Tag Archives: Wilbur Howey

Review: Good Behavior, Part 2

“Couldn’t anybody stay awake?” Dortmunder demanded of the room at large, and Andy Kelp shifted on the folding chair, his elbow brushing the piano and producing a quote from Wozzeck, which in turn made Tiny rumble and change position, knocking a phone book onto the floor.  Stan Murch sat up straight, clutching for a non-existent steering wheel, crying “I’m awake, I’m awake!  Stay in your own lane!” Kelp then jolted up, wide-eyed and glassy-eyed, attempting to stand without disentangling himself from the folding chair, which meant he toppled over onto the piano–excerpt from Bartok’s Mikrokosmos–before tumbling to the floor.  All of this racket aroused Tiny, who reared up like a walrus, flinging his arms wide, clearing the desk of everything that had been on it, before lunging away in astonishment, causing the swivel chair to over-balance and tip him backwards onto the floor, huge thick legs waving in air.  Meantime Stan, desperately trying to make a left turn, hurtled out of the leather chair and into the side of the desk just under where a lot of staplers and pens and desk calendars and memo pads were falling.

There then followed a brief silence, with dust motes.  Dortmunder looked around. “Are you finished now?” he asked.

“Say!” shouted Howey from the other room, followed by a crash that was probably a full rack of metal shelves going over, with several thousand books.

“Hand-picked,” Dortmunder commented to himself.  He looked at his own right hand with dislike.  “Hand-picked,” he repeated.

When you write a Dortmunder book, be prepared to lead a Dortmunder life–assuming any other kind is on offer.  Famed Dallas department store Neiman-Marcus commissioned a special limited edition of this book, one thousand copies, signed by the author.  Westlake autographed each and every copy like a lamb, only to learn that on the flyleaf Neiman-Marcus had somehow been mis-transcribed as Nieman-Marcus (wasn’t his fault), and he was going to have to sign each and every copy all over again.  With his own right hand, unless he was a southpaw, which I would think he’d have mentioned somewhere.

Fortunately for him, given all the books he had to sign in his life, Westlake went to Catholic schools, where I trust he was drilled relentlessly in the cursive arts by nuns and/or brothers–perhaps the Sisters of Mercy, who taught the elementary classes at the Vincentian Institute in Albany (where he got his high school degree).  There were nuns somewhere in his early life, bet on it.  And perhaps some of them were armed with rulers, like the ones Dortmunder knew as a youth, and used them perhaps a touch over-literally to impose their authority upon their young charges.  And others perhaps used kindness and patience and a much-needed sense of humor.  And I really wish he’d completed and published those memoirs of his, so I wouldn’t have to type the word ‘perhaps’ so often.

This book didn’t get a limited edition from Nie–Nee–from that store without being a crowd pleaser, and that’s just what it is.  I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the very best of the Dortmunders (at this point in the series, the first three are still unquestionably the top three, in my estimation), perhaps precisely for this reason–the elitist in me.  And for all its many virtues, this is not one for the elitists.  I think Westlake consciously wrote this one to sell big, because he’d given Otto Penzler two challenging literary properties in a row (A Likely Story and High Adventure), and he wanted to hit one out of the park for his new coach.

It’s not like he wrote the other two not to sell, but he was writing them more to please himself, stretch out a bit, do what people didn’t expect from him.   This book is precisely what people expected from him.  Only more so.  ‘Newgate Callendar,’ writing in the Times, so often disparaging of Westlake’s more unconventional stuff, was practically having multiple orgasms over it.

The ensuing events are in Mr. Westlake’s usual manner. He has a wonderful feeling for the absurd, revels in farce and slapstick, piles complication upon complication and throws things at poor dazed Dortmunder that even Hercules did not face in his various tasks. At one point Dortmunder has to take on, single-handed, a company of man-eating mercenaries.

Yet Mr. Westlake, through the farce and nonsense, manages to create characters who are a curious mixture of stereotypes and archetypes. If he is a master of the comic crime caper, and he is, he also does what the best comic writers throughout history have done – make a comment on society. One does not want to make too much of a book like ”Good Behavior.” It is an entertainment, brilliantly done in its way. But it also does have a strong cutting edge.

As flatteringly condescending (condescendingly flattering?) as ever, but fair play to Mr. Callendar, one of the shallowest professional book reviewers I can think of (he must have saved the deeper ruminations for his classical music gig under his real name).  He’s seeing past the hijinks and hilarity here, and in fact, Westlake can never write a story that’s nothing more than hijinks–he might start one, but he’d never finish it.  He’d fall asleep at his Smith-Corona without something to keep that agile mind of his occupied.

He can’t write a good book if it doesn’t engage him intellectually at some level–but he can shape the material to be more audience-friendly, when he wants to.  This is a book you could hand to anybody who isn’t a militant atheist of the more humorless variety (or perhaps one of those equally humorless evangelicals who think the Pope is antichrist and nuns the handmaidens of Satan), and be assured of an enthusiastic reception.   Entirely possible even the Richard Dawkinses and Bob Joneses of the world would enjoy it–privately.

My mom loved the large type edition I sent her for Mother’s Day (she loathes Kindle).  Then she gave it to a local lending library, because that’s what she does with the books I give her these days after reading them (no collectible signed editions for you, mom).  She’d never read a Dortmunder before, and may never read one again–can’t find a large-type edition for any of the others–and the fact that there was one for this book is more evidence that it was seen as having a broader readership.

(The other Westlake I found for her in the appropriate typeface was Trust Me On This.  And I could have gotten her that Parker novel that opens with a naked girl pinned to a bed with a sword, but then I thought nah.  Though she’s probably read worse. But not as a Mother’s Day gift.  Hell no.)

The fact that she’d never encountered these characters before made no never-mind–the Dortmunders in general are extremely  user-friendly, but this one more than most.  No advance knowledge of the characters and their past exploits is required.  Though you certainly enjoy it more if you’ve read the ones that came before it.  Having stuck with Dortmunder & Co. through the bad times, it’s somehow especially rewarding to be with them now, at one of their rare moments of triumph.  A hard-fought victory, for battle-scarred protagonists and loyal readers alike.

And now let’s just enjoy it, character by character.  No lengthy synopsis–having thoroughly covered the set-up in Part 1, I’d just as soon focus on individual story elements in Part 2.  I think I’ll go with titled subheadings followed by quotes this time.   I  like that format.  Possibly you don’t, but since I’m doing this for free….

I’m Gonna Get Medieval on Your Ass!

“It’s more than exciting, Garrett,” Ritter said.  “It’s real.  The truth is, the pendulum has swung all the way back, several hundred years, and we are today entering upon the next great era of feudalism.”

Garrett blinked.  Feudalism was something that had wafted by once or twice in college days, leaving no residue.  Doubtfully, he said “You mean, King Arthur and like that?  The Round Table?”

Ritter laughed, a sound that always had a threat in it.  “I don’t mean myth,” he said.  “I mean reality.  Feudalism is a system based not on national citizenship but on loyalties and contracts between individuals.  Power lies not in the state but in ownership of assets, and all fealty follows the line of power.  Very sensible.”

“I guess so,” Garrett said, blinking slowly.

Frank Ritter is the central villain in this story, and just possibly the most despicable character Westlake ever created–even if you include the sociopathic sickos and murderous mafiosi Parker routinely dispatched in the Stark  novels.  They’re small time.  Frank’s major league.

And like many another Westlake villain, he has a prototype–Jaekel Grahame (Jack to his friends, if he had any), from I Gave At The Office.  Not one of Westlake’s better books, as I mentioned when I reviewed it.   I did however find Mr. Grahame’s philosophy, as enunciated to the protagonist, to be of considerable interest.   He said that the gun was the cornerstone of civilization, and also that the multinational corporation was going to come to see itself as the true governing power in the global society, superseding and ultimately warring with the nation-state.

He also said that there was nothing inherently immoral about armed robbery (take whatever you can from whomever you can), but armed robbers would be foolish to take on a vastly superior force, such as himself.  And to some extent, Frank Ritter’s fate in this book is Westlake’s way of saying “Oh yeah?” but we’ll get to that.

Ritter, like Grahame, fancies himself a philosopher, jotting down pithy little axioms in a notebook (“The real world is just beyond the visible world”), presumably to be published someday as a testament to the wit and wisdom of a founding father of the (so old it’s) new order.  He, like Grahame, believes that the common people always have an outdated notion of what kind of society America is–they went on thinking it was an agrarian rural democracy after it had become an industrial urban republic, and now they think it’s still a center of industry when it’s actually about services and technology, and is ruled by the multi-nationals that link it to the true industrial nations that make all our stuff.  Not formally ruled by them, of course.  Work in progress.

He can’t control everybody’s life yet, but he can sure as hell control his own daughter’s.  She became a nun in no small part as a rebellion against him, but not a childish rebellion.  An act of adulthood, young as she is–something her siblings, bought off by all the pleasant accoutrements of wealth, will clearly never be capable of.  She wanted to reject without qualification this devil and all his works, and to in some way try to negate them, stand in opposition to them.  She saw how her mother basically drank herself to death, her spirit broken, all sense of purpose gone, and she won’t let that happen to her.  She would rather die.  That is not a figure of speech.  But she is afraid, for all that.  She knows too well that there are no lines her father will not cross to get what he wants.

And the former Miss Elaine Ritter is being quite medieval in her own right–for in fact, many a rebellious daughter of some medieval baron took the veil to find her own place of power, a sanctuary from what was expected of her from her patriarch and feudal lord (to be sure, convents could also be convenient dumping grounds for discarded spouses and elderly relations, but we have our own modern equivalents).  People tend to forget that aspect of medieval history.  I bet Frank hasn’t.  I know Westlake didn’t.

Did you know the word Margrave means a military commander assigned to maintain the defense of one of the border provinces of the Holy Roman Empire or a Kingdom?  If you’d read the Wikipedia article I just clipped that from, you would.

Ritter said, “Think of it this way.  I am the baron.  Templar International and Margrave Corporation and Avalon State Bank and so on are the castles I have built in different parts of my territory, for defense and expansion.  The subsidiary companies we’ve bought or merged with owe their allegiance not to America but to Margrave.  We reward loyalty and punish disloyalty.  When necessary, we can protect our most important people from the laws of the state, just as the earlier barons could protect their most important vassal knights from the laws of the Catholic Church.  The work force is tied to us by profit-sharing and pension plans. I don’t expect national governments to disappear, any more than the British or Dutch royal familes have disappeared, but they will become increasingly irrelevant pageants.  More and more, actors will play the parts of politicians and statesmen, while the real work goes on elsewhere.

“With us, you mean,” Garrett said.  His puffy face lit up with excitement.  He thought about buying new skis in Scandinavia.

Ah, Garrett.  Seemingly one of the brighter of Frank’s children who is not currently a Catholic nun–one can only imagine the rest of them.  The great flaw in the feudal system, and its ultimate downfall–hereditary authority.  Your kids are either too stupid and weak to emulate you, or too smart and tough to live in your shadow–either way, your legacy is an illusion.  The stronger you are, the more you try to dominate and shape them, the more you either destroy what’s good in them, or else turn it to some end you had not anticipated.  Well, that’s what boards of directors are for, I guess.  And who ends up on those?  Other entitled children of rich men.  You taken a good look at the progeny of Donald Trump?  Not that he’s anything more than a low-ranking vassal with delusions of grandeur.  Frank’s more in the Koch line, I’d say.

So Frank is a dangerous man, but also a dangerously self-deluded one.  Powerful and brilliant, but his power has made him myopic, and his brilliance has become too inward-looking.  He sees a great many things that are unquestionably happening in the world, then and now (because his creator sees those same things happening, and hates them with an infernal fury), but he can’t see past his own ambitions, and he has absolutely no self-understanding.

If he understood himself, he wouldn’t have denied Elaine–the only one of his children to inherit his force of will–the chance to seek her own path.  But in fact he understands very well that she’s striking directly at the core of his ideology, and much as he may regret the necessity of it, he will break her down to nothing, as he broke her mother, rather than let her go on defying him.  “The sharpest thorns are in your own roses” he writes in that little book of his, and he somehow thinks that’s original. And he sees himself as a fine man.  Obviously.  He’s doing all this for the greater good.  Elaine will thank him someday.  And I am Marie of Romania.

And is there no errant knight out there, no band of heroes to scale that tower, free the maiden (perhaps not literally, nobody asks) from her dismal if well-appointed cell, and slay this vile robber baron?   We’ll settle for metaphorical slaying, but the rescue operation has to be quite literal, as well as dangerous.  And this modern tower has many a locked door in it, many a brazen alarum bell.  Were any of you good at analogies on those standardized tests?  I was a wiz at them.  See how you do with this one–

As Drummers Are to Spinal Tap–

“This is Wilbur Howey,” Tiny said.

Dortmunder looked at the doorway to see if there was any more to him, but apparently not.  “How are ya?” he said.

“Terrific,” Wilbur Howey said, and cackled.

Dortmunder led the way to the living room, where May was reading the latest issue of Working Woman.  Howey tossed a salute in her direction, winked, and said “Hi, Toots.”

“Hi,” May said, putting the magazine down and getting to her feet. “Hi, Tiny.  Anybody want coffee?  A beer?  Anything?”

“Just an hour with you on a doubledecker bus, Toots,” Wilbur Howey said, and cackled again.

“Shut up, Wilbur,” Tiny said.  “They ain’t no more doubledecker buses.”

“How about bunkbeds, huh, Toots?”

(–so lockmen are to Dortmunder.  Yes of course I knew you’d get it, but  I had to type it out for the ones who aren’t good at analogies like us.)

Specialists are always a problem–so incredibly good at one thing.  So incredibly bad at everything else.  That’s the trade-off.  You can’t push a human mind to know one area of expertise really well, and still expect it to function adequately in all the other areas.  Not that this necessarily applies to all specialties.  Like off the top of my head, people who blog incessantly about the same writer. Competely different, huh Toots?

So Dortmunder is, as he himself puts it, a good utility infielder in his profession (though a genius in the area of planning), but for some jobs he needs a first-rate lockman–somebody who can open any door in front of him like it was a doggy door and he was a Labrador.   And this means he’s had to put up with the idiosyncracies of the specialist, as any professional will sometimes have to do.

And so he has had to deal with Chefwick, a slightly cracked model train enthusiast, who ended up somehow riding a train to Cuba, then running a Chinese railroad in California (don’t ask).  Or Wally Whistler, an absent-minded fellow who would sometimes go to the zoo and let lions out of their cages, just because he couldn’t resist fiddling with the locks, and then he managed to end up in Brazil because he was robbing this pier at the waterfront, and he just kept going until he was on the ship, and the ship sailed away with him on it, and now he’s trying to get to Uruguay so he can confess to some crime he did not commit to get extradited back home.  Did I just type that?

Or Herman X, a black bisexual revolutionary gourmet (it says something for this series that he’s the most relatively normal of the bunch), who we learn in this book has actually become part of a successful revolution in Talabwo (the fictional African country that Dortmunder was working for in The Hot Rock), and now he’s their Vice-President, so not available for the tower heist.

So Tiny suggests Wilbur Howey, who is available, and local, and just got out of prison after serving forty-eight years of a ten year sentence that should have only run three years with good behavior.  Wilbur basically is not capable of good behavior, which makes him the ideal lockman for this book.  He kept breaking out of jail, more or less out of boredom, and they’d find him very easily, and drag him back, and tack more years onto his sentence until they just decided enough was enough, and let him go.  He’s a cracker-jack lockman, make no mistake, and he’s kept up on his trade while he was in stir (when you think about it, there’s no better place to keep in touch with the latest advances in locksmithing).

But he was very young when he went in, and obviously not terribly well-experienced with the opposite sex, and there’s really no worse place to keep up with that aspect of life.  The poster boy for arrested adolescence, full of randy pick-up lines that were old when Bob Hope was young.  After making pass after pass at May, who does not receive his advances in good humor, we next see him standing outside the Avalon Bank Tower, winking and saluting at every skirt that passes, including some pretty obvious transvestites, but a skirt’s a skirt, right?

Dortmunder finds him the most irritating co-worker yet, but he must admit, when the guy gets down to business, he’s all business.  It’s only when he’s focused on his work that his fey mannerisms fall away, and the professional comes out.  He means absolutely no harm at all with his endless come-ons–and he’d never hurt a fly, even if he could.  You like him, but you can’t help but nod in agreement when Dortmunder, taxed beyond words, mutters that the only thing that gives him any satisfaction is that Wilbur Howey is about to meet J.C. Taylor.

And I kid you not kid, nobody in this book affords the discriminating mystery reader deeper satisfaction than–wait for it–

Josephine.  Carol.  Taylor.  

J.C. Taylor was being the receptionist again, typing labels.  Today she was in a plaid shirt open halfway to the waist, and designer blue jeans.  Glancing up when the door opened, she said “Hail hail, the gang’s all here.  There’s three guys already inside.”

“Good,” Dortmunder said.

Meanwhile, Wilbur Howey was inhaling.  He’d been inhaling steadily ever since he’d set eyes on J.C. Taylor, slowly rising  up on his toes as though the volume of air he’d taken aboard was turning him into a balloon.  Finally, he released a bit of that air: “Tooootts,” he said, half sigh and half croak.  His hand moved up to his hat, moving like part of a mechanical figure, and raised it clear of his wisp-covered scalp.

Now she became aware of him.  Her fingers slowed and then stopped on the typewriter keys.  Her left eyebrow raised, and the corners of her mouth wrinkled in amusement.  “Well, look at this,” she said, like somebody finding a really good prize in a Crackerjack box.

Westlake always did a good job writing good girls.  He excelled at writing bad girls.  But to him, you see, there are no bad girls, at least not in the conventional sense of the term.  They’re just drawn that way.   Or rather, they draw themselves.  His most intriguing ladies are invariably tramps, in the Rodgers & Hart mode.  Because that way lies freedom, and individuality, and self-actualization.  It’s not really about sex at all.  But sex certainly comes with the package.

And something in him resisted this–I don’t know why.  He played at creating female protagonists here and there, and they were classy blonde ingenues, pouting prettily, with a touch of Nancy Drew, and they’re fun to read about–but somehow there’s always something a bit lacking–not enough there there.

If he really wanted a female lead for a series, I strongly believe he should have given J.C. Taylor a ring, but he never did.  If he were still around, I’d ask him why.  But I don’t know if he’d have had an answer.  A writer is his or her choices, good and bad.  When he chose to make J.C. Taylor nothing more than a recurring peripheral character in the Dortmunder-verse, he made a bad choice. But nobody else could have made her at all.

J.C. comes into the story because she runs a somewhat shady mail-order operation in the Avalon Bank Tower, on a lower floor with no security.  She’s not worried about being robbed–she’s not worried about much of anything.  She’s just about an inch away from the wrong side of the law, and that’s just where she likes to be.  Bent enough to be open to a crooked proposition; not so bent that the law is taking a good look at her–too bad for the law.

At first glance, she’s just the receptionist in an office hosting a music company, a correspondence course for aspiring detectives, and a business offering aid to couples looking to improve their sex lives (by way of a pornographic manual featuring her own sweet self in many a revealing photograph).  She’s just some office girl, “a hard-looking brunette of about thirty,” but that’s merely one of the masks she hides behind–once she’s sure Dortmunder and Tiny are who they say they are (and not process-servers), she unveils the dominatrix within.  Like Frank Capra said about Barbara Stanwyck, when she turns it on–everything stops.

On the way up to see her, Dortmunder and Tiny ride the elevator with some Japanese businessmen, and one of them looks at Tiny, muttering something that sounds like “Godzilla.”  That’s the effect Tiny has on most people (when we first see him in this book, he’s hoisting compact cars with Stan Murch–not a typo–he’s actually hoisting them onto a flatbed truck, with his bare hands.  The real Godzilla might want to bring back-up.

She just sees another man–she knows men.  They hold no mysteries for her.  She was, as she matter-of-factly lets drop, a call girl for a while; long enough to raise the capital to start her own business, be her own boss, and she makes it very clear to them both that the two things she will never do for money are kill somebody or fuck somebody.  Wants no part of the former, had all she cared to of the latter.  Whatever damage was done is her business, and she doesn’t want to talk about it.

And in no time at all, Godzilla is eating out of her hand, figuring she’s the kind of girl who puts out (since he’s been reading the sex manual she appears in with a glazed expression).   But she won’t give him the time of day, and he starts uttering the not-so-veiled threats he typically resorts to when he perceives rudeness of some kind–threats that would intimidate a suicide bomber–and she could not care less.  She has his number–when she finds out what his nickname is, she smiles and says “I wonder why?”  She knows every weak spot in the masculine ego, and she herself has none.  And yet–there’s more to her than money and put-downs.

When she sees Howey, stimulated almost to the point of meltdown by his first encounter with Femininity Incarnate he’s had since–probably ever–you think she’s going to hurt him somehow, punish him for being a sexist pig–and she doesn’t.  Not really.  She’s seen sad cases like him before, and what she feels isn’t exactly pity, but it’s not hostility either.  Because this is the female H.L. Mencken.  Remember?  He said if anybody wanted to pay him homage after he was gone, they could forgive a sinner and wink at a homely girl on the street. Can she, a sinner herself, do any less?   In fact, she can do a whole lot more.

With a little reflective half smile on her lips, Taylor reached out her left hand and touched the tip of her first finger gently to the side of Howey’s jaw, just beneath the ear.  Eye to eye, leaning just a bit toward him, breathing deeply and regularly, she slowly moved the fingertip and just an edge of fingernail lightly along the line of his jaw.  Howey’s bobbing grew more spasmodic, he vibrated all over, and by the time her fingertip had reached the middle of his jaw he was just standing there, spent, mouth hanging open.  “Very nice,” she told him, patted his cheek, and said to Dortmunder, “He’ll be all right now for a while.”  And she sat down, turning back to her typewriter.

Marry me.  What?  I didn’t say anything.  I think I had a point to make–oh yes. Saints and Sinners.  I talked about that last time.  J.C. Taylor has sinned, and she fully intends to go on sinning, and yet there is something about her that suggests that her external cynicism is just a cover for a wounded romantic–she’s come down in the world, but she’s also risen in it by her own mischievous machinations.  And in spite of herself, she likes these wacky heist-men, and finds something appealing in their quest.  And that will figure heavily into the climax, but meanwhile back at the ranch–

The Trusty Brunt of May.

“I wouldn’t work for you,” May told him, “for a million dollars an hour.”

The clipboard man gave her a surprised look.  “Then you’re crazy, he said.  For a million dollars an hour, you could put up with certain things.”

“Not rudeness,” May said.  “I have an aversion to rudeness.”

May gets her own subplot in this one, and given how much happens in this book in the course of only 244 pages, that’s astounding–that the subplot is there, and that it works so well.    Dortmunder is dumbfounded to find he is being sued by the client he was burglarizing a gourmet food importer for–he got three hundred up front, and then the job, as already mentioned, went to hell, and Dortmunder opted not to give the money back, since it’s not his fault the guy didn’t give him enough information about the alarms and such, and he’s owed something for time and labor and falling through a convent roof and all.

Dortmunder can’t believe it–what kind of a man sues a burglar for not burglarizing at his own criminal behest?  Are there any sane people left in this crazy world?  But Chepkoff, the sleazy wholesaler he had the arrangement with, figures Dortmunder has more to lose than him, and will give back the money rather than show up in court.

May knows this Avalon Tower job is the toughest one her man has ever tackled, and she firmly approves of his saving that poor nun, so she wants him focused on that, so he comes home to her in one piece.  Without telling Dortmunder, she goes to the warehouse, and beards this food lion in his den.  He brushes her off, and that, you should know, is a very serious error on his part.

Because May works in the food service industry herself–as a slightly larcenous check-out girl at a supermarket.  And properly motivated by his extreme rudeness, she does a bit of digging, and comes back at him with indisputable proof that he’s been stealing from her employer on a much larger scale than she ever did, and unless he drops the suit, he’s going to have more to worry about than three hundred dollars he should have known he was never going to see again.  He folds like a cheap suit.

This is one of the joys of the Dortmunder series–much as I may complain that J.C. merited more than a supporting character gig, the fact is, being a supporting character in the Dortmunder books is no mean avocation, and Dortmunder should stop acting like he’s been cursed by fate–professionally, perhaps.  Not personally.   The Great God Westlake was in a giving vein when he made Dortmunder walk into that Bohack supermarket where May was working, and charm her with his failed attempt at shoplifting.  A pearl beyond price I called her back when I reviewed Bank Shot, and if anything I was undervaluing her.

And this subplot very much fits the overall theme of the book–bad behavior–namely blackmail–that is somehow good behavior.   Right and wrong are not so easy to distinguish in this fictive world, any more than they are in our world. Context is everything.  Universal laws don’t function well in a universe of endless variety.  Somehow, I don’t think Immanuel Kant would have been a fan of these books.  But I could be wrong.  Even prissy German philosophers like to laugh sometimes.  But Dortmunder doesn’t feel much like laughing when he finally makes it to the top of the tower and encounters–

The Wolves of War.

“Freedom fighters,” Garrett echoed, and couldn’t prevent a slight expression of repugnance to curl his lip.  Coming through the Margrave offices to this meeting he had seen them lolling about in the various rooms, telling one another hair-raising anecdotes, nearly sixty hard-bitten mercenaries, merciless veterans of uncounted wars in Africa and Asia and Central America, assembled by Frank Ritter to spearhead the “liberation” movement that would repay that upstart South American dictator Pozos for becoming an annoyance.  Garrett considered himself manly, God knows, but he was also civilized, and these “freedom fighters” were nothing but timber wolves in human shape.  You could smell the testosterone.  He said, “I just don’t understand why you’re assembling that bunch of thugs here.”

General Pozos, decadent dictator of Guerrero (Guerrera in this book), Westlake’s Latin American answer to Ruritania, was a character who was introduced in the first Grofield novel by Richard Stark, figured obliquely in the next two, and had never appeared in a Westlake novel–and he does not physically appear in this one, but he still clearly exists in Dortmunder’s world.  And that somehow makes sense, even though Parker has been established as a fictional character there in Jimmy the Kid, created by the very real (and litigious) Richard Stark.  Because after all, Grofield himself had somehow jumped over to Dortmunder’s world in somewhat altered form, so why couldn’t Pozos and an entire country make the jump with him?

Westlake is recycling again–the main plot point of The Damsel is that a very wealthy and powerful American politician is trying to have Pozos assassinated, so he can take over Guerrero and reshape it to his liking, using his close relationship with Pozos’s son and heir to make that happen.  But in the end, the politician realizes that Pozos Jr. is really more his son than the dullard who sprung from his loins (who worships Pozos).  And he chooses that personal relationship over his political ambitions.  Well, we already know this story is going another way with that premise.   No personal relationship means much of  anything to Frank Ritter.  The political always comes first.

So he’s just going to use mercenaries and money to hijack an already-existing revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow Pozos.   Completely illegal, of course.  But he’s grown accustomed to thinking of the Federal government and its laws as a ceremonial gloss on a world he and his kind already control.  And he figures nobody will even notice these guys assembling in New York.  And they just happen to be assembling right at the moment that Dortmunder has Howey get him past the locked door leading to the suite Sister Mary Grace is imprisoned in.

His colleagues are downstairs, robbing several lucrative businesses blind–his own rather ingenious plan (even for him) is that they’ll just mail the swag from J.C. Taylor’s office (superbly equipped for that end), and walk out the door on Monday, unburdened by evidence.  But since he’s the only one who owes the nuns a favor, he’s got to do that part of the job himself–only as soon as he gets inside, he gets mistaken for a mercenary, and forced to join a sort of general assembly of mayhem.  A gathering of wolves.

Yeah, ‘timber wolves in human shape.’  You noticed that, did you?   They’re not like Parker, of course–but don’t ever try to tell me the idea of a wolf in human form didn’t cross Westlake’s mind on a regular basis, only he wouldn’t actually come out and say that’s what Parker is, because that’s actually what Parker is, and that would take all the piss out of it.  He can say it about these guys because it’s only a metaphor.  But to Dortmunder, the cowering coyote, at risk of being exposed as a ringer at any moment, to a roomful of men who are being armed with assault weapons, it’s a nightmare made real.  He uses a still-meeker animalian analogy.

Dortmunder’s mouth was dry.  His hands were wet.  So far, the seat was dry. He was up here looking for a nun, and all of a sudden he’s in this absolute army of killers.  Attila would be happy to come back and hang out with these guys; all Dortmunder wanted them to do was disappear.

They were an excitable crowd, too.  Almost anything might set them off; disliking the weapon they were supposed to use in their upcoming slaughter, for instance.  There was no telling how excited they’d get if they found out there was a noncombatant among them; a sheep, in wolf’s clothing.

A Lamb of God, you might even say.  You caught that reference in the opening quote up top, right?  When he chides his disciples for not staying awake with him?  Westlake has done this before, in The Score, and Butcher’s Moon–twelve men on a mission of robbery and (in the latter book) murder.  Can we make this twelve as well?  Dortmunder, Kelp, Tiny, Stan, Howey–that’s five.  I’d say J.C. Taylor is the Mary Magdalene of the bunch–and never mind if the real Magdalene was a prostitute (historians demur)–the metaphor still holds up nicely.  Six.  May is certainly part of the gang, and they also serve who only stand and wait–seven.  Sister Mary Grace makes eight.  The Guatemalan housekeeper acting as a secret emissary could make nine if you want to stretch a point.  Well, it was worth a try.   Where two or three are gathered in my name….

So Dortmunder escapes the wolf pack, due to a fortuitous blackout in the conference room, very slightly wounded by a stray bullet, and as the chaos he invariably unleashes erupts around him, he finds himself gripped by a small firm hand, and guided to a place of relative safety, and of course it’s Sister Mary Grace–slipping around quietly within the office complex, she interceded on his behalf, but it’s not Thursday, so she can’t talk to him.  And if you ever wondered if John Dortmunder is familiar with the work of George Lucas–

“I’m uh,” Dortmunder said, but what the hell, might as well admit it.  “I’m John Dortmunder.”

She nodded again, patting the air: She too had figured things out.

Dortmunder sighed; it had to be said.  “I’m here to rescue you.”

She raised an eyebrow, grinning ever so slightly, but otherwise refrained from comment.

We’re way over six thousand words here.  I would have sworn I could do this one in two parts.  I know, I got sidetracked a lot, but there’s a whole lot of sidetracks here.  Maybe this really is the Butcher’s Moon of Dortmunder, short though it be.

We are now through the first three parts–GenesisNumbers, and Acts.  For reasons that are beyond my ken, Westlake chose not to reset the chapter count after each part concluded, so Part 4–Exodus–begins with Chapter 34.

It’s not looking good.  The crew downstairs has been made aware of the ruckus upstairs, and is feeling disinclined to come up and join the crucifixion party. Kelp, deathlessly loyal as he is to his friend, can hear the cock crowing in the distance, and sighs to himself, thinking what a pity it is–then he goes back to figuring out how this gizmo he lifted from the magic shop works.

Tiny, learning of Dortmunder’s predicament, is going to utter the starkly Nietszchean commentary, “There is no Dortmunder.”  Well, he could have just said Dortmunder was dead to him.  Well really, that’s what he said.

We’ll see what Mary Magdalene has to say about that.

Mind the rocks.  Go with God.  (Flann O’Brien).


Filed under Good Behavior, novel, Uncategorized