powerful laser the gang somehow knows they have stored there.  He needs a second man, and Harry is elected, because he’s the only one who fits the other uniform they stole.  A stroke of ill fortune for him, but fortunate for us, this being a first-person narrative.

They enter the base on a bus that runs between the town and the base, using cheaply made fake military ID’s that the guards barely glance at–hearkening back to the lax security in The Green Eagle Score, and one assumes to Westlake’s own experience on real Air Force bases in the Mid-50’s.   Harry is playing a lieutenant, and Eddie is ‘Captain Robinson’, because, as he informs Eddie, there’s invariably a Captain Robinson at every military base in America.

Once inside the base, an increasingly disconcerted Harry begins to notice changes in Eddie’s behavior–he’s not playing Captain Robinson, he is Captain Robinson.  Merely putting on the uniform has triggered an identity switch.  He jokes with the younger men at the Officer’s Club, spinning various colorful military yarns, as if he’s been doing this all his life, which for all we know he was before he got sentenced to Stonevelt.

When Harry speaks to him in private, and forgets to address him according to his proper military rank, or at least ‘sir’, Eddie acts like he’s ready to clap Harry in the stockade if he doesn’t shape up.  Or possibly just shoot him.  Technically, if he tried to have Harry court-martialed, they’d both end up in the stockade.

The pretext for the visit is that ‘Captain Robinson’ is conducting an inspection, particularly of the quonset huts where military supplies are kept.   He’s been in and out of the base for a week now, has made lots of strategically placed friends, and he knows where everything is stored.   Various poison gases, plague germs, guns, all manner of ordinance, and of course the laser.  Which believe it or not, is in a 15×6″ box, plainly marked ‘Laser.’  Well, nobody’s asking you to believe it, lighten up.  Maybe the military found it at the Roswell crash site, and figured they’d store it in upstate New York, along with the Ark of the Covenant, and other assorted MacGuffins.

So they take a carton filled with one amazingly small laser, some extra guns, and a few hand grenades (‘useful materials’, Eddie calls them), and of course the sentry in front of the building wants to see a proper signed order for them to take this stuff, at which point Eddie pulls a gun on him, they tie him up, and let’s just say I hope security wasn’t this lax on our real bases back then, but I have this unpleasant feeling Westlake wasn’t entirely kidding.  It’s probably better now…..

They walk over to a closed and unattended gate, where some members of the gang equipped with wire cutters are supposed to meet them.  Only the gang is late.   Harry is all for dumping the swag, and catching the last bus out of Dodge, but Eddie–I’m sorry, Captain Robinson, sir!–tells him they will not abort the mission.  His exact words.  He says they’ll have to improvise.  By which he means using a hand grenade to blow a huge hole in the fence.   Wow, they really are useful materials.

Of course the explosion is noticed, and uniformed men come roaring up in a jeep–Captain Robinson (there’s no point putting in the quote marks anymore) tells them that armed radicals, probably Weathermen, have attacked the base, disabled a sentry, and quite possibly planted a bomb that could blow them all sky high.  He’s particularly upset about the sentry.  “If they’ve killed that man–” he says, emotion choking his manly voice.

The Captain somehow regains control of himself, and says he and the Lieutenant will have to commandeer the jeep to pursue the villains, while the other men go check on the sentry and look for the bomb.   He being the ranking officer present, they don’t argue.  And he and Harry drive right through the hole in the fence.

They meet the gang further on down the road–there was a snafu at the prison–an unexpected shakedown.   Harry recounts Eddie’s genius (he’s back to normal, or what passes for normal with Eddie), and Phil wants to know what they used to blow the hole in the gate.   When he finds out what, he turns a bit pale, and says Eddie should get rid of the hand grenades immediately.  At which point Eddie pulls the pin out of one and throws it to one side of the road they’re driving over.   He didn’t want a child to find it and injure himself, you see.

(If they’d done a movie shortly after this book came out, do you think they could have gotten Henry Fonda to play Eddie?   He doesn’t match the physical description, but it would have been so cool.)

So with all the necessary materials procured, the gang is ready to rob the banks–two of them, disguised as typewriter repairmen, will gain access to the modern bank on one side of the street just after it closes, and the gang will take control of it–then they’ll use the laser to drill through the wall of its vault to get to the other bank’s vault right next to it.   Piece o’ cake.   And Harry is desperately trying to find some way to make the cake inedible.

And it finally hits him–he can do what he knows how to do best.   He sneaks in before the heist, and plants improvised delayed-action stink bombs in the waste baskets.  By the time the job’s ready to start, the bank is in chaos, and the mission is scrubbed.  The other gang members are furious when they learn what happened, and in Harry’s presence, start talking about their own experiences with practical jokers, some of them surprisingly recent, and the general sentiment of the group is that no punishment could possibly be too severe.   Harry just tries to blend in.  It’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t have ulcers before this is over.

This brings us to Chapter 25 in this 49 chapter book, and with not much more than a hundred pages left, we still have to try to rob the bank several more times, solve the mystery of the repeated “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message gags that Harry is not pulling (but keeps getting the blame for anyway), and meet the delightful Marian James, who is The Girl in this book.  And about time, too.

Of the ten versions of The Girl we meet in the ten Nephew books, I’d put her squarely in the top three, alongside that bohemian raven-tressed reckless driver, Chloe Shapiro, from The Fugitive Pigeon, and that blonde busty put-down artist, Gertie Divine, The Body Secular, from God Save the Mark.  Never the same Girl twice.  One of the more diverting aspects of these books.

Harry meets her at a party he goes to with Max, held at the house of a local divorcee Max is hooking up with.  She’s a history teacher, blonde, amply-proportioned, elfin-faced, and full of laughter, much of it directed at Harry, who she takes an instant liking to. Harry likes her just as much, but is too afraid of saying the wrong thing to say any of the right things, and he’s well on the way to screwing up his chances with her.

Only one of the prison guards, Fred Stoon, turns out to be at the party, so Harry has to suddenly grab and kiss Marian, so as not to be recognized–an old gag, but it works for the purposes of fast-tracking their romance, as does Harry spilling out his heart to her at her apartment, explaining about his practical jokes, the name thing, the prison sentence, the tunnel, and everything (except the bank robbery).

She’s a smart, good-hearted, humorous girl, with a fine sense of the absurd, and they’re both quite drunk by this point, and they wake up next morning in bed, and now Harry has a girlfriend.  Who he has to leave post-haste, because it’s almost dawn.  It’s times like these I devoutly wish life were like a Westlake Nephew book.  Perhaps it is for some.

She sat up and switched on the bedside lamp.  Squinting at me, she said, “I’ve known some weird guys, Harry, but you’re the winner.  I’ve had them wake up and say, ‘I’ve got to get back to my wife,’ ‘I’ve got to catch a plane,’ ‘I’ve got to go to Mass.’  But I never in my life heard anybody say they had to go back to prison.

Given that Marian’s role in the book is not that big, she’s probably too big a star now (fame-wise, I mean) to be cast in the movie version that will never happen, but–


I’m just saying.

Amazingly, Harry’s already been set-up with two other women since he joined the tunnel gang (I mentioned this book is very plot-heavy), and it was hopeless both times.  And he just meets this girl at a party he got dragged to, and they click.  So he finds true love and gets laid (repeatedly), well before the book is over–previously, the only nephew to achieve this before the book ended was Eugene Raxford of The Spy in the Ointment, and he and Angela Ten Eyck were an item before the book started. Westlake messing around with the formula again.

But the course of true love never did run smooth, particularly when one of the lovers is serving five to fifteen in the joint.  Harry gets called back in to see Warden Gadmore, only this time the meeting is on the roof of the prison, where somebody has etched “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” in the new-fallen snow. Guess who the Warden thinks did it?  You’d think the same thing in his place, admit it.

But see, Harry thought that Fred Stoon had recognized him at the party, and realizing that instead he’s once more being accused of something he didn’t do, he makes a little too free, asks the Warden (who is forgetting the umlaut in his name) how he’d like it if Harry called him Warden Gadabout, and that does not go over well.   It’s a prison.  He’s a convict. There’s no presumption of innocence unless the authorities feel like presuming it.  Harry gets clapped into solitary confinement for a few days, and has to see a prison shrink.

The warden then relents, and let’s him out, but takes him off gymnasium duty for two weeks, which is the only way Harry can access the  tunnel.  He’s also being given a new cellmate, Andy Butler, the elderly prison gardener, a very long-term resident who looks and behaves like Santa Claus in a prison uniform, and in fact he plays Santa in the prison’s Christmas Pageant every year.  Like Harry’s previous cellmate, Andy’s soon going to get the old heave-ho into the outside world, having spent most of his life behind bars, and having no way to support himself once he’s out there–all his friends are dead, or in prison with him.  Compassionate release, they call it.

Now not for the first time or the last, I note a sly little dig at a more famous writer.   Alice Dombey, wife of Bob, wants to make Harry’s lonesome Christmas a little more bearable.

Then Bob Dombey came around in the afternoon with two Christmas presents for me.  His wife, Alice, the reader, whom I had not as yet met, was making Christmas dinner for the boys, which of course I wasn’t going to be able to attend, so Bob had smuggled in a piece of fruitcake for me.  That made me feel both better and worse.  Bob also had a present for me from Alice, and it turned out to be a copy of Mailer’s Armies of the Night.  Holy Christ, the woman really was a reader!

So I spent a part of the day immersed in a writing style that combines the torturousness of Henry James with the colloquialness of Rocky Graziano, until Max showed up with a message and a present, both from Marian.  The message was that she’d be waiting for me when I got out of prison, which I suppose ws a pretty funny line under the circumstances, and the present was another book; The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh.  That was very funny under the circumstances, and more fun to read than the other.  But too short.

So Harry misses the next bank shot, which manages to get fouled up without his help.  But that just means he’s got to participate in the next attempt, and the attempt after that, and so on.  The same plan, over and over, until it works.  Phil simply will not give up on his vision of robbing two banks in one night.  So Harry will have to reach down deep into his practical joker’s bag of tricks to keep it from happening.  Over and over and over.  At one point, Phil says “Sometimes, I think God doesn’t want us to rob that fucking bank.”  Oh he does, Phil.  He really does.  But not before he’s ready.  You’ll have to earn it, like Dortmunder did.

And there’s yet another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner” message.  Harry’s on double secret probation now (oooh, John Vernon as Warden Gadmore, perfection, except he’s dead now–details, details).  If there’s just one more incident, Harry’s going to lose all privileges, including that most enviable privilege of bedding down with Marian James when he’s supposed to be paying his debt to society.

Then again, he’d get out of having to do the bank robbery, but if the tunnel gang finds out why he’s the prime suspect in the practical jokes, they’ll put two and two together–it’ll come out “Kill Harry Kunt,” and they won’t even remember the umlaut.  Maybe they’ll bury him with it.

Finally, Harry’s tricks run out, along with his luck, and the bank robbery happens.   And it turns out to be a bit of a dud.  They get the money from Fiduciary Federal (the modern bank), but not Western National (the imposing structure with the pillars).  The laser melts the layer of steel separating the two underground vaults, but there’s also a lot of reinforced concrete, and lasers aren’t so good with that.  It’s a valiant little implausible military laser, and it does its best, but too much has been asked of it.  Eddie darkly mutters that if he’d been allowed to keep those hand grenades…..

Would you believe at one point while they’re working on the vault wall, the bank staff (who have phoned their loved ones to say they’re working late on an audit) ask if they can get take-out food from a local restaurant?   And not just any restaurant, make sure it’s from Durkey’s because that luncheonette across the street is terrible.  Well, if you’ve read any Dortmunder novels, you probably would believe that, yeah.

So they get about nine thousand apiece, which is enough for Phil to at least feel like he’s beaten the jinx.   They can retire with dignity from the field of plunder, but there’s a general feeling amongst the gang that while crime may pay, it doesn’t pay nearly well enough to justify all that hard work, and there must be a less frustrating way to make a living.  The fact is, they’ve set up their own unauthorized halfway house, and by admittedly very gradual degrees, it’s reforming them.

So Harry has gotten past the one thing he was most afraid of–he performed well under pressure, even though he tells us that inside his head he was going “EEEEEE!!!” the entire time, and in a much larger font too.

So now he just has to make sure he stays on gym duty, and he can wait out the next few years, dating Marian to his heart’s content (among various other bodily organs–hey, what happens if she gets knocked up while he’s locked up?  oh never mind.), and then settle down with her.  You all know it’s not going to be that easy, right?

There’s another “Help I Am Being Held Prisoner”, and this one’s a real doozy–it’s on the paper used to wrap the communion hosts.  The prison Chaplain, Father Flynn, found it.   Father Flynn is not a forgiving man.  No, he does not care to be told that attitude is inconsistent with his beliefs.  Warden Gadmore, his patience wearing thin, removes Harry’s privileges once more, and now Harry comes to a stark realization, and yes the pun is intentional.

The month between Wednesday, April 27 and Friday, May 27 was the most horrible month in my life.  In the first place, I was in prison.

Well, I hadn’t been before.   I’d been a visitor, a roomer, hardly a prisoner.   But starting the twenty-seventh of April, I was a prisoner, and no mistake.

What does a prisoner do?  He gets up at seven-thirty in the morning and cleans his area.  He eats breakfast.  He exercises for an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the morning in his cell.  He eats lunch.  He exercises an hour on the yard and spends the rest of the afternoon in his cell.  He eats dinner.  He spends the rest of the evening in his cell.  He goes to bed.  Much later, he goes to sleep.

What else does a prisoner do?  Once a week he gets permission to go to the library and get three books.  If he has full privileges  he works at a job somewhere in the prison, but if he only has partial privileges he at least gets to wander around much of the prison area during the day and he gets to see a movie once a week, and he gets to sit down in the library and read a magazine.  But if he has no privileges he sits in his cell and tries to read his three books a week very, very slowly.  No movies, no wandering around, no job, no nothing.

It is all extremely boring.  Boredom is a horrible punishment, just about the grimmest long-term thing you can do to somebody.  Boredom is very boring.  It’s very bad.  I don’t know how to establish this point without becoming boring, and God knows I don’t want to do that.

See, you don’t know what freedom really is until you don’t have it anymore.  Westlake himself knew that full well, having spent a few days in jail after stealing a microscope from a college lab, more or less as a prank.  He had a hard time understanding how people could spend years, decades of their lives in confinement, and not lose themselves.  Many do, of course.  Then we let them out.  Good plan.

Many of us strangely choose to live lives almost as constrained and predictable as those of many real prisoners (with considerably less risk of being raped, or stabbed), but the difference is, we choose those lives.  And we could, if we so willed, choose different ones.  Prison removes the choice from life.  And life without choice, without freedom, isn’t life at all (meaning that one of the most bitterly divisive political controversies of the past four decades is based on a hopeless contradiction in terms, but I’m not dumb enough to get any deeper into that minefield).

And in choosing this moment in this comical yet compassionate work to express that brief moment of inner torment he himself had experienced, Westlake was, knowingly or not, echoing a long chain of protest poetry stretching across the centuries of history his Irish cousins had undergone, and were undergoing even as he wrote this, though the language he used was far from poetic, since his hero is no poet.  Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Brendan (and possibly Dominic) Behan’s The Auld Triangle.  Francie Brolly’s H-Block Song.   And this, of course.   I wonder if he knew that last one?  The album that particular recording made its debut on came out the year before this book.

And yeah, he was probably thinking more about Ho Chi Minh, Mandela, and most of all all those crooks that wrote him letters from prison, and were reading Richard Stark novels like they were how-to manuals.  But it’s all the same thing, down deep.  It’s all the same ancient refrain, keening away in every captive heart, and we need to listen to it more.  Pity the soul that’s not free (that’s from Fraggle Rock, they can’t all be Irish rebel songs).

A month of hell passes, and there are no further messages.   Seemingly proving Harry’s guilt.   He’s summoned back to the Warden’s office, and it’s bad.  Really bad.  His sentence could be lengthened.  There’s some ‘good Catholic boys’ in the prison Father Flynn has incited to go after him in vengeance for his alleged sacrilege.  And the Warden won’t be able to cover up his past history any longer, meaning the tunnel gang will, at the very least, withdraw their protection.  Marian will have to forget about him.

Harry’s life is passing before his eyes, and then he sees something out the window of the Warden’s office–and what passes from his lips then is the oldest cliche in the history of the mystery genre, and the narrative flips back to comedy, but not farce this time–high comedy, I think you’d call it.  And that’s all I’m going to tell you.   I’m playing fair here–the clues are present.  But rather than trying to guess, why not read the book?

This book ought to be in print, even if it’s only in ebook form.  I don’t know why it isn’t; that’s somebody else’s department.  I would certainly rank it among his ten best comic novels that don’t feature Dortmunder & Co.  It’s interesting in that it’s set in a small upstate New York town, much like the ones Westlake grew up in, and he writes with easy familiarity of life there.   And with a certain clear-eyed fondness that makes me think he sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if he’d remained there.  But part of him always did, I guess.

At one point in the book, Marian shows Harry another book, that she thinks contains some of the answers to the riddle of his identity crisis.  The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology by Paul Radin.  It’s a real book; I’ve got a copy of it in front of me.  It’s a classic in its field–a bit dry and academic at points–but Marian, with her gift of laughter, makes it sound downright riveting–and who is The Trickster, anyway?

He was both creator and destroyer, both good and evil, both helpful and harmful, and by the end of the cycle he had outgrown his pranks and gone to work to make the Earth a useful place for mankind.  “The Trickster is the undifferentiated form,” Marian told me, after I’d read the book.  “He doesn’t know who or what he is, or what his purpose is.  He gets into a fight with his arm because he doesn’t realize it’s part of him.  He wanders and gets into trouble because he doesn’t have any goal.  At the end, he matures into self-awareness and finds out he’s supposed to help human beings, that’s why he was sent to earth.  I think maybe you were like that, all practical jokers are like that.  They don’t know who they are yet, it’s a case of arrested development.”

And that’s all well and good, but if you happened to see that especially woebegone manifestation of The Trickster named John Dortmunder, after the events of his next adventure, you’d be most ill-advised to bring it up.  He’d probably punch you right in the nose.  Thing about Tricksters is, they often get tricked.  And the one who tricks him this time could be accused of many things, but arrested development isn’t one of them.

PS: One last run of covers, from around the world (all but one of the covers you see here were snipped from the Official Westlake Blog)–some nice ones for this book.   Its prison theme clearly struck a responsive chord.   Of course it did.

The artist for the Swedish edition, you will note, did his own jesterly take on the original cover art–not sure which I like best:


Czechoslovakia (it was still called that then) and Denmark.  The Danish artist emphasizes the darker side of the book, the Czech is more satiric, as perhaps he or she had to be at the time, if life were not to imitate art:


And finally the German cover art, which somehow manages to be even more misleading than the first Italian edition.


I would have thought for sure they’d change Harry’s last name for that edition.   Well, they remembered the umlaut.  That’s what matters.


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