Tag Archives: Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

Review: High Adventure, Part 2

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Tommy Watson and Luz Coco were the only South Abilenians fluent in English and, so far as Kirby could tell, the only sophisticates in the crowd, whose conversation and manner betrayed a wider knowledge of civilization.  With their half-mocking existential hip form of the traditional Indian fatalism, they looked like a couple of Marx brothers wandering through a Robert Flaherty documentary.  They were so total a contrast, in fact, that Kirby would have loved to know their story, but they insisted he tell them first how it happened that he had bought the farm.

“It looked great when I saw it,” Kirby said.  “St. Michael was just representing the real owner, some big aristocrat up in Mexico.  The aristocrat couldn’t take back a mortgage on account of taxes, so the price was right because I could pay all cash.”

“Fat man?” Tommy asked.  “Happy with himself?”

“That’s Innocent St. Michael,” Kirby agreed.

“It was his land,” Tommy said.  “He’s been looking for a first-class fish for years.”

“I appreciate that information, Tommy,” Kirby said.

“So you’re a rich man, right?” said Luz.  “You can afford a mistake.”

“Rich men,” Kirby told him, “don’t risk their ass and twenty years in jail flying pot to the states.  That’s how I got the money.  Oh Jesus,” he said, remembering.

Tommy swigged home-brew and puffed pot and said, “Something else, huh?”

Kirby swigged and puffed and swigged and puffed and said, “I just gave the rest of my money to a guy in Texas for some cows.”

Luz laughed.  Tommy tried to look sympathetic, but he was grinning.  Kirby swigged and puffed, and then he too laughed.  “I guess I’m not as smart as I think I am.”

“Nobody is,” Tommy said.  “But what the hell, we can still enjoy ourselves.”

So, having abruptly decided to make this review a two-parter, breaking it off at what seemed to me an appropriate juncture, I was then informed by one of my comments section kibitzers that I had failed to explain or justify my contention that this book is, in some ways, a reworking of Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, which I consider the very worst novel Donald Westlake ever published under his own name (unless there’s a worse one he never published, and seeing as the two ‘lost’ novels published after his death were both really good, I doubt that).  And of course it was too late to fix my error by then, but I appreciate that information, Mike.

Who Stole Sassi Manoon? is about Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, a tall lean sullen disgruntled young adult from a rich dysfunctional family that more or less disowned him, who then blackmailed his rich dad for the money to buy a yacht, which he named the Nothing Ventured IV.  (What happened to the first three? Oh right, because the yacht is an extension of Kelly’s personality, and he’s a IV. Missed that last time.)

He has a scheme to make his own fortune (or at least the operating capital to make his own fortune), by kidnapping a movie star.  He recruits two sardonic offbeat chums of his (one of whom is a hip young black guy, and the other does impressions) as henchmen, and makes his pitch for the caper, and they hesitantly agree.  Partly for the money, but mainly because it sounds kind of fun, albeit risky.

So they grab the movie star, but it doesn’t go as planned, and they end up also grabbing Jigger Jackson (I still don’t know where the hell Westlake got that name from), a spicy young redhead who wants to be a film star herself, but not so much because she really wants to do the work involved in being an actress (it’s not clear if she’s even studied acting), but rather because she, like Kelly, aspires to become independent, to not have to bother with people she doesn’t like, and for that you need money (while we the readers are shown that becoming really famous is not necessarily the best way to avoid dealing with people you don’t like).

It’s hate at first sight between the two of them, which of course really means they’re meant for each other, because that’s the kind of story this is, heavily derived from the work of P.G. Wodehouse, but lacking the master’s fine control (in a short time, Westlake himself would be the master).

Jigger wanted to somehow become the titular Sassi’s protege, and is convinced that she has to save her from these dastardly kidnappers, but in fact Sassi is delighted to take a break from her movie star life, and just get to be a person for a while.  Jigger sees herself as the spunky heroine in some sort of Nancy Drew-ish adventure–she projects her youthful empowerment fantasies onto the world around her, and for her to be the heroine, somebody has to be the bad guy, namely Kelly.

But as the story winds on (drags on, really), she realizes she’s in love with Kelly, that they are in fact soulmates, that she’s badly misunderstood the situation, and that movie stardom was never what she really wanted, and she and Kelly sail off into the sunset on the Nothing Ventured IV, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms.

That’s all the synopsis I can bear to type.  Notwithstanding some very clever writing, it’s a terrible book.  But you can see the potential for something better, if not necessarily something brilliant.   And so could Westlake.   And this book is it.  Not brilliant–but a whole lot better.  And much more rooted in reality, while still very much a fantasy.

Westlake seems to have spent some time in Jamaica before writing Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, and he tries to incorporate his impressions of that island nation and its people into the book, as he also did with Mexico (The Damsel), Puerto Rico (The Dame), and the Lesser Antilles (I Gave At the Office, but also the nonfiction Under An English Heaven).  The book after this one has a final chapter set in Aruba.  Under any name, he likes to write about tropical settings and the people who live there, and he likes to visit them first.   If you were raised in upstate New York (as Kirby Galway, the male lead in this book was, after being orphaned at a young age), you’d want to get someplace warm too.

But he must have known his descriptions of these places and their inhabitants were superficial–perhaps necessarily so, but he wasn’t satisfied with them.  He’d gone to a lot more trouble getting Kenya and Uganda right for Kahawa (even though he couldn’t safely visit Uganda when he was in Kenya), and as we’ve seen, he’d made such an extensive tour of Belize in 1984 that he and his wife wrote a long authoritative travel piece for the New York Times about it.

So he’s had a great deal more experience of life, of love, of the world, and of writing comic novels with a serious core to them, by the time he gets around to this one.  And Belize is a very small country–and very safe to venture around in then.  These days, travel advisories tell you to avoid certain areas in Belize City because of drug-related crime, but it’s still a very friendly open welcoming place, at least according to The Peregrine Dame.  (And I believe everything sexy brunettes in bikinis tell me.  It’s a rule.)

High Adventure is dedicated to Westlake’s wife Abby, who explored this brave new world with him, but also to five prominent citizens of Belize they had clearly spoken with; Emory and Elisa King, Stewart and Lita Krohn, and Compton Fairweather, who sounds like he could be a character in this very novel, but definitely not Innocent St. Michael.

An abridged passage from Emory King’s book, Hey Dad, This is Belize! serves as a sort of preface to the novel–the strange but true story of what happened to a traveling circus there, which demonstrates both the generous hospitable spirit of Belizean people, and the unpredictable and often chancy nature of daily life there.  It contains a warning for those who go there with ambitious plans: “Bigger circus than this come to Belize and broke up.”   In retrospect, seeing as this book is long out of print, perhaps a warning for ambitious novelists as well; but what the hell, he still enjoyed himself.

Westlake did his homework and then some.  And if my prefatory remarks frequently run on too long, it’s only because I try to follow his example.  The synopsis resumes.

So having come across Kirby Galway’s fake Mayan temple, exactly where she thought there would be a real one, and seeing Duluth-based museum curator Whitman Lemuel there, and remembering that she’d seen these two men talking at a party in New York, idealistic young archaeologist Valerie Greene correctly assumes Lemuel is engaged in the illicit purchase of Mayan artifacts, but also incorrectly assumes that Kirby is selling him real ones.  DESPOLIATION!!!

Lemuel, to whom the six foot Valerie now greatly resembles the protagonist of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (he feels almost Lilliputian in her presence), flees in terror, fearing both professional disgrace and criminal prosecution.  Fledgling con man Kirby, who was just reeling in his fish only to see him scared away by this pestilence of a woman, starts swearing profusely, and waving his machete around with wild abandon.

Valerie departs in some haste, intending to inform the proper authorities of this outrage, but her driver, supposedly working for Innocent St. Michael (who in this specific instance actually is innocent), but covertly working for Innocent’s treacherous assistant Vernon, who is in the employ of the Guatemalan military for some sinister agenda not yet revealed (even to Vernon), spirits her away to an isolated cabin, where the terrified Vernon reluctantly orders her death to avoid exposure.

As the days pass, and Valerie fails to resurface, Innocent St. Michael presumes her dead, and not knowing of Vernon’s treachery, believes Kirby somehow bribed the driver to kill her–and having somehow fallen in love with a girl he just took to bed for a lark (because that’s what you do with girls when you’re Innocent St. Michael), he swears he will find some way to make that murdering bastard pay for his crime.

Meanwhile Kirby and his Mayan partners in crime dismantle their fake temple, leaving no evidence of their confidence scheme, and are blissfully unaware of Valerie’s disappearance, or the various intrigues going on around them, being so very caught up in their own.  I think that catches us up.  We’re about 174 pages in as Part 1 (The Famous Plane) concludes, and Westlake calls for an intermission, before resuming with Part 2 (Tings Bruk Down).  Phew.

So before I resume, you see that scary-looking fellow up top?  That’s an artist’s impression of the evil Mayan bat god, Zotzilaha, only reimagined as Batman.  Or it’s Batman reimagined as Zotzilaha.  Either way.  While rereading the book, in which ‘Zotz’ plays a rather key role, it occurred to me that Westlake sometimes references The Dark Knight, having once nearly ended up writing for one of his venues  (I don’t know which one, maybe Detective Comics?), so he probably made that connection, and I googled, and he’s not the only one.  So that’s worth knowing.  I guess.  Got your popcorn?   Okay, I’ll start the projector rolling again. Somebody dim the lights.

So as Part 2 begins, Kirby is back from a smuggling run to the states in his Cessna aircraft, Cynthia.  What happened with Valerie and Lemuel was unfortunate, but nobody can prove anything, maybe the fake artifact business can be revived later, there’s still pot to be smuggled, he’s got his Mayan chums to hang with (including a girl named Rosita he’s taking horrible advantage of, sick wife in America, yeah right), things will work themselves out.  Kirby tends not to make long-term plans.

And as he returns to the remote village of South Abilene, where Tommy and Luz live, and where the faked artifacts are made  (Kirby lives closer to town with a somewhat more civilized Mayan couple), he starts hearing weird stories about how Sheena Queen of the Jungle has come to live there. You know, this girl. Only not blonde.  Probably a printer’s error.

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Well of course it’s Valerie.  She heard Vernon order her killed, and strapping lass she is, was able to break through the wall of her prison, and run out into the jungle, where she spent several harrowing days, finding out that living on roots and berries is something best left to comic book heroines.

And then she found the village, where she was given shelter and succor and a cool nickname, and I totally believe all of this.  It happened to a birder friend of mine, years ago.  Only he came across a documentary film crew in Columbia, several hours after escaping from a guerilla camp, after they captured him and his companions, thinking they were CIA, and you think I’m making all this up, don’t you?  Well hah!

(Everybody else was eventually released as well, but it took a while.  Thankfully it worked out more like a Westlake than a Stark, but there were some Starkian elements in the plot at various points, based on what I heard).

Valerie has come to love these people as much as Kirby does, albeit not in quite the same way–to him, they’re just his buds, as much on the bend as him.  To her, they’re a dream made real.  She thought she was an archaeologist, out to preserve the ancient past from greedy collectors, but she’s really more of an anthropologist, out to understand and learn from people who are still here, and to protect them from people far more evil than greedy collectors.

And she still thinks Kirby is one of those people they need protection from, but Westlake still isn’t ready for them to talk, so Kirby just figures his friends have been smoking too much gage again, and she figures Kirby will try to have her killed again.  Kirby does see a tall white woman running for cover, while flying overhead in Cynthia, but he just sort of shrugs it off.

Skipping ahead a bit, that happy go lucky trickster, Innocent St. Michael, still distracted with grief and rage nigh-Shakespearean in proportion, finally gets a gun and tries to shoot Kirby dead with it.  He has no idea how to use a gun, so he misses, repeatedly (this would never happen in a Richard Stark novel).  Kirby’s friend Manny holds a shotgun on him, while Kirby and he finally talk with something resembling honesty.

Kirby finally realizes ‘Sheena’ is Valerie, and needing to convince Innocent she’s alive, they all go to South Abilene, where Valerie, believing she’s been betrayed by everyone, runs into the jungle.  As she flees, she grabs a handful of tortillas Rosita baked for her (she’s been giving relationship advice to Rosita, and this may be the most absurd thing that happens in the whole book).   Rosita wanted to share the joys of cannibis with her new friend Sheena, but Valerie didn’t want to get high   She also didn’t want to offend anyone, so she said she couldn’t smoke anything.  Rosita, generous soul, made up some edibles for her.  The tortillas are heavily laced with you-know-what.  Valerie does not know this.  So we’re back to the adventures of Sheena Queen of the Jungle, but they are sure as hell high adventures now.

And after a period of increasingly psychedelic wanderings through the rainforest (where some deity is clearly looking out for her, because there are no fewer than eight dangerously venomous species of snake there, including the Fer-de-Lance), she runs across a patrol of Gurkha soldiers (I know, this is three happenstantial jungle meetings in one book if you count Valerie barging in on Kirby and Lemuel, but remember what happened to my friend?).

Ah, the mighty Gurkhas, still protecting Belize on behalf of the British Empire (what’s left of it)–she’s saved!  Again!  Only for some reason these Gurkhas speak Kekchi, one of the Mayan languages–which she understands, but instinctively does not let them know she understands, because shouldn’t they be speaking Nepalese, or whatever?  (It’s Nepali, but I had to look it up.  I don’t know everything.)

So assuming she’s just some dumb white woman they’ll rape and murder once they get around to it, and obviously does not understand their language, they let the evil plan slip (hey, these guys don’t have the internet, they haven’t read that Evil Overlord List of things not to do when you have an evil plan).  Long story short, they aren’t Gurkhas.  They’re Mayans as much as Valerie’s friends are, but they are also brutalized ruthless Guatemalan soldiers disguised as Gurkhas, which is why Vernon was paid to get photos of Gurkhas in uniform.

Their mission is to wait until Vernon, under orders from his paymaster, brings a group of western journalists into a small village made up entirely of Guatemalan refugees, Indians who fled the horrible oppression of that country’s military dictatorship into Belize, where they have been welcomed and sheltered.  The Faux Gurkhas will slaughter the entire village before the horrified eyes of the reporters (who have cameras), and this scandal will  be a huge propaganda victory, discouraging more people from leaving Guatemala for Belize, and maybe forcing Britain to withdraw its small military force, which will allow Guatemala to move in and reclaim what it considers its lost province.

(Kind of curious to know if this book got any bad reviews in Guatemalan newspapers, but hey, the New York Times didn’t review it at all.)

So Valerie runs back into the jungle.  It’s getting to be a habit with her.  She’s coming down off her high, and she knows she has to find some way to save these people–who she hasn’t met, remember, it’s a different village.  Like that makes any difference. Sheena Queen of the Jungle protects all innocents in her primeval realm from nefarious evildoers.  It’s like her thing.

So meanwhile, back at the village (the one that isn’t going to get slaughtered), Kirby and Innocent have started ironing out their misunderstandings, hampered somewhat by the fact that Kirby can’t easily confess to a government official that he was committing fraud.  But Innocent, still doubting Valerie is alive, accepts Kirby did not kill her, and is thus forced to blame himself, which is what he was trying to avoid by blaming Kirby, of course.  She reached something in him he didn’t know was there, with her honesty and goodness–she was the magical lozenge that changed his personality, but he knows it won’t last.

Innocent said, “Kirby, did you ever visit someplace that was really nice, a place that made you happy, so you started to think maybe you’d just like to stay there forever?”

“Sure.”

“But then after a while you realize it isn’t your place, you don’t fit in except as a visitor, you don’t belong there and you never will.  So you go home, where you do belong, and where you’re happy most of the time because it’s the right place where you ought to be.

“Okay, Innocent.”

“From time to time,” Innocent said, “you remember that other place, and how nice it was to visit, but you don’t make the mistake of thinking you can go back and live there.  So that’s what’s happening now, Kirby.  I’m visiting some other me, a real nice me that I never knew before,”  That lazy smile softened Innocent’s features once more.  “But don’t worry about it,” he said.  “I’ll go home to the real me when the time comes.”

“In that case,” Kirby said, now completely sincere, “I’m glad I was here to meet the other fella.”

(Westlake was typing this at home, of course.  Wistfully, I’d think.  Getting ready to go back to the heists and murder mysteries.)

So Valerie,  having finally figured out who the real bad guys are, enlists Kirby’s aid, and the aid of the South Abilenians, and Cynthia’s aid for that matter. There’s no time to bring in the real Gurkhas–Vernon is driving the journalists to the other village right now, not knowing why he’s been ordered to do this, but he knows it’s something bad, and he is filled with a sense of some horrible destiny overtaking him at last.  They have to somehow stop the slaughter, and Kirby has an idea.

The South Abilenians have, with great reluctance, made up a bunch of little Zotzilaha statues for him to sell in America–now they make little parachutes for them.  Kirby and Valerie fly over the doomed village in Cynthia, buzz it a few times, then bombard the false Gurkhas with a host of tiny caped crusaders, and this is just going to make them laugh, right?   Well turns out there is at least one place on earth where the image of an anthropomorphized bat does strike fear in the hearts of criminals.   Who are, as you may have heard, a cowardly and superstitious lot.

The false Gurhkas had been brought up in Christian homes.  They had been taught to know and to love God and the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints.  They had been taught to despise Satan and all his works.  They had risen above such education, and had struck out to live their own lives by their own rules.

No one had ever told them they had to believe in the Mayan gods and the Mayan devils.  Those beings were there in the stories, that’s all, there in the drawings, and the cloth designs and the carvings, there in the rites and ceremonies that a minority of their older relatives sometimes engaged in. Nobody had ever told them they had to believe in Zotzilaha Chimalman, and yet none of them had ever in his heart doubted that the cave of bats existed, the forked road to eternity existed, the evil hater of mankind was there in the darkness just waiting the opportunity to drag them down to eternal death.

He flies, Zotzilaha, he comes out of the sky like a bat.  He is full of tricks and malevolence.  If he catches you when your heart is black, you’re doomed.

They run screaming into the jungle, dropping their rifles.  Their leader tries to stop them.  He is shot dead by his own men.  Two of the villagers had already been killed, the rest survive.  One annoyingly witty Australian journalist is non-fatally wounded (he’s clearly a prototype for some fellows we’ll be meeting in a later book, but there’ll be time for that later).  Vernon is shot several times, and to his deep despair, he survives–he’s not getting off that easily.  It’s over. Good has triumphed.  In the form of evil.  Irony!

So what’s left is mainly just tidying up a bunch of dangling plot threads, which Westlake does fairly well.  Kirby gets his money back from Innocent, but Innocent, back to his old trickster self, has one more joke to play.  Kirby and Valerie have sex, and it’s an anticlimax, but no doubt a very pleasant one.  Rosita is just plain out of luck, but she was sleeping with a married man whose wife was dying (or so he told her), so what do you expect?

Alan and Gerry remain a happy gay couple, still not entirely understanding what the hell happened, but it was an adventure, wasn’t it?  And they got high, didn’t they?  Their journalist friend, who was there in the village when the false Gurkhas came, has a hell of a great story to write when he gets back.  And I’ve shamefully neglected their subplot, because that’s what it was.  If there was ever a movie, most of it would probably end up on the cutting room floor.  And don’t you think maybe Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively for Kirby and Valerie?

Though Innocent wouldn’t spill the beans on Kirby for anything, admiring a good scam as much as anyone, there’s no way the fake temple or the pot smuggling can be kept quiet in the furor that’s going to stem from the narrowly avoided massacre.  Kirby’s a hero of Belize, but he’s also going to be a wanted criminal there for a while (Belizean law tends to have a short memory for such things; he’ll be back someday).

One assumes life returned to normal for the residents of South Abilene, which isn’t saying much.  Manny and Estelle Cruz, who he’s been living with, are saddened to see him go, but they get to keep all the modern improvements he bought for them, such as they are.

So he and Valerie just get into Cynthia, and fly away to a secluded tiny island off the coast of Central America, with enough money to make a start at living life on their own terms, and it looks like they’re settling into a long-term thing as we leave them, each somehow correcting for the flaws in the other, and it’s a bit contrived, sure, but no more than Shakespeare’s romances, and a lot less than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?  I have left out a whole lot of ancillary characters, by the way, but you could just read the book.

Oh, and Kirby frames Whitford Lemuel, the curator from Duluth, for pot smuggling.  He does this, believe it or not, in a spot called Trump Glade, in Florida.  I’m 100% sure that’s just a freaky coincidence, and I’ve lost count of how many of those I’ve come across in Westlake’s fiction.

If Vernon’s crime was betraying his country, Lemuel’s was betraying his calling, as a preserver of man’s ancient past.  He wasn’t saving those artifacts for science, or cultural preservation–he was doing it for his own self-aggrandizement.  I’ll say it again; the only true crime in a Donald Westlake story is betraying yourself. The only salvation lies in in better understanding yourself, and what you’re here to accomplish.

And as our story ends, I can see Zotzilaha himself, the evil bat god of the Maya, grinning down with malevolent humor on the infernal chaos he has spawned for dark unknowable purposes of his own.  Let those mortals who have proven their worth be happy a short time, but he shall someday have his–eh?   It’s his other line ringing.  Aw geez, not the Catholics again!  Don’t those people ever let up?   Ah well, better change.  They scare easy.

And suddenly he’s a skinny white man in his fifties, balding, glasses, sitting in a small office, maybe in an apartment somewhere.  Now what’s the problem?   Imprisoned nun, evil father, office tower, mercenary army, uh huh, got it.  Okay, who’s available to handle this job?  The wolf guy?  No, he always makes a mess, bullets flying everywhere, and he hasn’t been answering his phone lately.  The actor?   Can’t trust him anywhere near the nun.  The ex-cop?  Can’t listen to another of his long-winded guilty confessions afterwards; that guy needs to mellow out, try some of the latest pharmaceuticals.

“John, I guess this falls on you.  It’s a local gig.  Don’t fuck it up this time.  I’ll make it worth your while.   Anyway, I owe Otto something commercial.  Even God needs a publisher.”

Sitting down at his desk, he fits a sheet of foolscap in his celestial Smith-Corona, and begins to shape the world around him.

Brothers and Sisters: Let us Prey.

(One of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, High Adventure, novel, Uncategorized

Review: Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

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Donald E. Westlake: It’s difficult to be truly whimsical without being arch.  I can’t do it.

Moderator: And P.G. Wodehouse?

Donald E. Westlake: He couldn’t do it, either.  That’s a minority opinion, of course.

The older the guest the closer to the front door he was likely to stay.  The main living room, off the entrance, was full of the cigar smokers, the businessmen, the money boys; words like probate and percentage thudded off the white walls and buried themselves in the purple carpet.  Some wives were there, too; fat-armed women expensively but uselessly dressed, sitting in a cluster like a display of joke dolls in a novelty shop, talking to one another about the quality of service in this hotel, that hotel, all over the uncivilized world.  Amid them sat Miss Rushby, blending with the group like a submarine in a school of whales.

Deeper in the house, in what was called the library because it was full of books bought en masse at an auction, where[sic] the pipe smokers, the intellectuals, the established writers and directors, and here and there a creative producer, telling each other how crappy their agents were.  The wives here tended toward straight hair and plain talk; some of them hadn’t seen each other since the last march on Washington.  In a corner, Major ffork-Linton was involved with five others in a game of liar’s poker, and seemed to be so far the only winner.

Beyond the library, in what was called the solarium because it leaned heavily to windows and plants, were clustered the cigarette smokers, the pros, the actors and singers and comedians and personalities and celebrities, telling each other what great book jackets they’d read recently.  Here the wives looked like audition day at the Copa–leggy, expensive, blank-faced.  Benny Bernard, trying to do himself a little good, was looking around for a conversation to join.

Out by the pool were the pot smokers, the young hippies, the twenty to twenty-five crowd, the new breed–TV series regulars, rock group members, actors who were feeling guilty about copping out on La Mama because they were too young to have copped out on Circle in the Square and too old to have copped out on Yale.  Nobody was married out here, or at least not very married, and everybody had already slept with everybody else, so there was nothing to do but dance around the pool and talk to one another–shouting over the music–about analysis.

Scattered through all the rooms, like the yeast in an upside-down cake, were the critics, the magazine writers, the freelance journalists and the book compiling aficionados who fill the chinks and crannies of every film festival worthy of the name.  They were the only guests talking about movies, and they were doing so passionately, knowledgeably, and interminably.

So I’m 469 words into a review without having written a word myself.   And honestly, I don’t know what there is to say–this is, in my opinion, the worst novel Westlake ever wrote.  And yet gaze upon that lengthy scene-setting passage I quoted above–magnificent, isn’t it?  Did anybody ever sum up a showbiz party any better?   That’s Who Stole Sassi Manoon? in a nutshell–a scattered assortment of precious gems in a setting of pure brass.  And somewhat corroded brass at that.   How did that happen?

Westlake was developing a relationship with Hollywood–stands to reason, since it was buying up the film rights to his books on a regular basis.  He obviously put out feelers via his agent to see if anybody wanted him to write an original screenplay, and Palomar Pictures hired him to do just that.  The story he wrote was a comic take on a movie star’s kidnapping, which I suppose, in hindsight, might have been a bad idea–who are you going to get to play the star being kidnapped who is famous enough to sell tickets but will still see humor in the premise?

Yeah, Scorsese did it, with Jerry Lewis as the star, and De Niro as the kidnapper, and it was brilliantly creepy (creepily brilliant?), and the critics raved, and it flopped to hell (and I’ll be talking about that film again, with regards to another Westlake novel).   Anyway, for whatever reason, Westlake’s screenplay never got made into a movie, but Westlake had kept the publication rights, and as he put it “I novelized the screenplay.”

So this is a book that was originally supposed to be a film, and that may be a big part of what’s wrong with it–though the same thing happened later on (with a movie that did get made), and the result was one of Westlake’s best books.  Turning your own screenplay into a novel is apparently a skill that requires some time to master–Westlake never even tried to master the art of turning his novels into screenplays, and it’s debatable whether anyone ever mastered the art of translating Westlake into other mediums, but we’ve spent enough time on that subject already.

This is, I think, his first novel dedicated to his second wife, Sandra Foley, who he married in 1967, just when he would have been writing it.  “This, like me, is for Sandy.”  In retrospect, perhaps not a good omen for that marriage?

Westlake now has an ex-wife, two sons, and a new wife who will shortly give him two more sons, and he needs Hollywood’s filthy lucre very very badly, and any other form of income supplementation he can muster.   He’d spent a lot of time and effort working on that screenplay, and he wasn’t going to let it go to waste. He’s also got a contract with Random House for a book a year under his own name, and for 1968, this was it.

But in spite of some typically great writing, and some ideas he’d return to repeatedly in future, this doesn’t feel much like a Westlake.   Yes, it involves a crime–and it’s meant to be funny.  It is, in point of fact, his very first comic caper–a subgenre he justly came to be regarded as the supreme master of, but you’d never have guessed it from this.

His previous comic crime novels had not been about heists–his nebbishe ‘nephews’ might be involved with organized crime sometimes, but they weren’t planning elaborate thefts.  Not their department.  This isn’t a nephew book–this, like so many later Westlake novels, is the story of a heist gone ridiculously wrong, only the item being heisted is a person.  Who ends up having the time of her life.  We the readers should be so lucky.

Hard to say what the film would have been like (I’m guessing not a classic; maybe something you’d watch on TCM at 3:00am in the morning because you couldn’t sleep, and it would cure your insomnia), but the novel is a satire of the film industry–and the parts of it that don’t involve dialogue or character development or plot are the best things about it.   It opens with a quote from the dreaded Hays Code, about how “Law, natural or human, should not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation”–well gee, if they followed that to the letter, Westlake would be right out of luck as far as Hollywood was concerned.

Then there’s a fairly ingenious ersatz program for the Montego Bay Film Festival in Jamaica–there do seem to be a fair few film festivals held there in real life (maybe Westlake attended one?), but this one is fictive in nature, and and so are most of the films on its schedule, full of ironic references to the idiosyncrasies of international filmmaking–such as The Boots of the Elk (Russian),  The Beautiful Sewer (Polish), and Abortion, Italian Style (guess)–though the funniest recurring gag relates to a retrospective of films based on the comic strip Blondie, and all those film titles (like Blondie on a Budget, Blondie Goes Latin, and Blondie Meets the Boss) are quite painfully real.   Would you believe they made 26 Blondie films between 1938 and 1950?  All starring Penny Singleton.  Now Debbie Harry I could see.  But I digress.

So that’s the short subject–on to the main feature–and its star, the closest thing this book has to a central protagonist, one Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, the black sheep of a wealthy family–okay, here’s another sticking point.  Technically, Kelly isn’t rich now, but he was born rich, and raised rich, and we know by now what limited sympathy Westlake has for the moneyed classes–since Kelly has been disinherited by his rather appalling family, and is out to make his own fortune now, his creator will cut him a break (and toss him a cute redhead, but we’ll get to her in a minute).

He still does not belong in the first, second, or possibly even the third tier of Westlake protagonists.   I don’t think Westlake even for one second entertained thoughts of making this guy a series character.  But he did invest Kelly with some of his own youthful personality quirks.  Kelly loves science fiction, comic books, all that nerdy stuff; used to collect it, but he’s now cast childish things aside, and has become an inventor–of a computer that plans kidnappings.

He calls it his Selective Timed Abstract Reactional Neutronic Abduction Positioner–Starnap for short.  He keeps it onboard his 40 foot cabin cruiser, the Nothing Ventured IV (he got the money for all this by selling a few inventions and blackmailing his dad).

At times, Starnap seems to be his only true friend–they play an African board game called Kalah quite frequently.  According to Kelly, Starnap is “An adaptation of components from IBM, Burroughs, Control Data, ITT, RCA, and National Cash Register.”  And with all this digital expertise, allowing him to create a computer compact enough to fit on a small boat, yet capable of performing calculations that successfully predict human behavior, he somehow thinks the best way for him to make a fortune of his own is to grab a movie star and hold her for ransom.   Well, it’s the late 60’s–who knew?

Kelly recruits two guys he knows to assist him in this grand endeavor.   His former comic book supplier and fellow nerd, Frank Ashford, who is a talented impressionist–meaning he can do celebrity voices convincingly, not that he paints like Monet.  And Kelly’s former prep school chum Robby Creswel, described as looking like Harry Belafonte’s younger brother–his parents are black professionals, very successful and respectable, but Robby always had a knack for getting into trouble, never did stick to the straight and narrow–I guess he’d be the white sheep of the family.

Robby could have been a much better character with a bit more work–Westlake goes out of his way to tell us about his identity crisis–black, middle class, educated–not really at home anywhere.  He has nothing in common with the black people in Jamaica, even though he was picked partly to blend in with them.  He seems to mainly hang out with white guys his own age, but we’re told that he feels more comfortable in a gathering if there are other black people around.

Musing sourly on the racism of two characters to whom racism is such a given they never give it a moment’s thought, he thinks to himself–

They still lived in another age, where all the people around them were white, and if a black skin did show up, it was a uniform for a servant.  It confused them to have the servant sit down like anybody else.  Robby thought sometimes he should feel compassion for people like that, locked into unreality, but he couldn’t quite get that objective.  What he felt was irritation.  They bugged him.

It kind of bugs me we don’t get to see more of Robby, but at least he’s there, and not just as a prop.

It feels different already, doesn’t it?   These are movie characters, somehow, albeit not so very typical.  Frank would be played by some rising comic with a talent for doing voices.  Robby–well, the kidnappers are in their early 20’s, and the real Harry Belafonte was in his 40’s, but were they even going to make him black in the movie?  A movie about a white woman getting kidnapped?  I suspect Westlake did that on his own, after the movie project fizzled.

I don’t really know who would have played Kelly, based on his description–tall, dark, gangly, intense, bespectacled–a young Jim Hutton?  The actual Jim Hutton was probably a bit too old as well, but I don’t know who else could have pulled it off back then.  And I note with some bemusement that he was born in Binghamton New York (a town Westlake knew very well), not quite a year after Westlake was born in Brooklyn.

The identity conflicts that typically dominate a Westlake novel are so much on the down low here, Robby’s race issues aside, that you can barely make them out.  Because Westlake can’t quite figure out how to sandwich them into this piece of work-for-hire (to put it politely) that he’ d churned out for a movie studio.  Did he get behind on his obligations to Random House because he’d been working on this thing, and had no choice but to quickly repurpose it when the movie didn’t pan out?

It’s not just that it started as a movie, though–Westlake is trying something quite different this time.  This is his first comic novel written from the perspective of multiple characters, in the third person.   Sometimes the narrator is gazing down omnisciently, commenting sardonically on the setting–sometimes he’s inside the head of this or that character, seeing things through his or her eyes–never sticking with any of them for very long.

All Westlake’s previous comic novels were written in the first person from one character’s perspective, and have a certain confessional feeling to them–with the exception of The Busy Body, which is in the third person, but entirely from the protagonist’s POV–a bit more hard-boiled, but still extremely focused on one person.   This new approach he’s trying here will increasingly be the standard approach for his comic novels, but he’s new at it, and the thing about letting each of your main characters be the center of attention is that you need a lot of good characters.   He doesn’t really have any here.   It’s a problem.

Who else writes like this?  Well, P.G. Wodehouse.  That’s why I have that caricature of him up top.  Wodehouse wrote quite often about comic kidnappings–quite often the abductee is a pig (good old Blandings Castle), but in two of his early books The Little Nugget and Piccadilly Jim, it’s a rich kid.    Wodehouse is, of course, the ultimate master of this type of writing–got it down to a science.   Here’s his opening for Piccadilly Jim–set in America, I should mention (Plum loved America and its citizenry, for all our many flaws–and we loved him back, for all of his).

The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted with it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.

Compare this to the description Westlake wrote about the party, and you see he was studying The Master very closely–and finding out for himself how easy Wodehouse is to read, and how very difficult to emulate.  He never liked to talk much about his debt to Wodehouse, but it’s unmistakable.  Remember, Westlake worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency–which basically got its start representing Wodehouse.   Remember something else–Wodehouse worked extensively in Hollywood, as well as on Broadway and Tin Pan Alley (his contribution to popular culture simply has no parallel, anywhere), and his books were constantly getting adapted into films–Piccadilly Jim alone has been made into three.

That little comment I put up there, from a mock-interview of Westlake and several of his pseudonyms (written entirely by Westlake himself) that you can find in The Getaway Car, is Westlake indirectly admitting that debt.   But for Westlake, of course, the problem was not how to write like P.G. Wodehouse–it was how to write as well as P.G. Wodehouse, while still remaining Donald E. Westlake.

It’s fine for Wodehouse to be all whimsical and arch–that’s what he’s there for.  But Westlake wants to be a bit more–for want of a better word–rugged.  Wodehouse often wrote humorous fiction dealing with crime, but Westlake is writing crime fiction with a sense of humor, and he needs his own voice for that.  He isn’t all the way there yet.

One of my favorite non-series Wodehouse novels is Laughing Gas, set in Hollywood in the 1920’s–it has the premise that while under dental anesthesia, the protagonist and a bored American child star who just wants to have fun like a normal kid, switch bodies–yeah, you’ve heard this one before, haven’t you?   But nobody had ever heard it before Wodehouse.  Hollywood owes his estate like a trillion dollars, but never mind that now.

Sassi Manoon, the titular character (who really has almost nothing to do in this book at all), is an adult female version of the bored child star.  It’s the same idea–movie stars don’t really want to be movie stars.  It just got foisted upon them.  Now, that works if you’re talking about a child star, because c’mon–nobody asks for that.  That’s what stage mothers are for.   But just as certainly, nobody ever becomes a major film star as an adult without wanting it very badly, working, scheming, conniving, shouldering her way past other aspiring starlets.  How did someone as apparently bereft of ambition as Sassi ever get to the top of the pile?

And not only is Ms. Manoon a major film star, she’s supposedly ‘top box office in the world’, and it’s the late 1960’s–there was a time when nearly all the biggest stars were women, but by the late 60’s, those days are coming to an end–unless you could sing like Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand, you were unlikely to be anywhere near the top of the box office charts–the exception, in 1967, was Elizabeth Taylor, who had, of course, started out as a child star.  And who Westlake had written a very sympathetic biography of, years earlier, published under a pseudonym–I’ll review that sometime.

Sassi develops a nice friendship with Frank, who amuses her with his impressions, though her first reaction isn’t so favorable–

“How come you sound like Michael Caine?”

His smile turned more boyish and his voice turned James Stewart.  “Well gosh, ma’am, I couldn’t, I couldn’t just say.”

“Oh, my God,” cried Sassi, “it does imitations.  There is a fate worse than death!”

So she’s a very nice person, not the tiniest bit stuck-up or neurotic, good sense of humor, and she’s got two beautiful Afghan hounds named Kama and Sutra, and is of course beautiful herself, and blonde, and there’s really nothing at all wrong with her, and all she wants is to live like a regular person and do her job, and still have a normal life.  And I could imagine any number of movie stars identifying with that notion of themselves, and maybe that would have been the hook to lure one of them in to play her.  If the movie had ever been made.

But I don’t buy any of it.  She didn’t start out as a child star–she left a sailor husband, before heading for Hollywood–she worked damn hard to get where she is, and the only person stopping her from walking away is herself (I mean, Grace Freakin’ Kelly walked away at the peak of her fame, though hardly to lead a normal life).  Westlake will revisit this general scenario, jilted sailor husband and all, in a later work, and it will be a much darker portrait of celebrity.   Followed still later by one of the darkest portraits of celebrity anybody ever wrote.   Plus there was this series of detective novels–oh well, it’ll keep.

I don’t want to synopsize this one to any great extent.  The story is, by Westlake’s standards, pretty damned weak.  They go to Jamaica–they scope out the terrain, following Starnap’s instructions.  They grab Sassi while she’s screening a film entry (she’s there as one of the festival judges), only to learn they’ve actually grabbed Miss Rushby, companion to Major ffork-Linton (Westlake is letting his Wodehousian roots show here), and a fine pair of old school English felons they are, but not enough time to develop them, and they do stick out a bit in this context.

It was the Major who stole Sassi (answering the question posed by the title), and they have to work out a deal, since he’s attached to Miss Rushby (she’s actually his wife and the mother of his son, who they have to ransom from some warlord, and it’s all just so tiresome having to explain it).   They all end up on an island in Part 2 (entitled People, whereas Part 1 was Machines), and of course there’s romance and revelations, and misunderstandings, and schemes and counter-schemes, and it sounds so much more interesting than it actually is.

And then there’s Jigger Jackson.   Yes, Jigger.  That’s a girl’s name.  No, I have no idea, maybe she’s from the south?   Redheaded, spunky, a whole lot sassier (and sexier) than Sassi, and trying her darndest to become a movie star.  She has this idea maybe Ms. Manoon will want to help her, and through a series of events I don’t feel motivated to describe, she ends up getting abducted as well.

For some reason, she’s attracted to Kelly–she’s got a weakness for schnooks, which is certainly convenient.   But she’s determined to resist her feelings, because she has a destiny to fulfill–Miss Rushby puts her up to stealing the boat starter key from Kelly–then she and Kelly have what I must admit is a pretty touching love scene–also funny.  And so very Wodehouse, I can’t even begin to tell you…..but with a Westlake-ian lilt to it.

He glared at her with brooding eyes.  “I mean that society has made no place for me,” he said through clenched teeth.  “So I have to carve my own place in this world, no matter who gets in my way.”

She blinked.  She hadn’t expected anything like this from Kelly.  All she’d ever seen from him so far was petulant schnookdom.  This was the other side of the coin and she was finding it a contradictory but compelling combination: a schnook with fire.

“I understand, Kelly,” she said.  “I know just what you mean.”

He looked surprised.  “You do?”

“Yes, I do,” she said fiercely.  “You have to fight for what you want in this life.”

“That’s right!  You do know, don’t you?”  He swigged from his drink, thumped the glass down on the table.

“Of course I know!” she told him.  “You don’t get anything in this life you don’t fight for.”

“That’s for sure.”  He grinned at her in savage companionship.  “And you know what the only weapon is?”

“She did. “Money!” she cried.

“That’s right!” His fists were clenched, his face was flushed.  “Money is power!”

“That’s right, Kelly, you’re right!”  She was caught up in it completely now, she was clutching at his arm, she’d never felt so totally understood by another human being in her entire life.  She’d forgotten all about her belief that Kelly was a schnook, she’d forgotten all about Miss Rushby and the key, she’d forgotten all about Sassi Manoon and the perfect entree into the movies.  There was nothing but Kelly, who understood!   He understood!  “We’ve got to get it any way we can!” she yelled, exultant.

“And then they’ll leave us alone!” Kelly roared.  He was gripping her arm, his hands like steel.

“To  live our own lives!” she yelled in his face, laughing at the wonder of it, the beauty of it, this meeting of star-crossed atoms.

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“JIGGER!”

“KELLY!”

They flung themselves into a wild embrace, and only much later did they start to be gentle.

Cast Emma Stone as Jigger, and some guy who doesn’t make me sick to my stomach as Kelly, and I’d pay for a ticket.   Well, maybe I’d just wait for it to pop up on cable.

So can we just cut to the chase here?   They get the ransom money.   The Major and Miss Rushby try to swindle them out of it, with Jigger’s assistance (since Jigger still thinks Sassi can help her, and refuses to process that Sassi is delighted to be taking a vacation from her crazy life), but Jigger is torn between stardom and Kelly–and of course true love prevails.   As it always does in this kind of story.  Only in this case, true love prevailing means the kidnappers get away with the goods, and it’s all arranged in such a way as that you know the authorities will never remotely suspect them.

They only get about 100k per man, so they’re hardly set for life–they just get a bit more time to figure out who they want to be when they grow up. Kelly gets Jigger, and Jigger gets Kelly (kind of think Kelly’s getting the better part of the bargain here).   The Major and Miss Rushby get each other, though they are probably out a son (he sounds like a bit of a ne’er do well, anyway).  Sassi gets to go back to her Afghans.  And Westlake gets another check from Random House, after (one would hope) already getting one from Palomar Pictures.  It’s a living.

He also gets some ideas he can do more with later on.   His next comic caper will leave nothing to be desired.  He’s still a few years away from that, though.  The best writers learn at least as much from their misfires as their successes, and Westlake is already one of the best writers out there.   But even he can’t make a silk purse out of a bad screenplay–and it’s unlikely he deserves all the blame for that, since obviously the story he wrote would have been heavily influenced by the demands of his employers.   He presumably got notes from the suits.  Just so long as they came with bank notes, he wouldn’t complain too much–he’d just get even later on, by using that same story to bite the hand that fed him.   The hand probably never even noticed.

And that’s quite enough about Sassi–one of my shorter reviews–deservedly so (not that the quality of the book is really what determines how longwinded I get, from week to week).

And my next review will be of a collection of short stories–some of them quite good, none of them really prime Westlake, because that simply wasn’t his form.  And as far as publication goes, 1968 was not one of his better years.   In terms of what he was actually writing during 1968, that’s another matter, but we’ll have to wait until 1969 (and 2015) to start seeing that.   Well worth the wait.

PS: In that lengthy quote up top, I added a bracketed [sic] because clearly the word preceding it is supposed to be ‘were’, not ‘where’.   I don’t know if this is Westlake’s error or the publisher’s.  And I don’t really care.   I’m just relieved to have this one out of the way for good and all.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels