Tag Archives: Trust Me On This

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………..


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

Review: A Good Story and Other Stories

Westlake is the exact opposite of, say, a Stanley Ellin, who writes good novels and wonderful short stories.   The Westlake novels are always among the best of the year, the shorts are merely very good–clever, imaginative, ironic, admirably crafted, very much in the Alfred Hitchcock manner, and far more neatly professional than most of that school.  I suppose the main difference is that the novels have people in them.  Westlake has yet to learn how to make his characters breathe in a short story; but his other virtues are so marked that this may be a niggling objection.

Anthony Boucher, Criminals at Large, the New York Times, March 31, 1968–reviewing an earlier anthology, but might as well have been this one. 

You’ll note that the covers of the first hardcover edition of this anthology and the later paperback reprint both feature manual typewriters.  Perfectly appropriate to this author, who stubbornly stuck with that method of committing words to paper (and paper itself) to the end of his life.  His weapon of choice was the Smith Corona Silent Super–but the first edition clearly doesn’t feature that machine.  I rather think the reprint does, but they seem to have removed the brand name (no endorsements).  See what you think.


This is probably a twin of the machine he told an interviewer about getting from a warehouse once, after Smith-Corona stopped making Silent Supers–all they had was pink.  Like really really pink.  He said he gradually managed to de-pink it somewhat, and kept plinking away.  So did Smith-Corona, but they had to give up on the typewriter entirely, after a while.  They make something called ‘thermal labels’ now and seem to be doing fine.  I’m not sure Westlake would have even had the heart to make a joke about that.  They have an entire online museum devoted to the noble typewriter, so you know they never really got over its demise either.  Speaking as somebody who makes a lot of typos, and hated wite-out with a passion, I’m okay with it.  Yet oddly gratified that he wasn’t, somehow.

Westlake wrote quite a lot of short fiction, mostly for magazines, and very little has ever made it to book form.  Basically, if you’ve read the very first anthology for Random House in the 60’s (The Curious Facts Preceding My Execution), combined with the linked stories collected in Levine, and the Dortmunder related stuff in Thieves Dozen, you’ve probably read all his best work in that format.

I can’t say this for certain at the present time, since there are many stories of his I have not yet read (I doubt I’ll ever find them all, nor is a definitive anthology ever likely to appear), but I can’t help but notice, when perusing contents of the existing anthologies over at the Official Westlake Blog, that the same small handful of stories (often under different titles) keep cropping up, over and over again.  Either there were problems with the rights to other stories of his that merited being collected (and I don’t know why that would be) or else Mr. Westlake only felt like a very small percentage of his small-scale  yarns were fit for human consumption. Bit of both, maybe.

(And I have no idea how many of his shorts have appeared in general mystery anthologies involving multiple authors.  Westlake helped compile one of those himself, and guess how many of his stories he put in it?  That’s right.  Well, it would have looked bad if he had put himself in that company.  I still have to review that one, if only for his intro.)

These days, quite a bit of previously uncollected work of his shows up in tiny cheap ebook collections.  Often just one or two stories, mainly science fiction, presumably not protected by copyright.  I’ve found these little offerings for Kindle useful in terms of getting some historical perspective on Westlake’s early preoccupations and development as a writer, but I can’t honestly say I thought any of them were much good as stories.  And neither did he. Man’s gotta know his limitations.

Most of what he wrote for magazines was for experience and to pay bills.  Once he could support himself as a novelist alone (with some work on the side for Hollywood), his short story production slacked off quite a bit, but he never completely stopped writing them, along with articles and essays.  He never gave up trying to master the form, and he never quite did master it, but there were the odd few exceptions, here and there.

His best shorts frequently involve established series characters, such as Levine and Dortmunder.  For obvious reasons–if we agree with Anthony Boucher’s comment up top that Westlake couldn’t easily create believable compelling three-dimensional characters in a short story as he did so often in his novels–it only stands to reason that he’d do his best work at the shorter distance when he already had such a character ready made, so to speak.

The Levine stories, in particular, get stronger with each new entry–because Westlake would keep deepening Levine, remembering what he’d done before with him, and adding to it; fleshing the character and concept out a bit more each time. The end result was a series of brief vignettes that made a negligible impact individually, but were emotionally devastating when read in proper sequence.  I don’t even consider that a true anthology–it’s an episodic novel, composed sporadically over the course of several decades.

If you already have a copy of The Curious Facts (a better sharper bit of anthologizing than this, all told, wonder if Lee Wright had a hand in it), I don’t know what you need this one for, unless you’re a completist.  Most of the best stories in it appear in that earlier collection (even the capsule review of this anthology in the New York Times agreed with me about One On A Desert Island being his best standalone short, though I question whether the reviewer was aware it had been previously collected).

(The Risk Profession is one of those ten that were in The Curious Facts, as well as Tomorrow’s Crimes, and I am now genuinely baffled as to why it keeps cropping up.  That’s three Westlake anthologies it’s appeared in now.  I’d forgotten about it being in this one, when I reviewed Tomorrow’s Crimes, which is the only one it should have been in.  Westlake must have liked it.  I remain unimpressed.)

That Random House collection was long out of print by the time this one came out.  That, I suppose, is one reason for its existence.  The other was to showcase some later stories (mainly for Playboy).  And maybe to remind people that Westlake didn’t just write novels.   But it inadvertently served to remind everyone why he primarily wrote novels.

And now I’d best remind myself that I review pretty much everything of his I can get my hands on, and get about my business.  There’s still eight stories here I have not yet covered.  The first of which is from the 50’s, but did not appear in the earlier Westlake collection.  Why?  Well, possibly because you can spot the ‘twist’ ending a mile away.

Sinner or Saint:  Originally printed in Mystery Digest, in 1958.  And there’s no mystery as to its origins, since The Music Man debuted on Broadway at the tail-end of 1957.  Mr. Westlake did love the theater (and O. Henry stories).

It’s about a con artist, a charming rogue named Joe Docker, and his criminal Sancho Panza, one Lefty Denker; less brainy than his compatriot, cursed with an unfortunately accurate shifty facial expression, but equipped with a large criminal skill set, which includes the unlocking of locks.  Gifted a duo as they are, they got caught and sent to prison, but Joe regards this merely as a hiatus to their careers.  A chance to take stock.

So Lefty has been studying the locks at the prison, and figures he can bust them out any time, but Joe wants to take his time, take advantage of the free room, board, and library privileges there.  Find the perfect scam, and he does.

There’s a parish wanting a new minister, now the old one has died.  There’s a wealthy matron attached to this parish who has a fabulous diamond in her possession.  Opportunity knocks at last.  He has Lefty let them out of jail, and even has him lock the doors after them, so the prison bulls will waste time searching inside the prison before broadening their search.

There’s a neat bit of business where they break into a closed gas station not far from the prison, and pretend to be running the place–the cops ask Joe if he’s seen the escaped convicts.  Joe, properly disguised, regrets to say he hasn’t.  Yes, you can definitely see bits and pieces here that would be put to much better use in many a Dortmunder novel.

So of course Joe, posing as the Reverend Mister Amadeus Wimple, with Lefty as a poor lost soul he has taken under his wing, is a huge success as minister, the best in living memory in fact, and in the ensuing months he wins over the skeptical Miss Grace Pettigrew, convincing her to donate her fabulous diamond to a fund to establish a new hospital.

He has a slight complication in the form of an assistant minister sent by the bishop.  The new man, Rev. Martin, tells ‘Rev. Wimple’ the archdiocese lost his personnel records, or indeed any record of having dispatched him there–fancy that–but were impressed by all the good things they were hearing about him, and wanted to offer support.

This is all hooey, of course (we were told upfront it was a small denomination–obviously the bishop would know all his ministers).  The con man has been conned–the bishop smelled a rat.  And instead of calling the cops right away, he dispatched one of his own men to check up on the situation, and they just waited around to see what might transpire.  Sure, this could absolutely happen.  I mean, why not?  Oh never mind.

Joe gets the fabulous diamond put right in his hot little hands, and Lefty is all for scramming, but Joe, enjoying his pastoral duties a mite too much (foot caught in the door, get it?) insists on waiting–until he can convert it into cash through proper legal channels, maximize returns.  He tells Lefty to hit the road, they’ll meet up later.  Then with just a whisper of regret, he proceeds to deposit the cash–in the account set aside for the hospital.  And this, I should add, without even the inducement of Shirley Jones warbling love songs in his ear at the footbridge.

Joe, or should I say Amadeus, has had a chance of heart–and vocation.  In studying to be a minister, he has become one.  But because the watching law waited for him to abscond with the cash, only to see him donate it for the common good, they have nothing on him but escape from prison, and the previous charges (and he was up for parole in two years anyway). He meekly admits to all his crimes, and waits to be taken back to his cell.

But see, nobody is angry about the con.  Everybody still loves him. Miss Pettigrew promises to hire the best lawyers money can buy, Reverend Martin says he’ll be welcomed back as head minister once he gets out, Lefty shows up saying he doesn’t want to be a crook anymore either, and the investigator from the state police says he’s going to make a little call on their behalf.  And they all lived happily ever after in the idyllic little town of AreYouFuckingKiddingMe?

Call it a road not taken, and thank God for that.  Mind you, O. Henry would have done a beautiful job with it (in the era he was writing in, the plot contrivances would be far easier to justify), and maybe Meredith Willson could have written some punchy numbers for the Broadway version.  There are some comparable Warner Bros. flicks from the 30’s–anybody here ever seen Larceny Inc, with Edward G. Robinson?).  I’m not say saying stories about reformed criminals never work.  This simply isn’t the kind of story Westlake was born to write.

But maybe he had to try and write it first to make sure of that.  And maybe in rereading this story, pursuant to it being anthologized, Westlake got an idea for a more deliciously nasty set of swindlers to be featured in a Dortmunder book he was working on at the time.  No happy endings for them.  Westlake wasn’t much for the grifters–one area of fictive crime where I’d say his buddy Lawrence Block outperformed him.

In fact, I just read a short novel of Block’s where he reforms a small-time hustler, and makes you believe it.  But even in a short novel, there’s time to do the groundwork to pull that off.  Westlake didn’t have that here, but in due time, he’d come up with a much better story about a heister who reforms.  Very much on his own terms, though.

So that’s it for the late 50’s/early 60’s stuff, since the next ten stories, as already mentioned, comprise most of the cream of the earlier anthology (with the head-scratching exception of now thrice-collected The Risk Profession).  So for our purposes here, the next story is the title piece, and just like the title piece of the Random House collection (which is also here), it’s one of the weakest stories in the book.  Go figure.

A Good Story:  More of a forgettable sketch–something that would have worked fine if worked into the fabric of a larger narrative, which might well be what it started out as–background detail for one of Westlake’s Latin American adventures, didn’t make the cut, so he repurposed it for Playboy in 1984.  Just a guess.

This American kid named Leon is running a little cantina and private zoo, way up in the Andes, for some local criminal.  Been there about eight months now.  He’s very pleased with himself, figuring he’ll go home rich when his stint is done.  But he’s bored, and these various hot young female tourists come through, and he’s been telling tales out of school.

So now the ‘ice-blond’ traveling companion of some business suit is talking to him in a bored way, acting like she’s in the mood for a quick fling with someone interesting, and he really wants to impress her, and she doesn’t impress easy. She wears Jackie-O sunglasses and everything.

He shows her this little menagerie of animals his boss ships to zoos.  He explains, strictly on the QT you understand, that the real business is smuggling cocaine inside monkeys–who are then fed to boa constrictors, so they don’t digest the merchandise, and the snakes of course have a very slow digestive system.

Which he will now find out about first-hand, because the girl and the suit both work for the syndicate, and Leon has already created a lot of legal problems for his employers with his storytelling, and now he’s going to be fed some cocaine envelopes himself, and then it’s feeding time for the boa. End of story.

Okay, how did this kid last even eight months?  Sure, okay, he was stupid to go up there in the first place, and overconfidence, combined with a desire to impress the opposite sex, is a frequent attribute of the young.  If he was a minor character in a novel, you could buy it.  But we learn nothing about him at all, other than his penchant for the gab.  He’s every bit as boring as the blonde who lured him in.  Again, the set-up isn’t there to justify the pay-off.  I felt every bit as bored as the blonde looked.  Can’t speak for the snake.  Next victim, please.

Breathe Deep:  From Playboy again, 1985.  The new stories get better as they go–this one probably owes something to the research Westlake did for What’s The Worst That Could Happen?  This is too dark for a Dortmunder, though.  A dealer name of Chuck is nearing the end of his shift at the casino, when an old man walks up to him, starts engaging him in conversation.  The dealer is professional, courteous, but he knows this guy has no money to lose, and therefore no reason to be there.

“Sir,” said the dealer, “I want to give you some friendly advice.”  He’d seen past the imperfectly shaved cheeks now, the frayed raincoat, the charity-service necktie.  This was an old bum, a derelict, one of the many ancient, alcoholic, homeless, friendless, familyless husks the dry wind blows across the desert into the stone-and-neon baffle of Las Vegas.  “You don’t belong here, sir,” he explained.  “I’m doing you a favor.  Security can get kind of rough, to discourage you from coming back.”

Oh, he knows that, sonny boy–happened to him many times before.  But, he explains, he keeps coming back for more lumps.  Something about the air in the big casinos–one time he got thrown out, none too gently, via the loading dock out back; he saw all these green oxygen tanks outside.  He figures the casino puts a very heavy oxygen mixture into the air, to make their customers more hopeful, energetic, stay up later, gamble more.  That’s what kept him coming back, over and over, until his string ran out.  He produces a can of lighter fluid and starts squirting it around.

The dealer insists they don’t do that with the oxygen, frantically presses the button on the floor that summons security, and tells the old man they’re coming for him.  The old man says that’s good–he wants to  have some company on his trip.  He lights a kitchen match.

Sure, just a vignette (not even five full pages), but a decent one.  An even better one next.

Love In the Lean Years: Again from Playboy, in 1992, and proof positive that Westlake could still write a short story worth reading–and that his creative energies were dramatically rekindled  during the 90’s.  There was, you might say, much in the era he found inspiring, if not necessarily encouraging.

Charles Dickens knew his stuff, you know.  Listen to this: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Right on.  You adjust the numbers for inflation and what you’ve got right there is the history of Wall Street.  At least, so much of the history of Wall Street as includes me: seven years.  We had the good times and we lived high on that extra daily sixpence, and now we live day by day the long decline of shortfall.  Result misery.

Where did they all go, the sixpences of yesteryear?  Oh, pshaw, we all know where they went.  You in Gstaad, him in Aruba, her in Paris and me in the men’s room with a sanitary straw in my nose.  We know where it went, all right.

That’s one of the two narrators, Bruce Kimball, an account executive with a brokerage firm.  The other narrator (they alternate telling us the story) is Stephanie Morwell, 42, attractive widow (lots of time and expense involved in maintaining that), living off various investments her husbands (yes, plural) left behind, hence her relationship with Bruce, which turns amorous, partly because she likes him, and partly because she (incorrectly) assumes he’s loaded, as he (incorrectly) assumes of her.  Yes, again there’s something of an O.Henry feel to the tale at hand, but these two ain’t Jim and Della, and no magi are in the offing.

Cupid capriciously blasts his bolts at this mercenary mingling of fading fortunes.  The sex is great, compatibility is high, and they are married in a sconce, happily so, to the great surprise of both.  But Stephanie has a little secret Bruce discovers when trying, manfully, to straighten out her tangled financial affairs.  More tangled than he had imagined.  She’s had quite a lot of husbands, you see.  And she took out large life insurance policies on all of them.  And each of them just happened to perish unexpectedly about a year after each policy took effect.  And she’s taken one out on him now.

Bruce is no Black Widow’s brunch, no matter how good she is in bed.  He takes out an equally generous policy on her, and awaits the proper moment.  But Cupid is in a joking mood, and Stephanie realizes she really does love this one, can’t bring herself to do him in, they’ll just have to make ends meet somehow, economize more, and to that end she opts to cancel the policy she took out on life, but that’s when she finds out about the one he took out on hers.  That’s where it ends, with Stephanie absorbing the bitter truth that turnabout is fair play.  We never learn who won out in the end, but it sure wasn’t True Love.

Maybe a bit too bloodless?  The point, of course, was to turn O. Henry on his head, as well as to revisit one of Westlake’s own stories (Never Shake a Family Tree, also present in this volume), and to suggest that these are not romantic times we are living in, certainly not those of us who are addicted to conspicuous consumption.  Hey, anybody know how much Trump is insured for?  Well, the next story is a positive Valentine’s Day Card by comparison, though it actually celebrates a different holiday.

Last-Minute Shopping: First appeared in the New York Times in 1993.  A cop named Keenan braces a crook named O’Brien, on Christmas Eve, no less.  But not to arrest him–he needs a little help with his love life.  He broke up with his girlfriend (a waitress) a while back, and now she’s just called him (the holidays being such a lonely time for the unattached), saying she’s been thinking about him for weeks, and they should get together after her shift ends, around midnight.

He realizes she must have gotten him a gift.  But being so hurt and angry over the break-up, assuming it was permanent, he didn’t get her anything.  He’s got one hour to get her something really nice, and the jeweler’s is closed.  Hence O’Brien.  Who has broken into said jeweler’s more than once, Keenan has good reason to believe.

O’Brien objects roundly, fearing entrapment, but Keenan insists this is on the up and up.  It’s not strictly legal, but it’s not theft, since he’ll be leaving cash there for whatever item he chooses for his lovelorn Laurie.  He just needs a little expert assistance getting inside the place.  And come some future occasion, when O’Brien needs a favor–and that day will surely come–O’Brien has little choice but to agree.  And Keenan says O’Brien can pick up something for his girlfriend as well–he’ll also have to pay for it.  You can’t give stolen goods for a Christmas present.  It is known.

So they break in, keeping the lights off inside, since neither can afford to get caught.  Keenan finds a lovely bracelet (gold filigree inlaid with garnets, so much more character than diamonds, I’ve always thought), and O’Brien picks out a brooch that will match his Grace’s eyes, and strangely enough has more than enough cash to pay for it as well.

So at Grace’s place, shortly prior to getting laid (oh grow up, half the Christmas songs you hear at the mall in December are about premarital nookie), O’Brien explains to a gratified yet suspicious Grace how exactly he got the cash to pay for her gift.  He picked the sentimental cop’s pocket.  Flatfoot didn’t even know how much he had on him–must have cleaned out his bank account, to make sure he had enough for whatever peace offering he picked.  Like many another successful burglar, O’Brien has great night vision.  Which he will now turn to less mercenary ends.  Joyeux Noel.

I think O. Henry might have liked this one.  But would have pretended he didn’t, in case there were cops listening in.  And what follows is yet another Christmas-themed short involving larceny, but not romantic in the least.  Well, science fiction so rarely ever is.

The Burglar and the Whatsit:  From Playboy, 1996.  A burglar named Jack, posing as Santa Claus in order to rob people’s apartments unsuspected, is accosted by a drunken inventor, so drunk that he actually believes this guy in the red suit with a bag full of (stolen) goodies is the real ‘Sanity Clause’ as he insists on putting it.  He figures the Big Guy would be the one to ask–he’s invented something.  Something pretty good, he thinks.  But he was drunk when he made it, and he can’t remember what it does. This happens to him a lot, but he usually leaves himself a note on his computer to remind him.  This time somebody stole the computer, would you believe it?  Jack has nothing to say to that.

Jack really has no idea what this weird little device could be–it’s some kind of robot, a box on wheels, and all these antennae sprout out of it, while it makes these whirring noises.  It does not seem to like Jack at all.  The inventor talks about how laughable the burglar alarms in his building are.  Jack silently concurs with that.

So they basically try to figure out what the inventor might have wanted to invent, and when Jack, responding to the inventor’s indignation over the inadequate alarms in the building, says it’s really hard to find a good one, the inventor lights up like his whatsit, and says that’s it.  It’s a burglar alarm–that can actually identify burglars, before they’ve finished burgling–and then call the police.  There’s a knock on the door.  The inventor wonders who that could be.

And again, I am reminded why Westlake never really excelled at science fiction, unless he had some idea he really needed to get across.  Though this could have made a decent enough concept for a Twilight Zone.  Well, maybe half a Twilight Zone.   Probably Rod Serling would have insisted the whatsit have disintegrator beams or something.

And now comes my favorite story that is unique to this collection–partly because it’s a sequel to Trust Me On This and captures the madcap spirit of that book rather more effectively than the second Sara Joslyn novel, but mainly because there’s a dog in it.  Oh Mr. Westlake, you shouldn’t have.  Seriously, he shouldn’t, because this is a murder mystery, and the dog is the victim.  Also a major celebrity.  Who answers (well, formerly) to the rather unsonorous name of–

Skeeks: From Playboy (Again?  Did they have him on retainer?), 1995.  The protagonist of the piece is Boy Cartwright, the sneering smarmy supercilious English rival to Sara Joslyn and Jack Ingersoll, the Uriah Heep of the scandal sheet.  He is still star reporter for the Weekly Galaxy, (No mention of ‘Massa’ so this would definitely have taken place well after the first novel).  A man so utterly without scruples of any kind that were he not a fictional character he would undoubtedly already be on the Trump transition team.

The second and final Joslyn book came out in 1994.  Boy was in it (briefly).  Good bet Westlake would have come up with some secondary storylines to reintroduce him, remind people what an unmitigated cad he is, that ultimately didn’t fit into the finished work.  Or else he just had this idea for another Hollywood satire, Boy was clearly the man for the job, and he was fresh in his creator’s mind.

In any event, this is the longest story in the collection, 22 pages.  Not novella length, but more room than Westlake normally had to work with in this format, and as a result it feels much more like an actual story, as opposed to a sketch.  Though Boy himself is little more than a caricature, albeit vividly drawn.  So in spite of my above attempts to explain the existence of this tale, I must yet inquire–Mr. Westlake–of all the beloved supporting characters from past novels you might have tapped for a leading role–all the Handy McKays, the J.C. Taylors, the Brenda & Ed Mackeys–why him?  Well, let’s try and figure that out.

Boy Cartwright awakens like the dead (to conscience, anyway) from a drunken revel with a subordinate named Trixie (“or so she claimed.”)  His phone rings–it’s Mr. Scarpnafe, some high muckity muck with the Galaxy.  He informs Boy that Skeeks is dead, as if Boy is supposed to know what that means.  Boy pretends to know what that means.

He is to fly to Los Angeles at once, assemble a team, to cover the funeral, assemble vital statistics regarding the deceased, and above all to get The Body in the Box, which as you should all know by now means a picture of some grand personage in his or her coffin for the front page.  These are frequently very tricky to obtain, as has been sufficiently well covered elsewhere.  Skeeks shall prove to be no exception.  But who, pray tell, is Skeeks?

On the plane coming out, Boy had been brought up to speed on the late Skeeks, who had been, it seemed, a lovable German Shepherd, as if there could be any such a thing.  For three years Skeeks had portrayed the adorable pooch on an extremely successful sitcom, and when the human male lead of that show decided to throw it all in for the glories of failure as a motion picture star, the mail bemoaning the disappearance of Skeeks from the nation’s screens (they’re that stupid, and yet they can read and write, marveled Boy) was so overwhelming (the word avalanche was used in all press releases on the subject) that the network brought Skeeks back the next season with his very own sitcom, called Skeeks, in which he portrayed the dog in a man-and-dog vaudeville act.  The idea at the heart of this series–that there is, at this moment, in the secondary cities of America, a thriving circuit of vaudeville theaters–was not the most outlandish suggestion ever made on television, and it was accepted without a murmur, as was Skeeks’ partner on Skeeks, a comedian named Bill Terry, who when sober could juggle, sing, ride a unicycle and remember jokes.

The funeral shall be conducted at Forest Lawn’s Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, “the largest send-off there since that tramp what’s-her-name.” I assume the narrator doesn’t refer to Lassie, since she was a paragon of virtue, and also invariably portrayed by male collies.

(This is all very dated, you know–like worse than the notion that there’s an active vaudeville circuit in late 20th century America.  There had been no American primetime network shows with a dog as the protagonist since Lassie went off the air in 1975.  None that lasted, anyway.  Might as well have said the funeral was for Ed Sullivan, and he was still on TV each week with Senor Wences and Topo Gigio-[I wish].

Dogs could still have roles on sitcoms by then, sure.  But when Frasier went off the air, they didn’t do a spin-off about the misadventures of Eddie Spaghetti.  Which would have been watched religiously in my house, I can tell you.  And we will watch anything with a lovable German Shepherd in it.  “As if there could be any such a thing.”  I do hope that line was worth the extra stint in Purgatory, Mr. Westlake.)

Now the problem with giving Skeeks the traditional Galaxy treatment, as opposed to your usual dead celebrity, is that being a dog, he’d led a very boring life away from work.  No scandalous affairs (he had, in fact, been neutered as a puppy), no catty ex-wives (well, obviously), no threats to walk over outrageous salary demands, no racist remarks, no drunken binges (at least a famous feline might have had some catnip-related indiscretions), no cults, no stints in rehab.  He just lived quietly at home with his caretaker/housekeeper Mayjune Kent, a former model who had been horribly scarred (The Phantom of the Opera would faint at the sight of her) by acid thrown by a crazed admirer, whom she had subsequently run over with a car.  They were said to be very close, Skeeks and Mayjune–the scars don’t bother him at all–but no sex tapes, so that’s a dead end.

But at a local restaurant, an informant who works at the veterinary clinic Skeeks was pronounced dead at has a terrible secret to reveal–it was murder!  (dramatic music please).  The vets are hushing it up because they’re afraid they’ll get blamed.  But no question at all, somebody poisoned Skeeks, idol of a grieving nation.  And Boy Cartwright, crusading reporter, fully intends to find out whodunnit, because that would make a smashing story.

So let me just cut to the chase, since there’s one more story to review after this.  After a bit of sniffing around (heh), and several successive failures to obtain the required coffin photo, Boy winds up inside the former Skeeks residence, and overhears a conversation between Mayjune Kent and Sherry Cohen, producer on the show, and girlfriend to Bill Terry, Skeeks’ sidekick (he’s reportedly none too happy about that).

Mayjune has cracked the case–she knows Sherry poisoned Skeeks.  She knows precisely why Sherry would do such a thing.  A depressed and overshadowed Bill is slowly drinking  himself to death.  The only way to save him was to make him a star in his own right.  The show’s ratings are such that the network would look for some way to save it in the event of Skeeks’ untimely demise, and promote Bill to star.  (It somehow never occurred to Sherry that there’s other German Shepherds working in showbiz.  I mean, how many dogs have played Kommissar Rex by now?  Komissar Who, you ask?  Dumkopfs.)

But surely Mayjune could be mistaken in her suspicions?  And anyway, so what if she isn’t?

“Mayjune, he was an animal!  You can’t say he–besides, why say it was me?  I mean, if it even happened.”

“I didn’t do it, and Bill doesn’t have the guts, and who else is there?  You did it for love, Sherry.  I know you did, for the love of Bill.  But I loved Skeeks, and that’s why you’re going to die now.”

Jumping to her feet, Sherry cried, “What are you talking about?  I’m not going to die!”

“We both are, Sherry.  Skeeks was the only one in my life.  You took him away from me.  I have no reason to live.”

“Mayjune!  For God’s sake, what have you done?”

“The same poison you  used,” Mayjune said, as calm as voice mail.  “It’s in the cookies, and the tea.  We both have less than half an hour to live.”

Sherry is forced to accept that it’s too late to do anything about the poison, and she and Mayjune somberly await their impending demise, while Boy tiptoes over to the fridge to get himself a snack to tide him over until it’s over.  Mayjune mentioned having a lovely photograph of Skeeks in his coffin that she snapped herself at the vet’s; it’s right there in the other room, so he is victorious on all fronts.  He’ll call the police after he’s safely away from there, and after he’s called his scoop in to the Galaxy, of course.  In the meantime, he starts working on the lead-in to his story.  “They did it for love.”  Something Boy Cartwright could never understand, but hum a few bars…

So if I’d happened to pick up the issue of Playboy this first appeared in (for the articles, of course) I’d consider it well worth the inflated cover price.  (I never did much care for the naked pictures they no longer feature there, so obvious and banal, though there was this red-headed firewoman from Texas–).

And as with his other efforts featuring the delirious denizens of the Galaxy, he achieves this odd effect, where you both rejoice in the amoral escapades of the reporters, and at the same time,  mourn for the human condition, such as it is.  I still believe Westlake was afraid of dogs, hence his almost W.C. Fieldsian cynicism towards them (as much a self-conscious posture as Fields’ supposed dislike of children–in both cases, the real target is cheap sentiment), but under all that, you still somehow feel that Mayjune Kent, as absurd as the motive and manner of her self-inflicted demise may be, is still the only human in this story who is worth a tinker’s damn.

A dog doesn’t care what you look like.  Skeeks only saw and smelled a person he loved.  She saw him the same way, caring nothing for his celebrity, for the image of him projected on TV–just for the image of her true self she saw reflected in his guileless eyes.  And she knew that for all his fame, the law could never properly avenge him. Because to the law, and the holding company that owned (and heavily insured) him, he was only a valuable piece of property.  And the backstory has already established that Mayjune is capable of murder, when you attack her self-image.

And strangely, it’s through the malevolent machinations of a man who never loved anybody, who is completely unmoved by the spectacle unfolding before him, that the world will learn of this poignant sacrifice she made.  No doubt soon to be a movie of the week.  Actually, I don’t think they were doing those on the networks by the Mid-90’s either.  Maybe on Lifetime?  Or E!  Actresses will be lined up from Burbank to Fresno to play Mayjune.  Scars!  Prosthetic makeup!  Emmy, here I come!

So that leaves just one more story, fittingly enough entitled–

Take it Away:  From 1997, published in an anthology called The Plot Thickens (Lawrence Block had something in it too), the proceeds of which went to charity, but a critic must of course show none.

An FBI agent on a stakeout pops into a Burger Whopper franchise (pretty sure there’d be a lawsuit if anybody started a franchise by that name) for a quick bite, and the guy behind him starts chatting him up in ways that subtly suggest he knows the guy he’s talking to is an FBI agent on a stakeout.  The Fed is suspicious, but thinks maybe he’s imagining it.  They’re after this sneaky French art smuggler.  Well, guess what?  The guy in line behind him was the smuggler, playing with him for laughs, taunting him with his mastery of disguise and his ability to assume a perfect American accent.  End of story.

Okay, that was short shrift, but I’m over 6,000 words, and I did not like that one at all.  The Times reviewer loved it, and she gave it all of one sentence.  This is probably the longest review Take it Away will ever get.

There’s maybe ten very good stories in this collection of eighteen written over the course of maybe thirty years.  A few others that are decent enough little thumbnail sketches.  And nothing that comes remotely close to the best work this writer was capable of.

But as I said when reviewing The Curious Facts, it may well be that Westlake needed to keep trying to write that perfect short story that just simply was not in him, in order to prepare himself for the kind of writing he was meant for.  In chapter after chapter of his best novels (and even some of his lesser ones), you do in fact see that perfect short story–bundled into a larger narrative.  By working in miniature, on short deadlines, writing to the ever-dwindling magazine market, he learned how to put a lot of story into a very small space.  But he needed that extra space a novel affords to make his characters breathe.  So that we’d give a damn when they stopped breathing.

But suppose his characters were writers, like himself?  Could he make us care about them?  Time to find out.  And if it doesn’t work, well, better get out the hook.


Filed under Donald Westlake short stories

Review: Trust Me On This, Part 2

The death of Johnny Crawfish stunned the civilized world.  The thirty-eight year old  country singer who had risen from poverty and squalor as the child of migrant farm workers, the gravel-voiced balladeer who had found both God and his muse in a Tennessee prison where he’d been sentenced for manslaughter, the self-taught millionaire songwriter/businessman who by his thirty-fifth birthday had appeared in command performances before both Queen Elizabeth and President Reagan, died that Saturday morning of at first unknown causes in The Shack, his palatial thirty-room waterfront estate on Chesapeake Bay north of Newport News, Virginia, and when the news was flashed round the globe it was as though four billion human beings had just lost their best friend.

What we call fiction today is different from either the history or poetry known to readers before Cervantes’s time.  For a prose narrative to be fiction it must be written for a reader who knows it is untrue and yet treats it for a time as if it were true.  The reader knows not to apply the traditional measure of truthfulness for judging a narrative; he suspends that judgment for a time, in a move that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.”  He must be able to occupy two opposed identities simultaneously: a naive reader who believes what he is being told and a savvy one who knows it is untrue.  In order to achieve this effect, the author needs to pull off a complex trick.  At every step of the way a fictional narrative seems to know both more and less than it is telling us.  It speaks always with at least two voices, at times representing the limited perspective of its characters, at times revealing to the reader elements of the story unknown to some of or all those characters.

From The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In The Modern World, by William Egginton.

Donald Westlake loved to experiment with the structure of his novels.   Rarely did he write a book that was just Chapters One Through Whatever.  He split his books–even the short ones–into different parts, with different purposes, and he named them, and you just never knew, opening a new Westlake, how it was going to be laid out.

This book starts off with The First Week, which runs four chapters–the week in question is Sara Joslyn’s first on the the Weekly Galaxy, obviously.  The First Day also runs four chapters, and refers to the fact that Sara gets a permanent parking sticker for her car at the end of her first week, and that’s really when she’s a Galaxy employee in full earnest.  The First Hundred Years takes up eight chapters, and is meant to indicate that even though she’s only been there a month by the time it ends, in reality (as with all indoctrination periods) it’s been more like a lifetime.  Our jobs tend to change our identities, the daily routine marks us, for good and ill, and it doesn’t take long at all for those changes to be noticeable.

Which brings us to The Wedding, the longest part of the book, a very busy eleven chapters worth of mendacious maneuverings.  As we saw last time, having learned that she’s actually brilliant at the job she was initially ambivalent towards, Sara Joslyn, once a strong believer in journalistic integrity and serious news, has been well and truly corrupted by her new job–not by the insanely large salary, the basically unlimited expense account, or even the tender ministrations of her nominal boss and newly minted lover, Jack Ingersoll.

No, she’s just found out it’s really really fun to think up ways to con people, to dream up cunning subterfuges, to obtain unobtainable information about the rich and famous–and get paid for it. Basically a tabloid reporter is a professional grifter/spy, with a weekly paycheck and a presumably excellent healthcare plan. Sara Joslyn, who a short time earlier was worrying about which of her half dozen or so half-finished novels to finish, now believes she may have found her true calling in life.

Jack, watching her rapidly become the the most intrepid scandalmonger the Galaxy has ever seen, worries he may have degraded an idealistic young soul. But he’s so enjoying her idealistic young body.   It’s a moral quandary.  And here he was thinking he’d left all such tiresome concerns behind in the 1960’s, where they belonged.

So John Michael Mercer, the brooding hunky star of Breakpoint, is getting married to a delightful young woman named Felicia, who is quite simply a doll. Sweet-natured, unostentatiously sexy, low-maintenance, neurosis-free, with nary a skeleton in her doubtless immaculate closet.  One would think there would be no story there at all, or at least no story other than “John Michael Mercer got married, sorry girls (and boys who hoped he was secretly gay).”

But it is Mr. Mercer’s misfortune that he is the object of a driving obsession on the part of Bruno DeMassi, the Galaxy‘s pernicious publisher, who owes his success to the fact that he understands his readership on an almost cellular level–he knows what Inquiring Minds Want to Know.  (I want to know!)

So ‘Massa’, as his staff only half-humorously refers to him, will not brook any excuses, or set any budget to the single-minded quest of extensively and intimately covering what is supposed to be a strictly private ceremony.  He has decided in his infinite wisdom that ‘the story’ is going to be an interview with Mercer, complicated by the fact that only certain pesky laws against bodily mayhem have stopped Mercer from habitually doing to Galaxy reporters what he presumably does to bad guys every week on his show.

So in brief, this is to your typical wedding coverage in the news what the D-Day Landings are to the Staten Island Ferry making its 30th docking of the day (at Staten Island).  Think I’m being hyperbolic?  Wanna bet?

Jack’s team having won control of the wedding coverage, he, Sara, Ida Gavin, The Aussie Trio, and many others fly to Martha’s Vineyard and set up a command center in a house the paper has rented at obscene expense (hotel rooms being scarcer than poultry dentition).  Louis B. Urbiton and Harry Razza are deployed to waylay the other ‘legitimate’ journalists coming in to cover the wedding, and get them all royally drunk.

Bob Sangster has an additional assignment–to pose as Jack Michael Mercer’s cap-tugging limo driver.  “I’m just a simple Aussie,” he keeps saying.  Simple like a bloody dingo.  More brass than a Big Ten University marching band.

“I don’t mean to intrude, sir,” the driver said, with a little stiffening of the shoulders to indicate the distance he knew he was expected to keep, “but if at some point you wouldn’t mind to give me just a little autograph for my daughter, it would be the thrill of her life.”

“Of course,” Mercer said, smiling, while Felicia squeezed his hand.”  “What’s her name?”

“Fiona,” the driver said.  “She’s your biggest fan.”

“Is she?”

“But we all are, sir, if truth be told.  The whole family, we wouldn’t miss a thing you do.  Not just Breakpoint, you know, but everything.  That blind rodeo rider in the movie for television, Study in Courage, was it?  That was beautiful, sir, if you don’t mind.  Beautiful.”

“I am proud of that one,” Mercer agreed, nodding in manly acknowledgement.

“Not to intrude, sir.”

“Not at all, not at all.”

You feel kind of sad when the vigilant staff of the exclusive hotel the happy couple are staying at, find Bob out, beat him to a pulp, and show him the door. Fortunes of war, mate.

The Galaxy‘s next move–which both shocks and thrills Sara, increasingly aware of just how much power and money her employer has to throw around when the situation warrants–is to moor a world-class yacht, the Princess Pat, within sight of the hotel, and inform Mr. Mercer that in exchange for his agreeing to an interview, he and his intended may sail off on it, anywhere they please (what do you suppose the odds are there would be no hidden cameras and listening devices installed onboard?).   Mercer is still not allowed to shoot anyone in real life, even in Martha’s Vineyard, so he just says “No” and slams the door in the messenger’s face.

At this point, Massa must acknowledge that ‘the story’ will not be an interview with John Michael Mercer, so it will have to be the wedding album.  Pictures. Exclusive to the Galaxy.  By any means necessary.  And as always wishing to set his reporters at each other’s throats, he tells Jack’s eternal nemesis, the smarmy Boy Cartwright, to go there and get those pictures.  Boy departs with all due alacrity.

Sleeping off a spate of drinking brought up by the aforementioned fortunes of war, Jack and Sara hear shots fired outside Jack’s motel room.  Turns out they were fired inside Sara’s vacant motel room.  Into Sara’s vacant bed.  Unclear if this is a real murder attempt or a very stern warning.  Jack manages to conceal Sara’s presence in his room, since the Galaxy (if you’d believe it) will not brook any moral turpitude from its staff.  Now the police have to actually go interrogate John Michael Mercer, to make sure he didn’t actively follow up on one of his innumerable threats towards the Weekly Galaxy and all those attached to it.  He didn’t, of course.  But now things are really getting out of hand.

The war is going against Mercer and Felicia, in spite of the valiant efforts of the hotel staff–there’s always somebody on the staff who can be bribed.  The manager is sadly forced to admit that he won’t be able to guard their privacy, but being a throughgoing professional (something Donald Westlake appreciates deeply in all walks of life), has a back-up plan.

The couple can stay with Lady Beatrice Romney (no relation, I’m sure), widow of an English general who was forced to leave that more happier land under a cloud after his military bungles led to the Dunkirk evacuations (the most glorious retreat in all of history).   A new Romney Hall, with grounds quite capacious enough to hold the ceremony, has been constructed in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lady Beatrice still broods on the iniquities of the British gutter press which hounded her late husband to an early grave.  No, I don’t believe a word of this either, and I don’t give a damn, do you?  Rarely have I suspended disbelief more gladly.

Hearing that a fellow subject of Her Majesty is now the person to approach, Boy figures he’s got the inside track to nab those wedding photos.  Yes, you see where this is going.  But the thing is, Boy doesn’t.   Been away from home too long. Forgot about the class system.

“Well, he says he’s from a newspaper, Mum,” Jakes said, with a faint but  unmistakable edge of disapproval.  “He says he’s from the Weekly Galaxy, Mum, it’s a sort of servant-girl paper, all in color.”

Lady Beatrice’s eyes glinted.  So the villainous press had traced the fair couple, had it?  Well, it would not be permitted to destroy their happiness.  “And the scamp,” she said, “has the effrontery to come to my front door?”

“He asks if he can have a word with you, Mum.”

“Put the villain on.”

“Boy Cartwright here, Lady Beatrice,” said the villain, and the instant she heard that glutinous voice, that style of Uriah Heep after assertiveness training, Lady Beatrice placed the fellow precisely and unerringly in his proper pew in the great English pecking order.  A tradesman’s son from somewhere like Bradford, a redbrick university dropout, the sort of fellow who in Manchester or Liverpool sells used cars to Pakis.  “If I could have a bit of a chat, Lady B,” this mongrel said, “I’d be most appreciative.”

You’ve had your bit of a chat, my lad, Lady Beatrice thought, and said “Put Jakes on.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That large strapping fellow there with you.  Jakes.  Put him on.”

“Oh, of course, of course.  See you in half a tick, then,” the creature said, and Lady Beatrice heard him, away from the phone, say snottily to Jakes, “Your mistress has instructions for you.”

Oh, that she does, my lad.  Let us avert our eyes from the distasteful events that follow, involving a large leather belt.  At least she didn’t say ‘release the hounds.’ Later on, she does, in fact, release said hounds, but we’ll get to that. A great pity Dame Edith Evans could not be cast to play Lady B.–certain tonal inflections only she could do to complete perfection.  I rather suspect her Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest was in Westlake’s mind when writing this scene–but of course she’d gone to her final reward over ten years before this book came out.  Hopefully they have plenty of cucumber sandwiches there, and I trust no journalists of any kind.

These scenes at Romney Hall are written very much from the perspective of Lady Beatrice and her two young guests, who she takes an immediate liking to–somehow, all aristocrats understand each other, and what else are celebrities but modern aristocrats?  John Michael Mercer starts reverting to the courtly western accent of his boyhood, accentuating it to the point where he might as well be doing Gary Cooper.  He positively beams when Lady B. mentions her late husband’s frequent avowal that all reporters should be horse-whipped on sight.   And you fully sympathize with them, identify with their perfectly sane and understandable desire for privacy, and you want them to win out against these ruthless ink-stained sewer rats.

And then you switch back to Jack and Sara, who are themselves such a fine couple, so brave and resourceful and determined to get the personal data the great unwashed who constitute their readership demand as their rightful due for making Mr. Mercer rich and famous and privileged beyond all belief, and you’re right back in their corner again.  And this is intentional.  Westlake is pitting our divided sympathies against each other, forcing us to think about the underlying realities that make up our confused modern world.

A bit earlier in the book, Sara, frustrated beyond all endurance by the obdurate refusal of Mercer to allow them any access whatsoever to his personal life, speaks for all us inquiring minds–and we’re a bit embarrassed by how well she does it. Ida asks who the hell Mercer thinks he is (well he’s an actor, so obviously it depends on the script).

“That’s right,” Sara said, as fierce in her own way as Ida.  Jack stared at her in ambivalent surprise–did he want Sara to become Ida?  What a thought!–as the girl shook her fist and declared, “What do people like John Michael Mercer have, except their celebrity?”

“That’s right,” Ida said, glaring at Sara in aggressive solidarity.

“And where do they get their celebrity?” Sara demanded.

“From us,” Ida snapped.

“That’s right!” Sara cried, in full voice.  “When they want publicity, we give it to them.  And when we want, they’ve got to give!”

(Westlake used the the pithy declarative phrase “that’s right” perhaps more than any other writer I can think of, but not even in a Parker novel did it ever occur so many times in so short a passage.  Does this mean he thinks tabloid reporters are harder cases than bank robbers?  Hmm.)

Jack’s own identity crisis, relating to Sara, is now in full bloom.   He’s increasingly seeing her as his own perky blonde Frankenstein’s Monster.  And with her sleeping in his arms, he lies awake, trying to puzzle it out.   Is he having–feelings?

With what trouble and difficulty Jack had rid himself of extraneous emotion several years ago he could barely stand to remember.  A thoroughgoing romantic in college and beyond, slopping over with empathy and fellow-feeling, as naive as a CIA man at a rug sale, he had been hardened, annealed, by circumstances too harrowing to store in the memory banks, and since that time he had been safe.

It had been a conscious decision he had made, four years ago, to retire from the human race, to care about nothing, to become as self-sufficient as Uncas. He had chosen deliberately an environment where emotional attachments of every kind from the greatest to the smallest, were literally impossible.  It was not conceivable to care for one’s fellow workers at the Galaxy, for instance. One amusedly pitied a Binx Radwell about as meaningfully as if he were a puppy with a thorn in its paw; one used an Ida Gavin and then washed one’s hands; one rather relished a Boy Cartwright as so thoroughly representing the environment.

Equally, one could not become emotionally involved with the job.  Not this job.  Nor could one care about the pip-squeak transitory celebrities on whom they all lived their parasitic existence.  Even the state of Florida helped; anyone who managed to sing the glorious rocks and rills of that sunny buttcan needed psychiatric care.

Too thoroughly burnt-out a case even to relish the romantic self-image of being a burnt-out case, Jack Ingersoll had retired to Florida and the Weekly Galaxy and the likes of Ida Gavin and Boy Cartwright to lick his wounds and care never again about anything at all.  Not even possessions; his Spartan life not only gave him more money to put into blue-ribbon investments, the better to prepare for that inevitable day of involuntary retirement, it also kept him from falling–like puppy Binx–in love with things.  He who has nothing has nothing to lose.  And he who has nothing to lose has already won.

Except, Jack realizes with bewilderment, looking down at the sleeping blonde head on his chest, he has everything to lose now.   And he doesn’t have to break up with her to lose her.  He can lose Sara by Sara ceasing to be Sara.  And then what is he?  And that’s romantic attraction in a nutshell.  An identity crisis within an identity crisis.  Because Sara is only doing all this to prove herself worthy to him.  And he’s proud of her.  And ashamed of himself for being proud of her. Ain’t love grand?

So finally, all gentler stratagems having failed, the order comes down from on high–STORM THE WEDDING.   An all-out nuptial assault, by land and sea and air.  And you think Westlake is making this shit up?  Google pictures of Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding, if you get the chance. Coming back to you now?  Yes, I know they’re both stuck-up assholes, and that marriage had about as much of a future as Betamax VCR’s, but still.

Sara leads a cavalry charge–on horses rented from a riding stable.  Boy leads a naval assault, a small flotilla of boats attempting to unobtrusively mingle with the vessels belonging to members of the Mercer wedding.  And Ida takes command of a helicopter bristling with long lenses, the heavy artillery of the paparazzi.

And all for naught.  If only Lady Beatrice had been leading His Majesty’s forces in spring of 1940, instead of her late husband (unkindly dubbed The Dunce of Dunkirk by the aforementioned gutter press), there wouldn’t be nearly so many WWII movies and documentaries.  The attack is beaten back on all fronts, with no loss of life, but considerable loss of dignity.  Clubs are brandished.  Non-metaphorical hounds are released.  Pants-seats are ripped.  Riders are thrown. Shotguns are fired.  The helicopter pilot has PTSD from Vietnam, and gets the hell out of there.  Napalm regrettably not an option.

All is lost.  No usable photos.  They have an interview with the minister who performed the ceremony–in exchange for them publishing his treatise on how to solve the Northern Irish Troubles–send the Protestants to Mars–not entirely without merit, but not nearly enough to satisfy Massa and the readership.  They mussed the bride’s hair up a bit with the backwash from the helicopter, made her lose her veil, made her cry.  Oh good for them.  A hard-fought victory for John Michael Mercer and his blushing bride, but victory all the same, as the happy couple kiss, and are seen no more in this book.  “Bastards,” Sara says, gazing upon them with hatred.  “Bastards, bastards.”  That’s the spirit.

And that defiant indomitable spirit simply will not allow the possibility of defeat. Sara’s gift for lateral thinking comes into play once more.  Lady Beatrice took the wedding photos herself, being an accomplished amateur photographer.  And where do amateur photographers get their photos developed?   Back in the days when photos still needed to be developed?  The drug store.  She finds out which one.  She picks up the photos herself, claiming to be doing so for Lady B.  The Mercer wedding album is presented to a delighted Massa.  The forces of evil have triumphed after all.

And in appreciation of this magnificent service performed on behalf of Vox Populi, Jack’s team is given a Body in the Box assignment.  In Part Five of this book, which is predictably entitled The Body in the Box.  Sara has been hearing this phrase repeated over and over throughout the book, and she’s been afraid to ask what it means.

It means you have to get a photo of a dead famous person in his or her coffin. The family of the deceased typically objects to this.  But certain disreputable members of that family (and what famous person in all of history did not have disreputable family members?  what person, really?) can often be bribed to provide a covert snapshot, of generally execrable quality, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that The People demand to see their idol’s decomposing corpse, perhaps merely to reassure themselves that if Life is not fair, Death is nothing but.  You see those photos up top?  This is still very much a thing, people.  And will remain a thing as long as people keep buying the papers containing these photos–and then buying reprints of them (the National Enquirer has been reprinting that Elvis issue for decades now).

So the dead famous person is country music legend, Johnny Crawfish, and this is where we came in.  So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?   Sara, not so much a reluctant detective as an absent-minded one, has completely forgotten about the murder mystery.  The murderer has not.  The murderer is a Galaxy reporter. The murderer intends to shut Sara up for good (even though she’s basically given up trying to solve the mystery) .

Sara and that same killer who now intends to kill again have entered The Shack under cover of being from the Virginia board of health, because (they say) Johnny Crawfish’s corpse has AIDS, so all non-essential personnel must be evacuated, so now they can take all the photos they want. Yes, this is in terrible taste, most insensitive, and I bet it would have worked if somebody had actually tried it back then.  In the rural south, definitely.  But quite possibly anywhere.

This is a terrific book, make no mistake, but I doubt there’s anyone who reads it who doesn’t have a pet peeve.  Here’s mine.  Sara was the detective here, distracted though she may have been.  Westlake typically put his amateur detectives (all of them guys, up to now) in a position where they had to solve a murder mystery to save their own asses.   And they invariably do so, and get to explain to all present not only whodunnit but how and why it was done, and they’re always right.  Because that’s the genre.

This is not really a mystery novel, but it has a mystery in it, and Sara is the detective.  She did all the legwork (and she has much better legs than all the previous Westlake detectives).  And she not only does not figure out who the killer is until it’s very nearly too late, but having survived, she lies there in a gurney, in a state of shock, while Jack, who has raced to the scene of the almost-crime, after belatedly realizing he’s sent her to her death, tells her what happened, and why.

It works.  Dramatically speaking.  Emotionally speaking.  Jack needed the shock of Sara’s near-death to get him to declare his love for her, and it makes sense he’d be able to put together the pieces Sara had assembled, knowing more about the background of that particular crime.   I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the scene, that it’s not very well written.  I’m just saying it’s not fair.

Donald E. Westlake was simply not put on this earth to write novels about female protagonists–great female supporting characters, yes.  But as the central figure in the story, no.  That’s neither a criticism nor an excuse.  It’s a statement of fact.  Even though he’s put much of himself into Sara Joslyn, even though he’s imbued her with many admirable qualities, even though he was destined to write one more book about her (in which she does solve the mystery all by herself, and Jack is relegated mainly to the sidelines)–his great protagonists are all Americans, all caucasians, all males.

That’s the perspective he was most comfortable with, even though he loved writing from many others, needed to stretch outside of his comfort zone–he still retreats back to it, when all is said and done.   It’s not that he’s a man, because many of the most compelling heroines in all of fiction were created by men, quite a few of them before Donald Westlake came into this world.  It’s because as is true of all of us, his strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.   A package deal.

Sara’s a fine experiment, and since the book does not revolve solely around her, her deficiencies–chief among which is the fact that maybe she’s just a bit too damn cute for her own good–do not detract from the many pleasures of the narrative, which is not about who murdered whom at all.  And maybe I’m still sulking a bit that the estimable J.C. Taylor from the Dortmunder novel Good Behavior never got her own book.  But a writer is his or her choices, and all writers, even your favorites, make choices you don’t approve of. You live with that, or you read somebody else whose choices you don’t always approve of.  Or you write your own stories, and make choices other people don’t approve of.

And his final choice here is to end on a rather deliciously ambiguous note, in Part Six, The Way We Live This Instant.  Jack and Sara have achieved a fuller understanding of each other, and of themselves, and they know now they don’t want to waste the best years of their lives together serving the whims of Massa. So they make their way to the offices of Trend (promoted as The Magazine For the Way We Live This Instant), which Sara has previously deemed nothing more than the Weekly Galaxy for people with money.

Armed with certain embarrassing personal data, they successfully blackmail an editor there into hiring them on (this relates to his having earlier tried to do a Galaxy-style story about the Galaxy).  And though initially discomfited and angered by this violation of his privacy, the editor decides it’s actually a win–these two sharks will make him look good.  And eventually take his job, but hey, that’s the news biz.

And here’s where we have to ask ourselves–the same way we ask at the end of that brilliant fast-paced gender-switched remake of The Front Page that Howard Hawks gave us so long ago, and nobody has come close to equaling since (except maybe here)–have we been rooting for the wrong side?

Sara and Jack have made strides, certainly.  They’ve escaped the feudal bondage of the Galaxy, the trap that represented–only to wander into a larger trap. They’re still going to be reporting mainly on things that don’t really matter, to satiate the morbid curiosity of a better-heeled class of readers.   They have found love, and material success, and personal empowerment, and all the things that are supposed to matter–but have they lost themselves?   In the media-dominated world they–and we–inhabit–is anyone really completely themselves?

So there’s a double-meaning to that ending–the book is on two sides at once, and so are we.   And nothing has changed.  The Weekly Galaxy is still out there in many appalling forms, and can anyone honestly not look at the media scene we have now, 24/7 cable channels, news blogs that often make the National Enquirer and Weekly World News look positively quaint and old fashioned, and not conclude that Massa is the only real victor here?

And how has he won?  By being “an executive who is fond of promoting rivalries among subordinates, wary of delegating major decisions, scornful of convention and fiercely insistent on a culture of loyalty around him.”  You know who that quote actually refers to? Guess.

Viva Love.  Viva Mystery.  Viva Celebrity.  Viva Chicanery.  And viva Freedom of the Press, seriously.  For all its myriad abuses, it’s our best weapon against the plutocrats. But it’s also their best weapon against us.  And the war goes on.  And Jack Ingersoll and Sara Joslyn are not going to be very helpful to us in that war. They’re too busy enjoying life, and each other.  But they entertained us, and taught us a few things about ourselves.  And that’s something, surely.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Review: Trust Me On This

 “Sara,” she said, as they started off.

“I’m Jack.”  They walked between the lines

I remember,” Sara told him, with a faint edge in her voice.

“Don’t kick me, lady,” Jack Ingersoll said, “I just left my bowels back there.”

“What was all that?”

“Every morning at ten A.M.,” he said redundantly, “the editors, of whom I am at least one, go to that shrine back there and lay thirty story ideas at the feet of–”

“Thirty!  Every day?”

“Believe it or not,” Jack Ingersoll said, “I came here as a young and beautiful woman.  Much like yourself.”

She looked sharply at him, but somehow the remark hadn’t had the quality of a pass, or a compliment.  That left it unanswerable, so Sara continued beside him in silence.

The ordinary English public did not want thoughts but sensations. I had begun to edit the paper with the best in me at twenty-eight; I went back in my life, and when I edited it as a boy of fourteen I began to succeed. My obsessions then were kissing and fighting: when I got one or other or both of these interests into every column, the circulation of the paper increased steadily.

From My Life and Loves, by Frank Harris

Throughout the 1980’s, Westlake kept trying to break the mold he’d been cast in, resulting in many interesting books, but little in the way of tangible success.  People liked Parker, people liked Dortmunder, people liked Comic Capers (whatever that means).   Parker was incommunicado until the 90’s, Westlake couldn’t write Dortmunder all the time or he’d go crazy, and he’d written about all the stories he could take about directionless young males who get into trouble, meet a fetching female, and find themselves.

He liked writing foreign intrigue (Kahawa, High Adventure) but the book sales had been disappointing.  He’d really enjoyed satirizing the publishing industry, but you can only bite the hand that feeds you so many times before it gets jerked away.  He’d tried a new series character with Sam Holt, and it had not gone as planned.  A male wish-fulfillment fantasy where the hero is deeply ambiguous about his fantastic life was tough to pull off.

Maybe time to try writing from the other perspective?  A female protagonist?  He’d done lots of those back in his days of writing pseudonymous sex books, and his political thriller Ex Officio, with its enormous cast of characters, was more or less centered around the brave and likable Evelyn Canby.  Interesting female characters were never hard for him, but he had never really tried to write a mystery novel where the main protagonist was a woman.

He’d clearly enjoyed writing Bly Quinn, Sam Holt’s west coast girlfriend–blonde, brassy, brilliant–very much the ingenue, but with an edge to her.  Bly was a writer, like him–that made her easier to identify with.  Okay, so take a version of that character, less experienced, still finding her feet.  Put her in a strange situation, that would test her resourcefulness–and her character.  And of course put her in some kind of danger, like he’d done for all the picaresque protagonists of his ‘Nephew’ books (except hers would not be the only POV, so this would be written in the third person).

And he’d give her a love interest who was a sort of Ex-Nephew.  A reformed idealist, a wounded romantic;  somebody who used to believe in principles and fighting for the common good, and all that hopey-changey stuff, before Life had its way with him.  Two people at different stages of their respective learning curves.   Nephew and Niece, jousting their way towards love, in the midst of doing their jobs and fine-tuning their identities.  Wouldn’t that be incest?  I suppose since all his characters are technically his children……

And he could still do another satire of the publishing industry–just another kind of publishing.  The kind that is basically already a satire of itself.  The Supermarket Tabloid.   Who does these things?   Where do they get their ideas?   How do they live with themselves?  How do they know themselves?   This has been a ripe source of comedy for generations now, as two images I posted up top can attest.

There can be no doubt at all which tabloid in particular caught Mr. Westlake’s attention, as he pushed his grocery cart into the checkout lane.  Started up not quite a decade before this book came out.  Published by Generoso Pope Jr.–yeah, try improving on that name, Mr. Westlake.  Should I mention that the Jesuit college I attended had an auditorium named after the generous Mr. Pope, a benefactor of my alma mater?  (Or possibly his slightly more respectable dad, who had the same name, I never asked.)  Nah, why bother.

Headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, along with its sister rag, the National Enquirer (in essence, the tabloid featured in this book is a diabolic admixture of the two), this curious publication first saw print in 1979.  And the world of ‘news’ would never be quite the same again.

You see the inherent problem to writing this?  Westlake surely did.  No matter how wild and wacky he got, the source material would always top him.  I mean, these are relatively tame examples I’ve posted up above.  I didn’t even mention Bat Boy.  Did you know he led us to Saddam Hussein?

Anyway, Mr. Westlake was well aware of the large legal staff employed by that publishing group.  His experience with Scott Meredith would tell him not to underestimate such a personality’s (if you want to call it that) capacity for small-minded vindictiveness.  So a small disclaimer opens the book.

Although there is no newspaper anywhere in the United States like the Weekly Galaxy, as any alert reader will quickly realize, were there such a newspaper in actual real-life existence its activities would be stranger, harsher, and more outrageous than those described herein.  The fictioneer labors under the restraint of plausibility; his inventions must stay within the capacity of the audience to accept and believe. God, of course, working with facts, faces no such limitation.  Were there a factual equivalent of the Weekly Galaxy, it would be much worse than the paper I have invented, its staff and ownership even more lost to all considerations of truth, taste, proportion, honor, morality or any shred of common humanity.  Trust me.

I really don’t think Ambrose Bierce (or Messrs Hecht, MacArthur & Waugh, how’s that for a law firm?) could have said it any better.  Since Bierce worked for William Randolph Hearst a while–one of the fathers of Yellow Journalism, who would start actual wars to boost circulation (along with the guy the most esteemed prize in journalism is named after)–I greatly doubt any modern skullduggery of the press could have shocked him.  I trust we’re all beyond shock now, in the era of 24/7 cable news.  With that shared sense of inurement taken as a bitter yet inescapable fact–shall we proceed?

Sara Joslyn, not too far into her 20’s, her dark blonde hair long and straight, with legs to match, is driving down a strangely empty highway just outside Miami,  when she sees a car stopped by the road.  She’s a reporter by trade, recently had her first newspaper shot out from under her (the death of print journalism just then becoming a thing).  Nosy by nature, much like Pandora, Nancy Drew, or Bluebeard’s wife, but with a journalism degree to legitimize it.  She goes back to check it out.  There’s a man in the front seat.  He’s been shot in the head.  “Oh jeepers,” she says.  The story won’t be as G-rated as her language.

She reports the crime to the security man at the gate of her new employer, the Weekly Galaxy.   We’ve already discussed what they do.  She’s not crazy about the gig, but they are offering an enormous starting salary (35k per annum, and remember, it’s the late 80’s).  Her employment alternatives are thin on the ground right now.  How bad could it be?

She’s got about half a dozen novels in the works (show me a journalist who doesn’t), one of which is called Time Of The Hero (at least it’s not A Sound of Distant Drums).  She doesn’t really know who she is, and at that age, who does?  Maybe this job helps her find out.  If she lives long enough.

She stumbles into a daily ritual at the Galaxy–as mentioned up top, every editor has to submit thirty story ideas–per day–to ‘Massa’, otherwise known as Bruno DeMassi, the publisher of the Galaxy, and for all his plebeian origins, the Westlake-ian equivalent of Lord Copper from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.  He Who Is Not To Be Questioned.   An absolute dictator, as capricious as he is uncouth–and so powerful that he was able to have a twelve-mile four-lane highway built to service his corporate headquarters, even though there’s absolutely nothing else there for it to service.

That’s why there was no traffic when Sara arrived.  That’s why there were no witnesses to the murder. Which absolutely no one at the Galaxy gives a solitary shit about.  Not their department, unless he was murdered by aliens, or Bigfoot.  All they have to do is come up with those thirty ideas a day and not have too many of them red-penciled (ie, shot down) by their boss.  Somebody (namely our male lead) suggests the Galaxy clone a human being.  This conversation ensues:

“Which human being?” Massa asked.  “Man or woman?”

“Well, I was thinking of a man originally–”

“Where’s the cheesecake?”

“We could do a woman, of course,” Jack conceded.  “But remember, sir, it’s going to be a baby for–”

“A what?”  Massa glowered.  “You mean we don’t start with a person?”

“No, sir,” Jack said, with every appearance of calm.  “Clones have to be born like anybody–”

“You mean we got a baby around here for twenty years?”

“Well, we don’t have to–”

Binx, who at odd moments tried to help other people, even though no one ever tried to help him, said “It might be a mascot, sir.”

“Oh, no,” Massa said, with a negative wag of the beer bottle.  “We had that goat that time, and it didn’t work out.  A baby isn’t gonna be better than a goat.”

Worse, really, but hardly the time to bring that up.  Binx Radwell, in case you were wondering, is Jack’s best friend at the paper, which isn’t saying much.  A born loser, though his day will come, in a subsequent book.  Where do these Wasp boys get those first names from?  We’ll talk more about him later.

Lord Copper aside (I don’t know who the model was for him, never even read the book–somehow Waugh is not me), I’ve already mentioned the real-life model for Massa– Munificent Pontiff, or whatever it was.  Here’s a picture of him.


(Before I bothered to look any of this up, just from reading the book, I’d head-cast DeMassi as Danny DeVito–and the weird thing is, he’d have worked just as well for the role in the late 80’s as he would today, not that anybody’s making a movie, but it’s good to know he’s still available if they ever do).

So Sara, like Alice through the looking glass, is our entry-point to this topsy-turvy world.  Nobody has offices, they have ‘squaricles’, which is to say desks with lines drawn around them to designate the non-existent walls, and everybody is expected to pretend the walls are actually there.  The phones don’t ring, because there’s so many of them and so many incoming calls that everyone would go mad as a hatter if they were not instead fitted with flashing lights (Actually, hatters in the days of mercury poisoning were probably quite unexceptionable persons compared to your average Galaxy staffer).

Only  Massa has an actual office, but it’s located in a large service elevator, fully equipped with desk, mini-fridge stocked with beer and etc, so he can move unpredictably from floor to floor, keeping an omniscient eye on everyone, and nobody knows when the door on their floor might open and the Voice of God might issue from within, along with the occasional belch.  I don’t know if the real Generoso Pope Jr. really did this, and I don’t want to know.

It’s a cutthroat working environment, with each editor assembling a team of quack I mean crack reporters, and each team striving to outdo the others, which means getting more stories into each edition (if you start getting too few, that’s where throats start getting cut).  There is, believe it or not, actual fact-checking involved in this process, but it’s done mostly for tedious legal concerns rather than for veracity’s sake. Did I just say ‘mostly’?

The stories involve weird (and quite possibly fatal) diets, strange scientific discoveries the staff has made up that they’ve gotten some tame expert to half-heartedly verify (a huge part of the workday involves getting ‘money quotes’ from such people to cover the paper’s inquiring ass), the colorful activities of various paranormal beasties, but of course most of all the private lives (and deaths) of celebrities.

Massa has become obsessed with one such luminary in particular,  John Michael Mercer, star of the hit television series Breakpoint.  Who for reasons I’m sure we could not begin to guess hates the Weekly Galaxy with every charismatic fiber of his being, and is constantly firing all the people working for him that are actually working for the object of his truly puzzling hatred.  What, a person can’t moonlight?   You might think such industry would be commended, but show people are notoriously eccentric.

So Jack and Sara meet, and the proverbial sparks fly.  They’re attracted to each other immediately, but she’s assigned to his team, and his first concern is that she do her job the right way, which at any other paper would be the wrong way–she needs some retraining, and occasional restraining.

She’d be willing enough to date him if he played his cards right (even though such fraternization is technically frowned upon at the Galaxy), but his caustic domineering manner rubs her the wrong way (much as he’d privately like to rub her in more pleasant ways).  Sara Joslyn is nobody’s little plaything, and she’s determined to prove she can be as scurrilous a scandal-monger as any man. Over the course of the rest of the book, she sets about doing exactly that.  And Jack, his conscience not quite as dead as he’d like to think, watches this pulchritudinous pilgrim’s progress with mounting concern.  Oh grow up, you know what I meant.

Jack’s reminiscent of many earlier Westlake protagonists, such as Eugene Raxford of The Spy in the Ointment (the activist thing), but also that scurrilous scoundrel Art Dodge of Two Much, most of all in his bickering yet somehow sibling-like relationship with his secretary, Mary Kate.  Jack’s somewhere in-between–more cynical than Eugene, less caddish than Art.  Early on, he muses to himself about why some small voice within him says ‘fire the broad’ after Sara hangs up on him because he forgot her name.  “You want to save her from corruption,” Mary Kate suggests.  “No, that can’t be it.”  Later, he says out loud, “Maybe I hate women.”  Mary Kate tells him he’s not that selective.

There is also a professional nemesis for Jack (who by extension becomes one for Sara)–the most successful editor at the Galaxy by far, Massa’s pet pupil, one Boy Cartwright, scandalmonger supreme–incurably English, 40 to Jack’s 30, dissolute, degenerate, and dead to all concerns other than material ambition.  Which means getting his stories into the paper, which he does with nauseating frequency.

(Westlake goes to some pains to explain that because gutter journalism of the very lowest order is commonplace in the UK and Australia, Brits and Aussies are commonly found in the ranks of the Weekly Galaxy, having been so well-drilled for its comparatively innocent little excesses in the slimy trenches of Murdochville.  Would that News of the World phone-hacking scandal have come as any kind of a shock to Donald E. Westlake?  Don’t make me sneer.)

Sara finds this out for herself, when she’s given a special assignment.  This comes as a reward for helping Jack find out a juicy tidbit about John Michael Mercer, who has thrown over all his prior bimbos I mean ladyfriends for a shockingly sweet and wholesome girl named Felicia who has the temerity to have absolutely nothing at all wrong with her.

The assignment is a trip to the sacred heartland of America (or whatever Indiana may be).  She’s to cover the 100th birthday of identical twins, living in a nursing home there.  To provide back-up, she’s given three Australians, and let’s just say Westlake had way too much fun writing them.

Whitcomb, Indiana, on a Tuesday in mid-July.  Even the dogs were bored.  A couple of them lying around in the shade under Edsels and LaSalles didn’t even look up when the Trailways bus groaned to a stop in front of the Rexall store, farted shrilly, and opened its door to release the big-bellied sweat-stained driver and the Down Under Trio.  Bob Sangster scratched his big nose, Harry Razza patted his deeply wavy auburn hair, Louis B. Urbiton gazed about the somnolent downtown of Whitcomb in mild amaze, and the bus driver opened a bomb-bay door in the rib cage of the bus to remove the Aussies’ battered and disgusting mismatched luggage.

“So this is America,” Harry Razza said.

“Can’t say I like it much,” Bob Sangster said.

“Oh, good,” said Louis B. Urbiton, “there’s a pub.”

“Bar,” Harry corrected.

Bahhhh,” Louis amended.

“Have a nice day,” the driver said, and remounted his bus.

The Aussies stared after him, in astonishment and shock.  “What?” demanded Bob.

“I call that cheek,” Harry said.

The bus door snicked shut.  The bus groaned away.  The dog under the Edsel opened one eye, saw the six well-polished shoes of the Aussies, decided in his doggy innocence that these must be acceptable functioning members of society, and closed the eye again.

So they proceed to do what they always and invariably do, shameless raconteurs that they are, the life of every party–get everyone on their side simply by temporarily relieving everyone’s deep  boredom with free drinks and improbable yarns.  The only one in the ‘bah’ who isn’t laughing at their antics is a disreputable bag lady hanging out there.  Sara arrives, and demands to know where their photographer is.  Guess.

After badgering the local master baker (oh shut up) into engineering a twenty-foot birthday cake, Sara is horrified to learn one of the twins has chosen this precise moment in time to quietly expire.  They were both vile cantankerous lecherous old coots who didn’t even like each other, but that’s neither here nor there.  The story calls for two beaming oldsters to be photographed in close proximity to an enormous cake.  What actually happened is not the story.  The story is what was decided upon by editorial before any of them set foot in Whitcomb, and her job is to deliver that story, and no other.  No twins means no party, no cake, no free booze.  Massa says.

So oddly anticipating Weekend At Bernie’s, Sara, while explaining the debacle to Jack over the phone, and hearing Massa’s stern decree shouted from the elevator, suddenly changes tack and says the dead twin has been miraculously revived, not to worry, everything’s great.  She delivers the story, twins, cake, party and all–who’s to know the dead twin is actually Bob Sangster, cunningly made up to look like the deceased sibling, with the bag lady photographer shooting him in such a way as to conceal the artifice, and the living twin threatened by his fellow inmates not to raise any fuss about it, because they want free cake and liquor, as do all decent god-fearing Americans, except maybe in some of the dry counties.

And Jack, who knows Sara lied about the twins, even though she staunchly refuses to admit to it, and should by all rights be applauding his reporter’s ingenuity, is instead strangely troubled by it.  Is he ruining this girl?  Without even going to bed with her first?  Where’s the fun in that?

So Sara pulled off a minor triumph, which is all well and good, and makes for a nice two-page spread, but pales before the significance of John Michael Mercer’s rumored impending nuptials to the lovely Felicia, which must of course be covered in depth by the Weekly Galaxy (Massa wants), even though Mercer would much rather see all of them dead, and has said as much.  His and Felicia’s goal is a small private ceremony in a beautiful and secluded location, with no press of any kind (and a few hundred close friends and family members present, and the press still encamped nearby, because after all, major TV star).  The Galaxy‘s goals are less than fully compatible with this deeply selfish agenda.  Let the games begin.

And the games are multi-tiered, because even as Mercer fights for his right to party privately, Jack’s team, which found out about Felicia first, has to fight Boy Cartwright for the story.  Massa encourages such high-spirited competitiveness among his editorial teams.  Boy has a mole in their ranks, and Jack puts Ida Gavin, his top reporter, in charge of smelling the foul subterranean varmint out.  He knows it’s not Ida, because she has an ancient blood vendetta against Boy for having seduced and abandoned her, years before, purely in the line of duty, of course.  Jack’s pretty sure it’s not Sara who’s giving Boy the goods, but no one is above suspicion unless they hate that bilious Brit at least as much as he does.

Sara is enlisted to infiltrate an elite employment agency Mercer has contracted to replace his repeatedly infiltrated domestic staff, and does a great job with the interview–very nearly fools the sharp-eyed proprietor into assigning her to Mercer, but with an almost supernatural canniness, he spots her as a ringer (neither knowing or caring which newspaper or magazine hired her), and shows her the door.   Frankly, I don’t know what Jack was thinking there, since he identified Sara as a Galaxy reporter to Mercer in a Miami restaurant earlier in the book, as part of a ruse–so wouldn’t she be recognized?  Perhaps a plot hole, but a moot one, since the intrepid interviewer sniffs her out, complimenting Sara on the smoothness of her delivery.  Says she’ll really be something once she gets her growth.  She’s suitably flattered.  Not even the least bit embarrassed.  She’s getting her growth by leaps and bounds.

And the name of this paragon of personnel, this maid-vetter to the rich and famous?  Henry Reed.  Huh. Why does that name sound familiar?  Oh right!

So really you could argue he’s still baby-sitting.  And why is Westlake making this reference?  Well, Keith Robertson also wrote murder mysteries under the name Carlton Keith, you see.  The first two Carlton Keith novels were published by the Cock Robin imprint of Macmillan, where Richard Stark briefly held court with the first three Grofield novels.  And Mr. Robertson (like his bespectacled young protagonist) was living in New Jersey at around the same time as Westlake.  That might well explain it.  It’s not really that important, but sorta neat, wouldn’t you say?

And in the midst of all this, Sara is still trying to solve the murder mystery that started this book.  She gets sidetracked a lot, but it keeps nagging at her.  She finds out, to her confusion, that the story never appeared in the local papers–okay, probably a drug killing, not worth mentioning in the greater Miami area.  Except then she finds out the police were never notified.

And the security man at the gate she reported the crime to has himself disappeared–without a trace.  And Sara realizes–the murdered man was  on his way to the Weekly Galaxy.  On that highway, he couldn’t have been going anywhere else, until he got rerouted to the Great Beyond.  And since she’d seen nobody driving the other way when she herself made that passage, only a Galaxy employee could have been the murderer.  The plot thickens!

But such paltry matters cannot long distract her (after all, the only reason there’s a murder mystery at all is that this book is being published by The Mysterious Press).  The Galaxy doesn’t cover murders, unless it’s Bigfoot murdering the Loch Ness Monster (I’ve heard there’s bad blood there).  The Mercer Wedding takes priority.  And her growing affection for Jack, her desire to impress him with her brilliance, and that she does, when she snatches victory from the slavering jaws of Boy Cartwright.

Boy had won the right to cover the wedding away from Jack’s team, since a well-placed spy on Mercer’s staff (even Henry Reed is only mortal–his books would have been so boring were that not the case) has revealed that the nuptials are to be held at Martha’s Vineyard.  Still, Boy had to know about Felicia’s existence in the first place to gain this advantage, and as Ida Gavin triumphantly reveals, Phyllis Perkinson, Sara’s co-worker, friend, and roommate, is the spy.

Not just for Boy, either–he only got a hold over Phyllis because he found out she’s doing an expose on the Galaxy for Trend magazine (which sounds a lot like New York magazine, going by the description, and I rather suspect Westlake was more of a New Yorker man, but never mind that now).   Not about the fact that they report things that are not true (that would be reminiscent of John Stossel’s legendary “Pro-Wrestling is Fixed!” segment on 20/20 that got him beaten up by an irate grappler), but rather the squalid inner workings of the paper.

Sara is furious at Phyllis, more than she would have imagined possible–how could she betray Jack Ingersoll, the man whose character Sara herself has never had one good word to say about?   But that’s different. She’s not merely offended on Jack’s behalf, but on that of the paper she is feeling an ever-increasing loyalty towards–even as she wonders if she’ll be employable as a reporter on any other paper, if she stays there much longer.  And she just saw poor Binx get his ass fired–saddled with a house, kids, and a wife who doesn’t give a damn about him, he’s been living right at the edge of his means, as overpaid people so often do, and she knows he’s tried repeatedly to get a job in serious journalism, only to be laughed out of each and every office.

She has it out with Phyllis at the apartment they share, and Phyllis (who comes from Old Money, don’t you know) has the nerve to pull the First Amendment on her.  These people are a threat to decent news media everywhere!  To which Sara sarcastically asks if Froot Loops (sic) are a threat to sirloin steak.    I guess that depends on whether you can afford the latter, and actually neither is very good for you, but we’ll let that drop.

With a pitying smile, Phyllis said, “So the Galaxy is just a harmless enterprise?”

“No, I don’t mean that,” Sara said.  The memory of Binx Radwell leaving the office this afternoon, briefcase and shopping bag hanging from his arms, brown-uniformed armed guard trailing him, employees along his route turning their backs and studying reference books and doing anything they could not to meet poor Binx’s eye, was still fresh in her mind.  “The Galaxy is very harmful in one way,” she said.  “It eats its young.  That part scares me sometimes, but I think maybe I’m smarter and tougher, and it’ll come out all right.  But our arthritis cures and our interviews with people from outer space don’t hurt the First Amendment, for Pete’s sake!”

“We have a difference of opinion,” Phyllis said, shrugging again.

Sara said, “What it comes down to is, you want to do the same kind of muckraking we do, but you want to feel holy while you’re having your fun.  Like television movies about the evils of teenage prostitution.”

“Isn’t teenage prostitution evil?”

“So are the crotch shots on TV.”

“Oh, really, Phyllis said airily, “if you can’t see the difference between the Weekly Galaxy and Trend–”

“That’s right, I can’t.”

(And I rather think Mr. Westlake was bothered by how little difference there really was–and is–but more on that in Part 2, and of course there’s going to be one).

So she concocts a plan involving Betsy Harrigan, a beautiful red-headed telephone repair girl I mean person that Sara met earlier, and she’d wanted to do a story about Betsy, but she couldn’t quite find the right Galaxy-esque angle.  She finds it (a seemingly prophetic dream the girl’s mother had that prefigured her daughter’s future employment).  The girl happily reciprocates the favor (her mom is a devout Galaxian) by bugging John Michael Mercer’s phones.

So in no time at all, Sara’s got far more and far better intelligence than the elderly Asian gardener in Boy’s employ could ever hope to obtain.  So she goes to inform Jack at his modest surburban home (modest because he’s socking away most of his outrageous salary against the day Massa cans him), and finds him baking of all things, drowning his sorrows in cake dough (you never know about some people).  She tells him they’re going to Martha’s Vineyard, and explains how she made it happen.  He explains they still need to get a personal interview with Jack Michael Mercer (Massa wants).   Well, that’s going to be a little harder.  Also possibly fatal.  But the bug has well and truly bit her, and she says they’ll find a way.

“What I really think is,” she told him, “this is fun.  This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life.  Absolutely nothing in the world matters except that we beat Boy Cartwright to the John Michael Mercer wedding.”

“Grinning crookedly,” Jack said, “Not even your murdered man beside the highway?”

Sara laughed.  “On what series is he a regular?”


“Then forget him!  We’re on our way to Martha’s Vineyard, that’s all, and whatever Massa wants from us, we’ll get it!”

“By golly, Sara,” Jack said, gazing upon her in wonder, “you are not the girl who walked into the Galaxy office last month and told me you were a real professional reporter.”

“You’re darn right I’m not,” she said.  “I don’t have a serious bone in my body.”

“I want to put my arms around you,” he said looking down at himself, “but I’d get you all over flour.”

“Flour from a gentleman is always nice,” she said.

Asterisks follow.  Then, as they lie (and lie and lie and lie) post-coitally  in Jack’s bedroom, he pops the question–“Tell me one thing.  Were those twins legit?”  “Of course they were” she prevaricates easily.  Too damned easily.  And he knows it.  This is the problem.  But it can wait until Part 2, which shall arrive on deadline, sometime next week.  The veracity of my statement vis a vis the matter at hand may be fully relied upon.  Words to that effect.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels